I wish I'd turned around sooner.
In the course of my high school career, I attended an indeterminate number of football games, but something felt distinctly weird about this one.
It was my junior year. I was sitting in a pretty good section with my friends, surrounded by white moms that smelled like sunscreen and the Bud Light they’d wolfed down in their car before the game. And I just kept feeling this weird... pinch at the back of my head. Faint enough to ignore, but not for very long.
It took me about thirty minutes to notice a group of boys my age from another school, several rows behind me, who had been throwing used candy into my hair from their seats high above, like I was some kind of kinky-curly dartboard. Like I was more a game than a person.
It took me so long to notice because my friends, sitting on either side of me, were discretely picking the lollipop sticks and the Jolly Ranchers out of my hair, and doing their best to keep me from turning around.
In the course of my high school career, I attended an indeterminate number of football games. But not a single other memory — not my first time walking onto the field with the marching band, not my graduation, not the day we did senior superlatives, and I lost “Best Hair” to the girl who religiously used that horse shampoo on her beach waves — not one makes my heart race as much as the Jolly Rancher Incident. It races now the same way it did when I finally turned around, and got a good look at those boys, and saw in their eyes that they were not sorry at all, just disappointed that their game had been thwarted. I felt a rage bubbling in me that I still feel to this day. My hands shake as I write this, just like they did when I was sixteen and surrounded by people who saw all that go down and said nothing. It’s the way I still feel when I'm surrounded by white people. Like anything could happen to me and they would just keep staring straight ahead, and try to get me to do the same.
It’s been nearly ten years since this happened, and this is maybe the second time I’ve ever spoken about it. The only other person I’ve ever told was my mom — and I mentioned it in passing, with that kind of bitter half-smile you put on when you’re discussing your trauma — because I don’t like talking about my time in high school. I don’t even like thinking about it. I think I hated those years more than almost any other time I’ve been alive. But I didn’t necessarily hate it while I was experiencing it. The hate came after, when graduation had come and gone, and I began to understand that the stuff I went through those four years, the stuff I thought was okay... actually was not. Not by a long shot.
I am not going to list examples, only because I can’t consciously remember many, and I’m not about to do a transcendental meditation just to humor you, reader. All I know is that I hated it, but I put up with it all because I thought my life was like one of those soapy high school dramas. I was the plucky black token of my group, the Bonnie Bennett or the Dionne Davenport propping up my white friends. In hindsight those characters were maybe the last people I should have been trying to emulate, but what could I do? I was one of maybe five black kids in my year. More than that, none of them seemed to struggle with the task of coming of age in the town from the freaking Truman Show, where everyone else was southern, blonde, rich, and ignorant and trying out a new microaggression on you once a week. I don’t think I ever felt that semblance of closeness that any group of friends on TV seemed to have, but I kept striving for it, as fake and hollow as it’d make me feel afterward.
It took me a long, long time to forget the things, and the people, that caused me the most pain in high school. My core group of friends was still pretty solid; they would drive from Statesboro to Savannah to visit me on the weekends, and when I came home for the summer we would hang out all the time. And besides a few run-ins in the kitchen with their bigoted parents, it wasn’t so horrible. But every time I would come back home, every time I’d go visit them, or they would visit me — I could feel how much I had changed since high school. Every time I’d see them I felt this almost magnetic pull tugging me back to the person I was when I was sixteen — and I never, never wanted to go back to that again.
So after my freshman year of college, I set to work cutting them off. Eventually, I had a whole new, improved, diverse set of friends who were super freaking cool and not white at all. Like, none of them. Not the close ones, anyway. I was determined not to let another whitey get that close to me ever again. I owed it to my own self-image, a concept I was still in the process of understanding.
I lived in this blissful multi-cultural paradise for a few years, and my unofficial vow stood the test of time, to some extent. Sure, I would interact with white people. I had white associates, white acquaintances. Some of them even slipped through the barricade and into casual friend territory. But I still kept my distance. I would not let them into my heart. I couldn’t let something like the Jolly Rancher Incident happen again.
Unfortunately, my own determination can only affect so much. As my time in college came to an end, so did a lot of my friendships. My departure from Savannah, a devastating breakup, a pandemic, and an incident with what I think might have been a cult dissolved some of my closest friendships. All I had left were the casual friends, the mutual friends I’d made through the people I will probably never speak to again.
And... it’s almost funny... but literally all of them are white.
At first, this made me sooooo so so so mad. But before one of you pops off in the comments about “reverse racism” or some other phenomenon that white people made up to oppress themselves, I don’t think this is something just anybody can understand. To be honest, I don’t think this is even something I have fully understood until maybe just now. Like, twenty seconds ago.
There is actually a reason I made the choice to keep my inner circle decidedly non-white. Something that subconsciously influenced me to make that choice in the first place. Because something really weird happened at that football game. Something that actually has happened in a number of different ways, and at different, later times in my life. A lesson I still have not learned. A fear I haven’t gotten over.
When I realized what those boys were doing, and I realized what my friends had done to keep me from realizing, I got so stupid angry that I turned right around and I stared those kids down, trying to plot the fastest route to get to them and beat the shit out of them for using me as their weird kinky-curly dartboard — but before I could, my friends made me turn around. They didn’t want to cause a scene, which explained their discreet little attempt at damage control. I don’t even think they were willing to move seats, since we were sitting in a pretty good section. They just wanted to keep watching the game, because they were comfortable, and it wasn’t that big of a deal.
And for some reason, I let them make me feel guilty for being angry. For wanting to stand up for myself. For wanting them to stand up for me like I totally would have for them. For making me think somehow that this complete violation of my autonomy was actually… not that big of a deal. And maybe that’s why I still feel that woozy kind of light-headed sickness that hits you when you’re discussing your trauma, because to this day, ten years later, I am not even really that mad at those boys. Not anymore. I’m mad at my friends that let it happen. And I’ve never forgiven them for any of it.
I thought that limiting the number of white people in my life was actually doing something about the wound that high school left me with. I truly thought that the magnetic pull tugging me back to my sixteen-year-old self had been dealt with, eradicated, forgotten. I vowed never to return to that headspace again. But, as it happens, I have actually been living there all this time.
The older I get, the more trouble I have trusting people, and the harder it is to believe that I’m deserving of people I actually can trust. I feel like the more I live, and the more I experience, the more upset I become. I don’t know how people bounce back from betrayal and stay happy or hopeful. Then again, I might be especially jaded at the moment, having just barely come to terms with the whole aforementioned cult ordeal. I feel really freaking alone right now, and it’s not because of lockdown, or not being able to see anyone. I guess I just thought, this far in the game, my friendships would be locked in. I thought I would have a group of friends solid enough to last me at least through the end of my 20s, maybe my early 30s. And we would all live in the same city together, and all be really kooky and fun together, and hijinks would ensue every week like we were in a sitcom and not a soapy teen drama… and all the distrust and pain I had been hoarding all these years would eventually ebb because my friends would eventually start to heal me.
If you are at all surprised by this fantasy, then you haven’t been paying much attention to me, or how badly skewed my concept of relationships is (and honestly, how dare you). But you have to remember: I’ve been chasing this cookie-cutter understanding of friendship, and embodying the black best friends I would see on television, since I knew what a television was. I was making myself small for the white people around me, despite my vow to keep them at arm’s length. I still would make concessions for them, because I had accidentally conditioned myself into thinking there was one perfect, particular way I was meant to behave around my friends who were white.
I would switch into that whenever I was around them. Without fail. Like I was jumping back into my sixteen-year-old skin. Even now I am not myself, not fully, anyway, when I’m around them, and I don’t think I have a real-life friend right now that I am 100% myself with. But it’s not their fault. The problem lies with me, and my vice-like grip on my trauma, and my fear that I somehow deserved what happened to me at that football game, and the passivity of the people all around me. That there is some magical way to ensure that the friends I have now would want to shield me from that.
Trauma has a funny way of pausing your mind and spirit, even as your body keeps growing. It keeps you there, suspended in that moment, until you’re ready to actually face whatever you weren’t ready to before. And I think ten years is enough time to spend paused, because in that time I’ve accumulated yet more experiences that I have to work through.
I feel really freaking alone right now. But I’ve felt alone since I was sixteen, maybe even before that. And it has everything to do with how I treat myself, how I hide behind my pain and my anger like it were a shield. But it’s never really protected me, or stuck it to anyone that’s harmed me in the past. It only blocks me from the path of anything truly good and healing that can come my way.
And I can never get to a place where I really feel loved and comfortable around the people I’m close to if I’m not comfortable in my own body, if I keep thinking about that time at that football game, the people I still haven’t forgiven for making me feel so gross and unworthy.
I realize now that I already kind of felt that way, gross and unworthy, before the Jolly Rancher Incident even happened, and I ended up projecting that feeling onto an entire group of people because I wasn’t strong enough to see that for the lie it was.
There are always going to be incidents that shape you, and people that might hurt you whether they mean to or not. And, shockingly, it’s not just white people that do it (crazy, right?). The trick is to deal with it quickly, so as not to miss out on all the good in your life that’s waiting for you on the other side of all that trauma.
And fortunately, right now, I do think I have friends who are willing to wait on me. Who are willing to try, as long as I am. Who don’t see me as gross or unworthy (quite the opposite, actually) and don’t mind reminding me of that until I can actually see it for myself. I’m grateful for them, and their patience, and their love. In a way they’ve shown me the exact same grace I should be directing inward.
In the course of my high school career, I attended an indeterminate number of football games. As time goes on, most of those memories fade from my memory, and the farther I get from high school in general, the more I realize how insignificant those experiences were in the grand scheme. I’m not meant to hold on to the debilitating, dehumanizing stuff, or shut out the people that truly care about me. I’m more than that time in my life, and I’m so much more than the way I was made to feel back then. I am the only one who can decide what I deserve and what I don’t. It’s just a matter of what I choose to let in, and what I choose to let go of.