Obama and Me: Integration Babies
Like the president, who turns 50 on Aug. 4, I belong to a generation that expected a racial utopia.
Integration Babies found ways to straddle two worlds -- and thank God for Stevie Wonder, Right On magazine, trips back to Chicago, What's Happening! and Jack and Jill. And we overcompensated. I grew the biggest Afro -- bigger than the one I've seen in photographs of President Obama in his younger days.
I might have missed the Angela Davis era, but I had her hair in high school. As I grew older, I wasn't just black; I was blacker than thou. Though my father was half Filipino, I never spoke about it -- ever. I was just black, black, black.
The payoff would come for Integration Babies when we started our careers. It did for me: I took advantage of having grown up alongside white kids -- now they were my co-workers. I fit right in. I wasn't awed by them, afraid of them or angry at them. These were the kids I went to school with, except grown up. I could talk to them and talk like them. I was just as good as they were.
At least I thought so. But growing up with whites made many Integration Babies naive. When we encountered racism, it caught us off guard, and the pain cut deep.
It did for me. Right after college in the early 1980s, I started my first day as a researcher at a large magazine company where I had shone as an intern the summer before. I entered my cubicle with straight A's, a degree in journalism and a portfolio of clips. But by the end of the week, it was clear that something was off. Chilly conversations, limp handshakes, no eye contact -- it was third grade all over again.
I later found out that the Friday before I started, one of the senior editors had jokingly announced to the staff that I was an "affirmative action" hire. Never mind that nearly every other person in the company was either from the editor-in-chief's hometown, had gone to his Ivy League college or knew his wife. They had their own affirmative action -- the friends-and-family plan. But because I was out of their network, I didn't deserve to be there.
Of course, those who came before me had been whipped, lynched, kicked, beaten, hosed and chased by German shepherds so that I could have an education and a job. Certainly I could survive having my feelings hurt. But that day, some part of me shriveled up and died.