A diverse group of logo children.

“What are you? Are you Black or White?”

Are you Black or are you White?” “What are you?”

The year was 1969. A handful of my fourth-grade classmates had swarmed around Elizabeth L. and me as we stood chatting in a corner of St. Nicholas of Tolentine’s Elementary School’s schoolyard in Jamaica, Queens. New York. The kids jostled each other as they vied for Elizabeth’s attention asking “What are you?” “Are you Black, or are you, White?”

Elizabeth was not a new student. We had all been together since the first grade. We had taken school trips, performed in holiday concerts, and made our First Holy Communion together.

Why were my classmates suddenly asking these questions during recess?

Elizabeth was my best friend. When I looked at Elizabeth, I saw a pretty girl with light coffee-colored skin with a beautiful, long jet-black braid that formed a perfect, straight line down her back. Elizabeth was always impeccably neat and managed to make our ugly blue, black, and grey uniforms look attractive. I never caught her slouching or scuffing her shoes when she walked to Mass.

Elizabeth and I had become fast friends in the first grade when we discovered that her family was as strict as mine. Academic excellence and “perfect behavior” were the standards we lived by. We even shared an important secret. We were studying classical piano at the same music school during the Age of Woodstock’s rock and roll. Elizabeth was the one person I knew that I could be myself with at school.

Now my classmates were treating her as if she did not belong with us. When the circle moved in a little closer Elizabeth looked directly at the group and said, “I’m Haitian-American and this is what many Haitians look like.” Elizabeth held her ground and she looked at each student and held their gaze. Suddenly, Elizabeth appeared older and more mature than the rest of us.

The group moved away and walked to another part of the schoolyard. Elizabeth and I looked at each other and then back at the departing group. In less than five minutes, Elizabeth had gone from being our classmate to becoming “The Other.”

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