Obama and Me: Integration Babies

Like the president, who turns 50 on Aug. 4, I belong to a generation that expected a racial utopia.

Linda Villarosa, then and now. (Courtesy of Linda Villarosa)
Linda Villarosa, then and now. (Courtesy of Linda Villarosa)

A few days later, when I started third grade, no one spoke to me at all for two weeks. I later found out that the principal had called a schoolwide assembly the Friday before I arrived to explain to my classmates that the school was getting its first black student. The other children were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they said nothing at all. Finally a little girl with large brown eyes, freckles and pigtails asked if she could walk home from school with me. I exhaled, and she became my first friend, a friendship that has endured for more than 40 years.

In the years that followed, I went through every suburban rite of passage of a certain age and a certain class alongside the white kids: Girl Scout meetings, sleepovers, potlucks, weekend football games and tailgate parties, The Brady Bunch on Fridays, Summer Fun Day Camp, Winter Fun ski club, Steely Dan concerts and spin the bottle in dank, wood-paneled basements.

And then there were the questions. President Obama grew up as one of a small number of blacks on the island of Oahu. In his memoir, he recalls being asked whether his Kenyan father ate people. And as with many black Integration Babies, other kids wanted to touch his hair. Now I wish I’d charged every time one of my friends copped a feel.

I got used to answering other  questions, too.  

“Is that a tan?”

“Do you taste like chocolate?”

“Do you want to be called Negro, Afro-American, black or colored?”

(“No.” “You wanna try it?” ” ‘Colored’ hasn’t been widely used since Eisenhower was in office.”)

The Price of Fitting In

And as they studied me, I did the same. That’s how Integration Babies survived. We were watchful. We learned to observe the social landscape, dissect the rules, adapt, fit in. We flew under the radar, tried not to rock the boat and became diplomats, perpetual middle children, skilled at the kind of compromise President Obama has recently been criticized for.

But fitting in had a consequence: You become a stranger to the black world, like an expat living in hostile, foreign country. You’re different but not so wonderful because you talk white and can’t dance. You’ve drunk the Caucasian Kool-Aid; you think you’re one of them. You’re an oreo, a white girl.