I was ten years old when I discovered I was white. It happened suddenly, and unexpectedly. Until then, I don’t think skin color existed for me, at least not on a conscious level, because it never occurred to me that I wasn’t brown.
I was born in Ethiopia. Both my parents worked at the American Embassy, and I had an Ethiopian nanny. Her name was Sambatu Tesfu but she preferred to be called “Samba.” I have a photograph of her holding me in her arms, both of us dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb. I am about 24 months old. Yards of white cloth envelop us. The photos are black and white, and faded with age. My arm is around her neck and her brown face glows against the white headscarf she has draped over her hair. My face is barely visible. This is because my skin is so pale that it blends into the material. You just see my small brown eyes staring directly into the camera. Samba’s dark arms hold me tight and I have melted myself into her body. I am warm, and safe, and loved.
Before we moved from Ethiopia to Brazil, we stopped in Worcester, Massachusetts to visit my father’s parents. One afternoon my father and grandparents took me to a soda parlor for ice cream. I was 2 ½ years old and fussy. Nothing was making me happy and exasperated, my father let me climb off my chair and toddle around the restaurant. As soon as I was free, I made a beeline to a man sitting at the counter. He was on one of those low swivel stools. I pushed my way up to his knees and tried to crawl onto his lap. I held my arms up impatiently, as if to say, “Hey, a little help here!” Somewhat hesitantly he reached down and placed me on his lap. In 1964 it wasn’t too common to see a large black man holding a little white girl in a yellow dress on his lap in a restaurant. But I knew I was back where I belonged.
In Brazil my father enrolled me in a local nursery school. Portuguese was my first language. My teacher was the color of caramel. I rattled away in Portuguese to her and she made sure I was taken care of until my mother took over after school. Two years later it was time to leave the country and move on to Pakistan. I remember crying, as devastated as any five year old could be, with my arms wrapped around her neck. “I’ll be back someday,” I sobbed. “I promise.” Although I remember saying this in English, I know I was crying in Portuguese.
Pakistan came, then Thailand, then India. Our family had expanded and there were three of us children now. In New Delhi we had two Ayahs. They wore saris and had long black braids trailing down their back. When they ran after us, those braids would sway back and forth. Both our Ayahs wore a bindi, a red dot on their forehead, right between their eyebrows. One was tasked with watching over my sister and me. The other was assigned to my brother, who, at four years old, was such a hellion that her job was simply to try and keep him alive until my parents returned from work.
It isn’t like we never saw white people. In some countries we lived in local housing, in others we lived on American compounds. With the exception of nursery school, I was enrolled in the American International School system. Most of my friends were white. My parents were very social, and were forever holding parties at our house. I look back at the photographs of these parties and those annual school photos of my entire class sitting with our teacher, and it is a sea of white faces. So I’m not sure why I never saw the difference. After all, we were a small community of white people living in a sea of black, brown, and tan humanity. I should think that at some point I would have noticed my difference. I, of the pale white skin and freckles, the descendant of wild Irish and Scottish women with flaming red hair and tempers to match.
Perhaps it is because race was never discussed in my home. Not because it was a taboo subject, but because it wasn’t a subject at all. It simply did not exist. And because I was living in a world where I was surrounded by every shade of brown skin imaginable, I became blind to the concept of race and color.
Then one day when I was ten years old, it was time to leave again. With 30 days of R&R waiting for us before our next international assignment, we were headed back to the US. Our route home took us through Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland. With several hours to kill, my parents herded us children to the center of the airport. There were shops all around us, and rows of seats in the middle. They wearily plopped down their bags and commandeered one section of chairs. “Stay in this middle area,” they told my eight-year old sister and me. “You can walk through the shops but don’t leave this section.” I think they were so happy to have the first eight hours of flight time behind them, and to be breathing fresh air once again, that we could have climbed the rafters of the building and they would not have given a damn. It was all they could do to keep my brother corralled and entertained.
I walked over to the nearest shop. It was filled with so many glittery things I didn’t know where to look first. I turned to one wall and saw myself reflected in a mirror. There was a group of people standing behind me, and I could see them in the mirror as well. They all had white skin and freckles. Their hair ranged in color from brown to blonde to red. They looked like me. I was stunned. I could not tell the difference between that group of people and myself. It occurred to me that anyone walking by the store would not know that I did not belong to this group because I blended in so perfectly. Slowly I turned around and looked out into the center of the airport. They all looked like me. I walked from store to store as if in a dream. I stood next to groups of people, amazed that I matched. I felt a sense of belonging that was totally foreign to me. If I had been a more articulate ten-year old, I would have raised my arms to the heavens and announced out loud, “I am with my people!”
I understand the evils of racism and segregation. But that day, I also learned what it was like to be with my own, and to revel in the comfort of the similar. It has kept me from judging when I see a group of children or adults that are all one race, laughing together and hanging out. I understand why they do this. There is no denying the safe feeling you gain with being among your own kind. But sometimes, when I watch the news of the world, with all its anger and madness, I miss the days when I was brown.