"Colored?" I said. I didn't know what that meant. It wasn't until later, when I would live close to my grandparents, that I'd hear the word colored again. I was black, and I told her so.
"Yes," the woman said, then corrected me, "you're colored."
I wasn't offended, because I didn't know enough to be offended, but I was perplexed, and I knew when adults didn't want you around. I went upstairs to find my parents.
Only on the car ride back—my father driving and my mother holding my sister—did I say anything. I told them about how the old woman barely answered any of my questions, how she had nine grandkids but that I couldn't play with them.
I could feel my parents' silence in the car. I hadn't considered that if the old woman indeed moved out of her house, her grandkids wouldn't be nearby to play with anyway, and though my mother surely knew this, she appeared to be concerned with a larger issue.
"Why can't you play with them?" my mother asked, forcefully.
"Because she said I'm a colored girl," I said. "That's why."
I wanted to ask what it meant to be colored, but just then my mother and father began talking about white people in general and the old lady in particular, their voices reaching such a feverish pitch that my sister began crying. But on they went—"racist" this and "discrimination" that. I thought they were arguing with each other rather than with the world itself.
Finally, my mother turned to me and said, "Some folks will hate you just because you're black. You should learn that."
I'd known this from comments my parents had made and from what I'd seen on TV—a thousand little cues—but this was the first time anyone had said it outright. I thought back to how the old woman seemed to love her black poodle but couldn't bring herself to like a black girl.
My mother continued: "You just do what you need to do. Don't pay them no mind."
"No!" my father argued, "you give them a piece of your mind!"
They started their debate again. Finally, I piped up and said, "Maybe you could do both."
My mother turned around and, after much thought, said, "Yes," then said it again, "Yes. Sometimes you should give them a piece of your mind, and other times you don't pay them any mind. Each case is different. The problem is learning when to do which one." She smiled and said, "Out of the mouths of babes..."
I didn't know what "out of the mouths of babes" meant, but I decided that now wasn't the time to ask.
What I did know was that as far as the old woman's house was concerned, I was sure my parents had crossed it off their list.
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