How to Be a Brown (?) Girl in a White Suburb

Lexi Bennett

          Flat iron your hair every single day even though your mother tells you repeatedly that you shouldn’t (She says you’re damaging your hair but Sarah and Lauren do it everyday and they both have real boyfriends). Pray the humidity isn’t too bad. Pray harder that it doesn’t rain. Brush your teeth, wash your face and sigh about how there’s nothing you can do with that gap in the front two teeth that make some of the more clever kids call you Michael Strahan. If today is Wednesday, you don’t have practice after school so clean your room; your “boyfriend” will probably come over after school while your mother’s at work. If that’s the case, make sure you’re shaved and you’re not wearing Hanes brand draw’s (pull out the Vicky Secret pair your stepmom bought you in hopes it’ll make you love her). Also, since you don’t have practice for two hours, purposely leave your wallet at home so you aren’t tempted to buy lunch. You are already more than 120 pounds and your friends just barely tip the scales at 100 and they’re all taller than you.

          On the bus to school, try to do your make up like Ashlee Payne has hers on today even though yours is from the CVS down the street, not the Willowbrook Mall down the highway. Do it quickly while the bus is stopped to pick up kids that are younger than you because your parents didn’t buy you your own car at 16. If your grades are all A’s again, you can have your dad’s old 2001 Acura, though.

          In class, sit in the back. Try to say and do very little, even if you know all the answers. When you get your tests and papers back with high marks, allow yourself to smile only briefly (or else everyone will see that stupid gap), but then stuff it in your ironic Hello Kitty backpack (most kids won’t get the joke). Turn to the coolest girl on the basketball team who you let cheat on your vocabulary tests and book reports and tell her you got a C too. Lean away from her when she tells you that she saw your A- and in AAVE asks how you always get white people grades. Wonder why she talks like that when she’s being going to school with you for years, which means she lives in mostly white suburbs too. Equate her popularity with superiority and correctness and realize that it is not she, but you who is doing something wrong. Dedicate yourself to talking in AAVE too; she’s what a real black girl should be. Follow her in the hallways in between periods and attempt to strike up a normal conversation so people in the halls who don’t know you will think you’re friends. When some of her real friends show up, test out your AAVE skills. Smile awkwardly (hand over your mouth) when they say it’s cute that the Oreo thinks she’s black. Lie and say you have to go to the bathroom before class if they are particularly brutal.

          At lunch, assuming it’s not Wednesday, grab a salad and a slushie (treat yo’ self) and find Caitlin and Selena at the table for the kids that aren’t in Athletics, Theatre, or Photography, but might be in something lame like color guard or JROTC. Even though you play lacrosse, that’s a club sport and nobody gives a fuck about sports outside of school, so sit your ass at the Table for Misfit Teenagers. Take small bites so that you don’t show your teeth as much. Since Selena and Caitlin are Salvadorian and Boricua respectively, speak Spanglish. Speak English if Margaret sits with you because her boyfriend cut school altogether. It’s impossible to explain your ambiguous race to people in the suburbs. They just say you’re trying to sound exotic and not even light skinned enough to be Latina. Never EVER speak Spanglish when the Mexican girls sit nearby. They’re allowed to speak Spanish and can tell you’re trying too hard to be natural; you’re negra, not really morena so stick to your first language.

          During free period, go to the library if you’re sure nobody you wish you were friends with is going to be in there. Hide at the back-most table with a manga book if you’re sure it’s safe enough. Read as much as you can before you have to go to class. If you don’t finish the book, stick a bookmark in your spot and put the book back in the wrong shelf, where only you can find it the next day. NEVER EVER EVER actually check out a manga book. In the margins of your notebooks, try emulating the drawing style. Try to make your little cartoons pull off the buck teeth look in a cute way. Bonus points if you’re so distracted by the doodling that your teacher has to tell you to pay attention. That’s always good for street cred. If anyone asks what you draw, say graffiti.

          On the bus ride home, you can listen to your iPod. Make sure it’s prominently featured in your lap since it’s the newest model. Don’t bother trying to sit in the back with the older kids because they’re still younger than your car-less ass; sit in very front so you can make a quick escape when you get to your stop. Turn your music up as loud as you can so you don’t hear Andrew talk about how funny and cheap someone smells, knowing damn well that it’s your cocoa butter lotion for your knees, elbows, and dry ass T-zone.  Go for something that gives you a “fuck all y’all” attitude, like “Diva” by Beyonce or “New York” by Ja Rule in his prime. Wonder if the only reason Ja Rule can pull off his fucked up teeth is because he’s rich.

          If it’s Wednesday and you’re absolutely starving when you get home from school because you skipped lunch, grab one of those mini oranges from the refrigerator. ONE. Sit on the couch and watch Law and Order: SVU with an affect that says “oh, I’m just sitting here casually.” Try not to check your phone incessantly because the lack of text messages from him is just going to hurt your feelings. If you do check your phone and find one of those chain texts, make note of who sent it to you so you can move them out of your top 5 friends on Myspace. They aren’t cool. Don’t get excited when you hear the back door open as he enters your home unannounced; in fact keep watching TV like you didn’t hear him come in at all. Don’t be sad when he says nothing more than “come on” and hustles up the stairs to your bedroom. He showed up after all; what more do you want from him? Depending on how he’s feeling, channel your inner black girl, or Latina girl. Try your best to remember the things that Cosmo magazine said boys like in bed. If all else fails, just be loud. Shower quickly after y’all finish and put back on your school clothes (you can wear Hanes now as long as he doesn’t see you put them on). Make sure everything is back to normal by 6:15 latest or your mother and brother will come home and you’ll have to sneak him out of your second story window. Text him that you had fun in hopes that he’ll actually text you tonight. Leave your phone in your room (face down), on purpose and go sit in the kitchen out of spite when he doesn’t answer for over an hour (he will have a poor excuse but believe it so he’ll come back next week).

          If it’s a good day, you have a lacrosse game at 8 so put on your uniform and put on music that swears in every single line so that you feel like a badass. Feel pride when the other team’s coach sets her biggest girl on you because as the only black girl in the league, you’re famous. Flaunt your impressive speed, discourage their attempts block you, enjoy being the star. Smile to the cheering crowd (close-lipped) when you score and ignore the other teams’ accusations that you’re on steroids or that you look like a man.

          For victory dessert, get vanilla frozen yogurt with no toppings and wonder how many calories are in it. Eat it all anyway and tell your mom about the great but completely uneventful day at school. Make sure you make no mention of the people like Andrew (black people don’t get bullied unless they’ve been called nigger).

          At home, finish your homework and text your dad about your day. Laugh when he calls you his “little nigglet” and wonder why all your friends think he abandoned you after they divorced each other. Realize that you kind of hate everything and everyone in the suburbs and decide that you’re just going to be 100% yourself and everyone was just going to have to deal with it until you can finally move away. Go to bed excited about finally accepting yourself as the weird, smart Afro-latina girl who reads manga in her free time. Smile without reserve. Plan to break up with your “boyfriend” via text message because FUCK him. Rehearse how you’re going to tell the coolest black girl on the basketball team that you aren’t going to let her copy your report on Fahrenheit 451 because fuck her too. Imagine how cool everyone is going to think you are for finally just being yourself and being confident and not even caring about their approval. Go to sleep fantasizing about the new, authentic you.

          The next morning, wake up at 5am. Flat iron your hair even though your mother tells you repeatedly that you shouldn’t (She says you’re damaging your hair but Sarah and Lauren do it everyday and they both have real boyfriends). Pray the humidity isn’t too bad. Pray harder that it doesn’t rain. Look in the mirror at the brown face that looks back, acne scars and all. Resolve to pay close attention to how Ashlee Payne covers her acne on the bus today and concentrate on keeping your teeth out of sight.


Lexi submitted this in ENG 3750, "Advanced Writing Workshop." Like most of my courses this was a studio workshop where students experimented in a range of forms and genres: memoir, creative nonfiction, lyric essay, literary journalism, manifesto, photo essay, video, multimedia presentation, handmade chapbook, and so on. I like how Lexi, influenced here by writers like Junot Diaz and Jamaica Kincaid, offers a vivid portrait of an adolescent girl trying to negotiate a complex landscape of conflicting cultural forces. -- Derek Owens