©Marna Blanchard 2015

©Marna Blanchard, 2015

Identity has always been a complex issue for me. I grew up in a fairly all-white suburban neighborhood and I never knew the color of my skin until a girl at daycare pointed out that I had “dirty feet.”  After she made her sarcastic comment, she and the gaggle of girls around her giggled. I remember looking down at my feet: I saw clean, light-brown skin exposed in my summery flower sandals, but as I looked around at the other girls I noticed that the sun seemed to give their milk-colored skin more warmth and brightness. I was confused, and all I could mumble before the girls drifted off was “but I washed them this morning.” I didn’t understand why my brown eyes, skin and hair made me automatically different from the alpha female child, or why her comment made the other fair-skinned girls shriek with dizzied indifference to my condition of being brown.

The idea of skin color as race is incomprehensible to children, but as the only brown-skinned girl, I was incongruous with the other white children and therefore excluded. The alpha leader and her subordinates never wanted to play with me. I remember trying hard, and being nice. My kindness was preyed upon. One day, they invited me to play a game they made up. I was thrilled to be included. They told me to turn around and count. I turned around and I counted, puzzled. I felt stings at the back of my head and arms. I turned around to see that the girls had started picking up small pebbles and throwing them at me. “We’re still playing the game,” they yelled. “Turn back around.” I obliged, and I was thankful, because with my head turned away from them they couldn’t see my tears.

It wasn’t until later, much later, that I understood that my skin color visually set me apart from those white American girls, even though I felt — and sometimes still feel — as American as apple pie. In fact, I love apple pie. And macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers and I will even admit that, when I was in elementary school, I liked country music. I didn’t see color as race in the traditions I enjoyed. I didn’t know what race meant, but I knew the familiar aroma of fried cheese and I understood the screeching cords of a guitar reflected a heart’s sorrow. I delighted in the view of orange and black baseball uniforms on the field, and I interpreted the array of speech sounds in my neighborhood as language – a part of culture more powerful than the idea of race.

English is my first language and when my mother tried to teach me Spanish I shunned her, fearing that being caught speaking a language other than English would set me further apart from the blue-eyed sunny blonde girls at daycare. However, after those early days of shunning my heritage, I have come to embrace Spanish. I love speaking, listening, writing, and singing (terribly and off-key) in Spanish. It is el lenguage del alma for me. The language of the soul. I love studying language, and I enjoy knowing English well, and teaching it well, and learning it as well. I enjoy the power of code switching from English, to Spanish, to Greek, to American Sign Language, to slang and stunning my students when I address them in different languages. My students also teach me more varieties of language that make life so colorful and cultural. I certainly love a colorful life.

In my work life, I try to remain colorful despite what can sometimes be an antiseptic environment. I am an adult. There is no playground, but the feelings of those daycare memories have emerged in my workplace, in which I am the only woman of color in the English department. I have to swallow my pride when I am the only one who is interrupted when she speaks during meetings. I have to sit silently while my principal condescends his demands to me; I sulk when he offers less qualified white males opportunities that he never even presents to me and other teachers of color at the school. I have to remember that sometimes my vibrant personality is misinterpreted by those around me, and perhaps the color of my skin presents a typecast impression that negates my colorful personality.

Outside of work, it seems my color still offends. Last year, I went to a giant celebration to honor the team that has made me feel American and patriotic and proud for decades. To me, the San Francisco Giants embrace love, diversity, and a resilient spirit. When we won the World Series in 2010, the victory symbolized my victories — my struggles against self-doubt, my frustration with injustice in my workplace, my setbacks due to various physical injuries. After missing the previous two parades, I knew I had to attend the 2014 Giants parade to celebrate the beauty of life, and to represent some of my favorite colors – orange and black. I told my students I would be absent that Halloween Giants Day Friday and they understood. They know I am a passionate Giants fan and, after all, our own school colors are orange and black. Our high school is also my alma mater, so the phrase “I bleed orange and black” is rich with meaning for me. I wanted — no, I needed — to go to the parade to cheer on the colorful players who have so much heart, and so much love for each other and their fans.

I assembled my orange and black attire and ventured into the Civic Center plaza after the players toured down Market street. I meandered through falling confetti, an array of signs and colorful costumed fans and finally found a good spot. I listened and swooned while each player took to the mic to talk to us. When Pablo Sandoval came on the stage, he addressed the crowd in Spanish and I responded with hoots and howls and words in Spanish. I was swelling with pride and love and excitement of the moment and I cheered loudly, a universal cheer that has no language. Two ladies in front of me turned around and dramatically covered their ears, then exclaimed I was being too loud. They were incensed, and stared me down as if I was alien scum occupying their personal space. In the moment, I didn’t understand why those ladies singled me out; I definitely was not the only one cheering in a crowd of thousands of people at the Giants parade. I heard Spanish speaking emanate from various areas but I couldn’t help but feel that because I was alone and cheering in Spanish, the ladies felt intimidated or perhaps left out of the conversation I was having with my team. I hadn’t thought of it until later. The two ladies were Caucasian, and older, perhaps in their 50’s. Was my skin color and language a factor in their targeted looks of animosity, and their dramatic mannerisms of covering their ears then moving away from me?

It’s questions like these that make me further understand that, while I still feel as American as apple pie, I don’t look it; and when I speak Spanish, I certainly don’t “sound” American. I grapple with the issue of race, and have only begun to identify myself as biracial because society forces me to label myself so superficially. Skin color still visually distinguishes us, and now instead of pebbles being thrown it is bullets piercing the hearts of other people of color, especially black male Americans. I think of my students, and I fear for their lives and safety. We have regressed as a society when teenagers are murdered because their skin color causes fear. Our children are living in a world that teaches them that the color of their skin is more important than the content of their character.  Our children live in a world in which hate crimes happen on a daily basis. Our society cannot sustain such hate. As Dr. King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I strive to eradicate this fear, and instead teach my students to be more humane to each other, to be more profound thinkers who don’t make steadfast assumptions about others. I share my ethnic and cultural background and my childhood story to help empower my students to discover their own multicultural identities, beyond their skin color. Through literature and writing, they unearth the pretty and ugly colors of our world, and make their own choices about what color represents to them.

Color can unite us, whether it’s the colors of our flag, our school or our favorite sports team. The colors I live by represent that I choose love over anger, and kindness over hate. I can be consumed by racial stereotypes, and live in fear of hate crimes, or I can brush it off  and be my undivided self. I can choose to cheer for the colors that represent my values and the change I wish to see in the world. So I choose to simply be happy and cheer for myself and every day, in my own unique way, I cheer for my students. They, too, are my orange and black champions.

©Athena Karantzalis, 2015

Athena Karantzalis teaches English and Digital Video Production at her alma mater high school, where she also consistently writes and performs in the sprit week staff skit. She resides in San Francisco in a cozy apartment by Golden Gate park. In her rare spare time (AKA summer), she enjoys reading, walking in the park, and indulging in diverse and delicious cuisine.

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