I grew up in a predominately white suburb in Chicago. We were the first black family to move to my block in 1987 and one of a handful in the school district. Around the age of 10 or so, I started to get this question over and over, “you talk white. Where are you from?” And it always came from other black folks … of all ages. The second I opened my mouth–whether I needed my sandwich dressed at Subway or was just shooting the breeze with other people–I’d get some variation of “you speak proper” or “you’re really articulate, always followed by where are you from.
My dad grew up on the West Side of Chicago, my mom on the South Side. I didn’t speak any differently than they did. I found myself getting more and more upset over the years. I knew who I was and was proud of being me, a young African American girl with a great family a great education. I always told people that I speak like an educated individual. And just as people have regional accesnts, I speak no differently than everyone else around me. What saddened me was that so many black people were adopting stereotypes suggesting “proper, educated or articulate” could only be associated with whiteness, and further, a perceived hatred for who I was.
Junior High was perhaps the worst. The beginnings of white flight started to take place in my town. Black families from the city were moving in and white families were moving out. And there was some clear culture shock. On nearly a daily basis I was called an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside). The new kids were telling me that I not only spoke white, but wanted to BE white. And I was having a WTF moment each day. To adapt, one of the black girls I grew up with started changing to connect with the kids, even introducing me as mixed. “That’s Kelli. She’s mixed,” she told the new girl boarding the school bus. The new kid couldn’t believe it. This chocolate brown girl is half white? “Really?” she asked. “No, she just acts white.” That field trip ended with a trip to Dairy Queen where I ordered my favorite…an Oreo blizzard. And you can only imagine the response that elicited. I decided to keep my mouth shut around them, so they didn’t have anything to talk about.
I later signed up to do our school’s daily radio announcements and was pretty good at it. I realized that there was power in public speaking and that I wouldn’t let anyone silence me again. After three years of being picked on, I grew the courage to stick up for myself. Interestingly, by high school, many of those girls apologized. I went on to study broadcast journalism and became a TV news reporter before transitioning into corporate communications.
Those experiences shaped who I am and I think about them often. Words have so much power, and the right message can change mindsets—even unconscious ones. However, you can’t impact positive change by being silent.