When I was learning about geometry, the adage “all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares” was thrown around quite a bit. This summer my own mantra is tattooed in my mind the way the outline of all the countries of the world is tattooed on the top of my boss Charlotte’s foot: to be black is to be a person of color, but not all persons of color are black.
I grew up in a idyllic small town in the suburbs of New Jersey with large houses on hills and a population as diverse as a bag of rice. As someone put it for me once, I was a “cocoa puff in a bowl full of rice krispies”. Much like class or money, we grew up learning that race was a topic you do not talk about, but the fact that I was an Indian girl in a white town was brought up subtly and consistently. Never more so than when I was told, “oh, but you’re practically white” regularly. Almost, but not quite, and no amount of the right clothes or a voice devoid of an accent could ever close that gap between myself and the speaker.
Unlike how I was raised for 20 years, race is brought up daily at my summer job at Code in the Schools, a local Baltimore nonprofit whose aim is to bring computer science education to the under served and under represented youth in the city. Charlotte, the communications director, recounts how a black man with an enormous pitbull was about to go into her house to see her roommate as she was exiting and she jumped. “I had to go back and tell him two months later that it was because of the dog, not because he’s black. Why would I be afraid of him because he’s black? I’m not afraid of myself.” Someone else is trying to get new grants and mentions rich, white donors, and in particular, a cool rich, white, donor who talks to his other rich, white, donor buddies and says “here are some awesome people doing great things for kids who don’t look like us. We should help out.”
Race is brought up so much in part because of the CitS mission. As our executive director, Gretchen, a petite woman with trendy tech glasses and long blonde hair says, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. This summer, I’m helping CitS coordinate a 5 week coding bootcamp for 17-21 year olds in Baltimore, and we’re bringing in panelists every Friday to talk about their careers. Charlotte repeats Gretchen’s words at a meeting we take with Betamore, a “hub for entrepeneurship and education”, to throw around ideas about who could be featured on career panels. On the venn diagram of Charlotte’s names and Betamore’s there is little overlap. Betamore wants to bring in celebrated white names in the tech sector. Charlotte almost exclusively mentions black entrepreneurs from the Baltimore community and beyond. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and these kids need to see themselves up there in these panels, talking about their strides in tech and entrepreneurship.
I feel some solidarity in all of this. I am not white, so I can relate with all the talk about “rich, white, dudes”, I think. I, too, can sit at the table and talk about not being white and add my own field notes that I’ve collected over the years. My darker skin gives me this free pass here I assume. I feel like I fit in. Until I don’t.
I start to realize it within the office. A man comes into the office to discuss the documentary he’s filming about women of color in tech. There’s no quick darting look my way, like the ones my friends shoot me for a millisecond if someone mentions an Indian person and I’m around. I expect the same look when he says “women of color”. I figure this doesn’t happen because everyone in the meeting has dark skin. I mention I’m studying engineering and think maybe he’ll want to talk to me about being a woman of color in tech but no questions come my way about my experiences.
Outside, when I’m waiting for my JHMI back to campus, a man in a vibrant blue shirt a long dreads says hi. He stops by my bench and asks “what are you?” This is actually the second person to ask. A woman that same morning had asked me the same thing as I was getting off the JHMI to go to work. “I like your dress,” she said, “and also, what are you?”
“What am I?” I ask the man, to clarify, even though I know exactly what he’s asking. “What are you? What are you? Like black, white, whatever, what are you?” he repeats. I don’t fit into the two options he gave me so I tell him. He seems surprised.
I have another moment of realizing I don’t quite fit in when I have a conversation with a woman at work about BAMF café, a locale which has cartoons of all kinds of superheroes crowding their walls. “Yeah, I like the food there,” she tells me, “but I have a problem with the fact that there aren’t more action figures of color on the walls.”
“You should say something,” I tell her. And she says that she will never. I almost say that I’ll say something. I have color in my skin, too, don’t I? But I don’t interject. I’ve heard a lot about the savior complex lately and I’m 20. I don’t think I know enough to swoop in and save anyone just yet.
“I won’t tell them. I need a white person to tell them for me for them to change anything,” she says, matter of factly. “If I tell them, sure, they’ll feel awkward, but that awkward isn’t going to make them do anything. And I can educate black people about black people, but I don’t think it’s my place to educate white people about black people.”
That’s when a realization hits me. I understand what it’s like not to be white. But I don’t understand what it’s like to be black. I feel at a loss. I am not a black woman who can stand in solidarity with her and say, “yes, superheroes who look like us should be seen.” I am not a white woman who can talk to the storeowners and say that the walls are washed in white, we should change this. In Baltimore, there seems to be black and white. There isn’t really an in between. But here I am. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, so I don’t know what role I’ll play in all of this just yet. But I know by the end of the summer I'll have found that out.