“So what are you?”
I was starting to get used to this question. Usually this sort of ignorant vomit is hurled from the mouth of people with absolutely no filter. And usually I went to my bag of snark and sarcasm to provide a snappy ambiguous comeback like, “a person” or “just a dude.”
Despite my snarkiness, every time this query was sent my way, I knew exactly what was being asked. It was another episode of the label game, where I’d need to clearly and accurately define my racial pedigree in order to satisfy the inquisitor. Am I black? Am I white? Am I something in the middle that requires more explanation. Usually the game being played was one of pure intrigue – with no true harm intended, or offense taken.
But this time the question was more in the form of interrogation and it came with a little more dramatic flair. Despite being in a middle school classroom full of kids, I was all alone in this world, staring into the eyes of a kid who just didn’t care. It was him and me. And as he leaned in closer with his arm around my chair he was looking at me with anticipation for the right or wrong answer.
And this time I knew the wrong answer would lead to a world of hurt.
Perhaps he recognized me from another interaction we had earlier that semester when I found myself alone on the outdoor basketball court – still not even sure how this happens in the middle of a school day, but whatever. He came walking over to wish me the sort of backhanded compliment only a jackass would love.
“You play really good n***er ball.” That word still sends a shock wave down my spine every time I hear it. And he repeated it a few times.
“No. I’m black.” I snapped back him and continued to ignore his insults and drain free throws like I was Michael Jordan at the line in a Game 7.
Before anything that day could escalate and before I worked up the courage to mouth something back to this moron, the bell rang to our next class.
Literally saved by the bell.
But this time, in this classroom, there was no bell. It was just him and me. I was about 100 pounds soaking wet and this kid was twice my size. I wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Huh?” I decided to play dumb.
It worked just enough to get him to rephrase the question. And provide an easy out. “What are you?” he repeated. “You know. Your last name. ‘Cataldo.’ What is that?”
I was always this enigma of racial trivial pursuit to people. Especially in the South. My dark, curly hair and olive complexion is just enough to pass off for pretty much anything. Except white. To this day, my wife even calls me her little passport (she can take me anywhere … get it?). My last name, Cataldo, which is very much Italian, often confuses the masses to think I’m of Hispanic descent because of my perma-tan.
This time, that last name really played in my favor. I nervously declared, “Cataldo is Italian. My great-grandparents were from Sicily.” Apparently, it was the right answer. The bully was satisfied.
Yes, revealing that I am Italian was the truth. But, it was only half the truth.
That was the first time I’d ever be shamed into ignoring half of my heritage. It would also be the last.
Kid never bothered me again. Which always kind of irked me a bit. I actually longed for the day that I’d have the rematch so I could stand up to the ignorance and right the wrong of my previous error. If a black eye was going to be my punishment, I didn’t care.
I’ve never shared that story with anyone. And honestly, I usually don’t discuss a lot of the racially charged events of my lifetime out of concern that some of my friends and family would either be worried or just flat out wouldn’t quite understand.
See, I’m half black and half Italian. The Italian part coming from my father’s side, obviously (hence the last name). I’m proud of both sides of my heritage and love being from the best of both worlds. It’s also fun to toss out the “Halfro-American” jokes from time to time. But, in this society of definitions and labels, being multiracial presents its own interesting dynamic.
My white friends and family members don’t understand that I’m just different enough to earn this type of ignorant hate.
My black friends view me as being just light-skinned enough to “pass.” My peanut butter colored complexion and “good” hair is more than sufficient for the paper bag test, so what the hell do I know?
So, they don’t know that I’ve been spit on by white kids who wanted to what their saliva and snot concoctions would do to my “different kind of” hair. FYI: It just makes a matted mess that took two showers to clean.
Or that I’ve been challenged about taking a girl to Homecoming because the father of my date wasn’t a fan of interracial dating.
Or that I’ve even had some of my good friends call me the n-word in jest because they just don’t understand how much pain it causes and how much it strips you of your pride and self-worth.
But now, with a daughter on the way, I need to do better. I need to be better. And I need to help her understand as best as I can that ignorance still very much exists in this world. And sometimes that ignorance will be aimed at her, for no other reason than because she may look a little different as a child of a multiracial father and black mother.
Honestly, this isn’t meant to be a blog post designed to make you feel sorry for me. Far from it. Rather, my hope is to encourage more conversations like the ones we are having here. While there is no magic pill to solve all of the world’s problems and end racism and bullying, that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
What if we could have a positive impact in just one person’s life to open their eyes and their mind a little bit more?
Instead, we’ve hit that point where we as a society would rather just deflect when it comes to uncomfortable discussions for fear of offending anyone, right?
And rather than conducting a thoughtful dialogue about meaningful subjects, we switch on our collective ADHD mode, take some selfies and check in with the latest celeb gossip. And we just go on assuming that everything is now just hunky dory with that whole black-white-brown thing. Recent events have shown otherwise.
So, I implore you all to not only address these topical and timely issues, but the overarching discussion of race and culture. Be uncomfortable. Challenge yourself to be more compassionate about the issues and for others. What makes this country unique is the different cultures that blend together and how each person has a different perspective on the same experience. So share your experiences and stories and talk. I promise, the latest Instagram from Taylor Swift can wait just a few minutes.
With all of the noise out there of social media, oftentimes it is the loudest of the bunch that tend to stand out. And typically that forum leads to rhetoric of extremes to hammer the opposing side and score political points (Liberals vs. Conservatives; Christians vs. Muslims; Cops vs. Blacks; Blacks vs. Whites; Men vs. Women; and so on). Let’s stop that cycle and stop yelling at each other.
Open a dialogue. Stop pointing fingers at others and look within to see what you can do to enact real and meaningful change.
Start at the shared experiences. Like the fact that as parents, we all strive for our children to have a safe and joyous and wonderful life – a life that is even better than the ones we enjoy. Our children are blinded by color, it’s only when we allow the infiltration of hate and fear that they begin to see the differences. Let’s share the positive stories of love, understanding and forgiveness.
Here’s the truth of the matter, despite how things may play out in the media: All black men are not thugs. Cops are not set out to murder all black men. All white people are not blinded by white privilege. Black folks who speak eloquently or dress “preppy” are not “selling out.”
I know that my success as a father will largely hinge on my ability to have awkward and tough conversations with my daughter. And my life lessons will be front and center in her education.
Did I get the worst hand of racial hate ever dealt? Hell no. However, I do hope and pray that my children never go through the same experiences as me. Although, it is those very same experiences that helped shape me into the man I am today; into the husband I try to be; and into the father I strive to be.
It’s unfortunate that it takes major and tragic events to hit the national spotlight and reignite the conversation about this ugly topic. I’m asking you not to let that happen.
As parents, we need to educate our children on the reasoning behind this horrific event. And teach our children that yes … hate does exist. But, love will overcome hate. Truly, inner-beauty and our actions as a human beings will ultimately define us all as a people.
One act of ignorance and racist filled hate and rage will not be our legacy.
A few years after that middle school altercation, some of my friends shared what to them was just a random story from a random high school party that I skipped out on. To me, it meant so much more. Turns out some idiots showed up to that party spouting off racist crap and shouting the n-word to make a scene.
A group from the get-together chased after the party-crashers to try and teach them a lesson about what’s right and what’s wrong … or perhaps they just chased after them to pick a fight because, well, they had nothing else to do (this was high school after all). But, leading the charge was the very same bully from my middle school years. He caught one of the uninvited guests and as he landed a few punches, reinforced his new belief that no one should ever use that nasty n-word again.
To this day, I chuckle when I think about the irony behind that story. Especially since my friends held this kid in such high regard for standing up to hate, not knowing this kid was spewing the same nonsense not 5 years prior.
Perhaps another person of color actually stood up to that bully. Perhaps his parents knocked some sense into him. Perhaps it was really just all part of some need-for-attention-going-through-puberty-phase and the cool thing to do at the time. But, at the end of the day, this kid showed that it really is possible that people can change over time.
Now, let’s continue to share that very same message with our children.