I grew up in a diverse town that somehow didn’t entirely extend to the school system. It was an almost guaranteed fact that, along with myself, there would be (at the most) two other Black kids and one Asian, which, much like most of the shows I saw on the television at the time, seemed interchangeable with a kid in a wheelchair. This meant a weird sort of bond was formed – not one necessarily of friendship, but of necessity. Our mothers would make us meet at each other’s houses after school, or else group together to sullenly discuss talent show tactics that would enrich young minds with nuggets of African culture, when all we really wanted to do was dance to Christina Aguilera’s Come On Over (All I Want Is You).
And, of course, it built a united front against the holiday assumptions.
For whatever reason (political correctness, most likely), my teachers would always point at us and giddily ask, “Well, tell us what Kwanzaa is like at your house!” They usually accompanied this with a beaming smile, and the sort of hand gestures that wanted you to babble about African religions, if only so they wouldn’t feel, treading water in a sea of Irish Catholicism, that you were being left out.
In fourth grade, it was my turn. I was the obvious choice; my name is Swahili and even mentioned in Kwanzaa. It’s one of the names of the candles, the color of which I never bothered to learn because I never celebrated it. It didn’t concern me. But in fourth grade, the prospect of shrugging and looking down at my holiday construction sheet (complete with a menorah, a Kwanzaa candle-holder thing, and a tree. How PC!) destroyed me. So I lied.
“I love Kwanzaa! It has a lot of candles. And we wear dashikis and eat…um, goat. And pray. And we sing songs.” I felt my hands sweating and wiped them nervously on my pants. I had no idea what a dashiki was expect for it being mentioned in passing by my dad, and in reality, my family celebrated Christmas in a way that didn’t spark any sort of merriment that Kwanzaa exuded – we woke early, opened presents, and watched my mother make scrambled eggs. I wondered if my teacher would know immediately that I was a fraud, if she would march me to the principal’s office. The other Black girl in class had bluntly answered “Naw, I don’t do that,” when the teacher asked about her Amazing Kwanzaa Experience, so it’d really been up to me to… perpetuate stereotypes, I guess.
In this same way came assumptions that I was Baptist (untrue), was well-versed on the styles of G-Unit (untrue, I was too young and my parents didn‘t condone rap because of, you know, misogyny) and that we had a day of personal silence for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (also untrue). Still, I suffered through “I Have a Dream” speeches, where the teacher would stare almost unblinkingly at me, and through awkward compliments on hairstyles, which, much like the other Black girls I knew, was secured into four hot-combed pigtails that curled immediately in the summer.
My teachers probably didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable. They were trying to find ways to include us – the Black kids, the Asians (which spawned equally horrific questions about whether or not they owned a restaurant or how they looked like Mulan from well-intentioned classmates). They meant to be generous, allowing us to describe at length the ins and outs of our cultures. It wasn’t just indulgence, it was a beneficial and knowledgeable experience for everyone! Wasn’t it?