The other morning while in the shower – where I do all my best thinking – I thought about what my Rich Dad, Poor Dad story was. What created a duality in my identity? The answer for me was pretty easy, being raised by my Suburban Mom, while spending weekends with my Cleveland Dad.
I would argue that during the most crucial phases of my life, I lived with my Suburban Mom in predominantly white communities. The most exposure I got to black people was during the few years we lived in the “Heights,” which I have almost entirely forgotten, and when I visited my dad in Cleveland proper.
I don’t remember a lot of things, so it’s interesting that I still remember where I was when I first heard a black girl being called an “Oreo.” I was young enough for the term to be totally new to me, but old enough to figure out that Oreos were black on the outside and white on the inside. My mom said it differently, and tried to joke about my brother and I becoming “too white.” She wasn’t joking, she was speaking her fears. Despite my comfort living in “white America,” I would always be considered black, and I had to learn how to relate to my blackness for the times when I couldn’t run from it.
I ran from it for a long time, though. When I lived in the Heights, I still somehow managed to find myself in classes filled with white kids. And I remember shaking the first time I got cussed out by some black kids in middle school. I knew I was supposed to have a toughness about me, but I didn’t know where to get it from.
Eventually, my Suburban Mom and I moved in with my grandmother, deeper in the suburbs. That means a “good education”, a condo, tennis courts, a country club, and water fountains every 500 feet. I only recall four black students in my graduating class, but I didn’t mind the environment I grew up in. I knew it afforded me different opportunities, and for a long time it felt safe, until I realized being black wasn’t necessarily safe there.
While I was busy living the life of the black and bougie, my Cleveland Dad was where he’d always been, in Cleveland. I say Cleveland because I mean the city proper. Where you don’t walk around for fun, where the houses look a million years old, and where no Chick-fil-As will ever be found, and where crackheads are something that you just lightly complain about. Still, I looked forward to hanging out with my Cleveland Dad. We did different things. We doused our chicken wings in Red Hot (not Tabasco sauce), we hooped in the backyard, we played dominoes and bid whist, and the entire family showed up on a regular basis.
I didn’t realize how different it was until I got old enough to drive, and decided to visit my Cleveland Dad. I knew it was a long drive, but I didn’t realize how far I had to go until it got dark, and I saw the city more clearly. It’s funny how that happens. At night, I finally figured out where I was going. It was that place on the news, where all the bad things happened.
In college, I surprised myself. I went to a predominantly white school – to no one’s surprise – but ended up gravitating towards my black peers in a way that no one expected. Every black person in my dorm congregated in my room on an almost nightly basis, and we followed each other to the dining halls, to parties, and into organizations. We even had our own homecoming. When I first heard about the idea, I was severely concerned about the obvious segregation problem, but I gotta admit, I got over it quick. When I found myself in the land of booty popping, Gucci Mane playing, and greek stomping, I felt like I was where I was supposed to be. At least more than I had been at my high school dances watching people shift from Soulja Boy to “Cotton Eyed Joe.”
In my sophomore year I joined a black sorority, and solidified my commitment to the black community. I was still a student of the university, but I had a different responsibility than my white peers. I had to show extra love to my black peers who formed a small minority on campus. I had to bring them together to exchange knowledge. I had to build a sense of community. I had to remind them that college wasn’t too much for them. And I had to pay homage to the black women who started my organization even before women’s rights and civil rights were an actual thing.
At the same time, I had to excel in classes where I was often the only black person present. I had to remember where I was, and what the world looked like. I was living out the reality of my Suburban Mom and my Cleveland Dad.
Today, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I am forever grateful for the opportunities that I was provided by being raised in the suburbs. “Talking white” may have played a role in landing a job where I talk to dozens, even hundreds, of clients on a regular basis. And going to a white high school definitely helped me thrive academically in college. Many other benefits easily go without saying.
At the same time though, I am extremely grateful for the connection to blackness I cultivated through my Cleveland Dad. It kept me from being judgmental and isolated. It helped me bond with my black peers through shared experiences and learn to navigate this crazy world. I’ll never say I’m hood, but you can’t deny I’m black. There’s a lot I could have missed out on knowing or understanding had I only had a Suburban Mom or a Cleveland Dad. Today I’m proud to say I had both.