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Kyra Gaunt

Speaker, Author, Entrepreneur, Assoc.Professor, Kyraocity Works

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How did you first learn to be black or African or what was your earliest memory of learning about blackness/Africaness as different?

As a member of several social innovation communities, as a professor who teaches courses on the evolution and expressions of racism, and as a person of African descent in the United States (African American), I've been traveling around the world since becoming a TED Fellow and even before that asking people of all backgrounds, who did you first learn about racial differences between blacks and others, between Africans and others. The personal narratives people share have rocked my world.

A white woman from West Virginia who hated whites because the only people who ever loved her, kissed her, touched her with care, where two black woman her white father, a Vet caring for 4 girls alone after being abandoned by his wife. He had contracted them to raise her and her sisters. They had to leave in the midst of night to escape social services in the midst of the U.S. race riots of 1965-66. They moved to Ohio where people hated West Virginians (the politics of class among whites was surely at work her as well as the politics of state immigrations and unemployment at the time).

She remembered thinking "I can change my walk or my accent, if I wanted to." But the black women who were my caretakers while my dad worked could not change their skin color. That was her earliest memory as a white person. And she said that interpretation of life made her hate white people til she was well into her forties.

We met at a workshop I gave called AGREE TO BE OFFENDED (AND STAY CONNECTED) on racism as a resource in 2008 at the Conference for Global Transformation in San Francisco. I gave a workshop to 52 people from 3 continents and trained people in rethinking the social construct of race and difference that plagues all nations and groups on some level.

I could use any group here, but I think it's particularly enlightening to examine blackness and Africanness as member of the TED community and other social innovation settings where members of these communities are rarely prominent.

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  • Apr 30 2012: Let me start of by saying I'm a white 20 year old from London. Now I'm really struggling to understand what you mean by "blackness" and "learn to be black or African". As far as I'm aware there isn't some defining thing that makes people black other than their skin colour (which is not exactly something that can be learned). If I follow your logic about learning to be black, surly a person who doesn't have black skin could "learn to be black" too no? Or what about a black child who has been adopted by a white family and raised in a white community. Are they somehow, not black? Or if there is such a thing as Africaness and blackness is there also such a thing as Europeaness or whiteness? I thought the answer to all that was of-course not, till this post...

    For a minute I thought that perhaps you meant black or African culture. But even from that perspective your statements don't make sense to me because black people or even just the black people who live on the continent of Africa don't all subscribe to one culture so you couldn't define one culture as "the black culture" or "the African culture". Black people have many cultures and communities there is no one all encompassing black community or culture (as far I'm aware). Besides not being involved in a specific community/culture can't strip of your race. When I had thought that through to it's conclusion I really didn't have any more ideas about what the hell you could mean.

    As far as I'm aware (perhaps I'm due a lesson) there is no such thing as "blackness" or "Africaness" (apparently the spell check agrees with me lol) but here I am in a thread full of people who apparently disagree with me. But who am I a white kid to tell a black person (and a professor of racism at that) that there is no such thing as "blackness". Hopefully you will be able to explain what you mean a little better or maybe where my reasoning went wrong.

    I hope no one was offended by my ignorance I am honestly just here to learn.
    • Apr 30 2012: I think that if you do not realize that there is a thing in this country called being "black" or "African American" then you won't understand. People grow up being considered and considering themselves to be "black". I think Krya is asking about when the realization of this distinction came into people's consciousness. It's not about definitions; it's about identity. Yes, you could ask the exact same question of a "white" person. When i was 3, I was not white in my mind. That came later. I don't remember the first time I realized that I was white, but it probably had to do with not being black (or another color). There are things associated with being a particular color and I'm guessing that more emphasis in a person's personality and behavior is associated with being black than with white. One made up example would be, if I can dunk a basketball, it's because I'm tall and worked on my leg strength a lot. If a black person can dunk a basketball, it's because he's black. I think that's what is meant by "learning" to be black--learning what is expected of a black person.
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        May 1 2012: Misha, Bob I think you both can be right!
        The thing here is that when you post some topic on TED conversations you have to know that you have audiences from all around the globe ! different cultures, different histories, and even different type of racism.
        So for some, it is when they learnt to be colored, for others it is where they came from, or when they learnt to be different or maybe think different...
      • May 19 2012: Your response is very interesting to me thank you.

        "There are things associated with being a particular colour... emphasis in a person's personality and behaviour... One made up example would be... If a black person can dunk a basketball, it's because he's black."

        All of this to me sounds like you are describing racial stereotypes and what you describe as "being black" is actually just a collection of commonly held stereotypes. I was always told that all stereotypes are bad, even the "positive" ones. Stereotypes that sound like they might be good say X people are good at Y also imply that that people who are not X are not good at Y. If you don't see how this can cause problems in a society think about the example stereotype "men are smart" and how it implys that women are not, it was not too long ago that women were not aloud to vote partly because too many people actually believed this. Not only this but a stereotype holds a quality about someone hostage until they prove the stereotype (this creates the positive feedback loop that lets stereotypes exist in the first place). So in my example above a person can no longer be considered X if they are not good at Y even if they are X. Or using your example about basketball which hopefully you will accept can be summarized as black people are good at basketball. This basicly implies that a person is not black unless he is good at basketball. But what about the black kid who doesn't like basketball can he no longer identify himself as black? Of course not a persons race is just there regardless of their identity and you cant hold it hostage with your stereotypes.

        To be honest I'm kinda sad that anybody let alone an educated person would reinforce those racial stereotypes I don't think it reflects well on you nor the society you live in if this is a popular perspective.

        Question: If I were to fit all the "black" stereotypes that you have or "leaned to be black" as you put it but my skin is white what am I?
    • May 19 2012: Misha, true :) there are so many different cultures and communities on the continent and i totally agree with you on the other points you made , I'm 19 and I'm here to learn as well so yeah :) Shouldn't having the nationality of any country on the continent make you African regardless of racial background? and I am African btw .I mean the USA has their own definition of what it is to be "black"/of African descent & that would apply there and in places like South Africa but for the rest of the continent I don't think that is the question i mean all of us are pretty much black :P expect for the North and the white minorites all over the continent and those of asian descent & to me my South Indian neighbour is "black" too and so are some brazilians, australian aborigines, some latinos etc that doesnt make them Africans does it?
      I mean for example some hispanics they might be of African descent but they have their own Latin culture and do not relate to the continent at all so why is it that being black means being "African" (and im talking not only about ancestry only but language and culture)...to think that there is an "African culture" per se (as if there was one Asian culture in Asia) just goes to show that you are one of those peop think Africa is just a big country with Somalia as its largest province and where everybody is Bantu for eg. and looks Bantu and speak the same language and have the same traditions.which coming from a West African country i think is wrong, and just there alone there isn't one "culture" because of the different ethnicities although in the USA a Fulani will probably be the same as a someone from Sudan.Of course with globalisation and as time passes,the societies homogenise for the better i think :) but anw if there was just one African idendity or culture i dont think Rwanda would have happend or Darfur even or so many other horrifying conflits based on ethnic differnces.
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    Apr 28 2012: Learning to be black has been a major issue in Africa since the colonial era.my home village in Cameroon in 1840s share a bad memories about the whites colonialists because the whole village were trapped in a carve and burnt to arshes.The site today is a touristic destination for anthropologists.Racism today is primativity.It is funny that must civilised and developed nations are the ones practicing this evil racial discrimination.The blacks or Africans are friendly to all human beings not depending on religion,culture or color of your skin.
    • Apr 30 2012: I don't know much about where you say that you came from, but if you are insinuating that no kind of racial bigotry existed on the continent of Africa until the ancestors of those who are now in "civilized" or "developed" nations came en masse, I think that's one of those glorifying the noble savage kinds of arguments. In other words, I doubt it. But that's also not what Krya's question was. I could probably make the same point at every other post here. So, I'll leave it at that.
      Sorry for your ancestor's loss and it's repercussions for you today. I don't actually know anything about my ancestors from as far back as the 1840s (or even much more recent time). For all I know, my ancestor's fled the destruction of their village and no record of it happening even exists. That stuff has happened everywhere in the world.
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        Apr 30 2012: Dear Bob,I am a national of Cameroon.A country located in central Afrca.
        We are better-off today in some domains than in previous centuries not because of those who love the path of less resistance but those who lay down their lives to make a difference through their purpose. The world is made up of two distinct groups of persons; those who know too little to be thoughtful and those who know too much to be passive and indifferent to the state of the world and mankind per time. Where do you belong?Ngi Tanto Didimus Political science student,university of Buea.
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    Apr 28 2012: Being a white boy raised in a predominantly white community I had no idea there was any diffrence in race. It wasnt untill my horribly racist father called my attention to the diffrence by using the N-word. I was shocked and embarrassed. I have made it a point to live my life diffrently and more intelligently. Racism is ignorance , nothing more or less.
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    Apr 22 2012: I love that folks are sharing personally. Go deeper. Keep your eye and mind on that earliest memory and ask yourself this: how did that earliest memory shape your path in life? Your understanding of your own difference or sameness from some norm or otherness? This conversation is NOT about blackness or Africanness per se. It's about using that notion to examine how a piece of the world go that way from a myriad of points of views and learned/lived experiences. Race/racism was invented by one person or institution. We all play a daily role with our memories and the assumptions we live by from them (as if they are the same for others) and the decisions we made then or make now from them.

    Stay on topic. Just your earliest memory and what you notice about yourself and your life (vs. others out there). I should share soon. But wanted to hear from others first.
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    Apr 22 2012: Hi Kyra,
    Great question, that I imagine will create a lot of good introspection:>) I totally agree with your comment... "Racism is anything, in my book, that separates us from the remarkable oneness of humanity (anything else is an illusion)."

    My mom was an unconditionally loving person who respected everyone. My dad was a racist, prejudice, angry, abusive man, who believed that white christians were the only "good" people in our world. Those were the stories I was born into, in a state that was predominently white when I was a little person 60+ years ago.

    When I started 1st grade, at age 6, I took the public bus to and from school, and had to wait for it on the corner of the main st of the "city". The first black person I ever saw, was a man who was always around the area. He was "older" (a little bit of white hair), he had very kind eyes and a little smile on his face. He was HUGE (in my perception as a little child), and he called himself "Snowball". I don't remember him ever really having a conversation with anyone, but he seemed to notice and acknowledge people with a nod of his head and a smile. I saw him a lot, he smiled and nodded to me, so I felt like we knew each other. He was intriguing, in my mind at that time...well...he still IS! As an adult, I wish I knew his story. I wish I could talk to him now and REALLY know him.

    Fast forward to high school..1960....there was one black family in the area who all went to a different school. That was my experience with any people of different ethnic origin until I started traveling as a young adult. Now, this area has a diverse group of people from many different cultures, and it's GREAT! My father's probably turning over in his grave...LOL!!!

    I believe those of different ethnic origins, or different in any way, offer an opportunity to learn what we would not learn in any other way. Those who are racist/prejudice are simply denying themselves a beautiful, wonderful opportunity to connect:>)
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      Apr 22 2012: What if no one is "racist" like some thing they embody or that is IN them. What if we all are on a racial spectrum of understanding or misunderstanding. Calling someone racist is off-putting, distancing and stops us from hearing their humanity. There is nothing wrong. There was nothing "wrong" with your dad. He was doing what he thought he learned was right. And surely he had beautiful experiences in his life...you are here! You would not be here without him. Yes?

      Who is the real separatist? Them or us, those who think we are above them. Listening is the greatest gift we can give those we are offended by (with limits of course). That's my take.
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        Apr 22 2012: I believe "racist" is a name given to those who do not accept people who may be different. It seems like it is generally information passed down, as it was with my father. I agree that there was nothing "wrong" with my dad. He got information from HIS parents, and played out the same "scene". He was a person who didn't think or feel about his beliefs, or actions. He was usually coming from a knee jerk/survival mode, and in my perception, frightened of the life experience. Staying in his "protective mode", with his belief that he was "right", probably gave him a certain sense of security with his life experience. As an observer, however, his sense of security seemed superficial and fleeting.

        Yes...that is true...I would not be here without him, and I'm also aware of the great gift he gave me with his teaching. I was lucky to have parents from opposite polarities...an unconditionally loving mother and frightened abusive father. I observed, and knew I had a choice regarding how I wanted to "BE" in our world:>)

        We ALL have the ability to be "separatists" at any given time. I never felt "above" anyone, but rather saw/see us all on a different life journey, and in that respect, I totally agree with you that listening is the greatest gift we can give others AND ourselves. If we feel "offended", that feeling in our "self" offers the opportunity to explore that which offends, and how/why it impacts us as individuals....do we not?
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    Apr 22 2012: - American movies!
    - Yes, I grew up watching American movies and that's when I first knew about it, I am an African and lived most of my life in the middle east and we don't feel much of blackness here. And I don't get to see many "white" until I was in a holiday in 2008 in east Asia. And I was playing pool with some guy from US and once he knew I am African he asked me about my opinion on Obama! Until that moment I felt its fine. But what surprised me later is that I asked him : why did you asked me about Obama "specifically"??.
    And until now I have no idea of why I did what I did ??!!
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      Apr 22 2012: What have your learned about what it means to be "black" or "African" from movies or from Asian interactions or from not being assigned that categorization until late?
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        Apr 22 2012: What I meant to say is that I was "unknowingly" being defensive...even though I didn't experience it much and that he asked me that question because I was African not black!

        But for me, even on the time I go through few incidents I start to feel sad for "them" rather than me, it is definitely so terrible for their minds not being able to evolve enough to cope up with 21st century...

        And then I feel sympathy rather than hate.
        Speaking about movies, this is one of my favorite : "American history X"
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    Apr 22 2012: Hi Kyra, A good question. I am white from the white world of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada where I grew up in the sixties. My first memory of blackness was probably from movies like Gone With The Wind. I moved to Toronto in 1968 where many black people live. Had it not been for the racially charged media coverage i consumed I would not have differentiated at all. As it was, I used to think there were differences of consequence. In some cases such as my St. Kits friends I found sterling character and only saw cultural differences. Other black people were as anglo as me. They mostly did not feel the sting of racism. Of course, once bitten is to never forget and I concede, I cannot know.
    Now we know that the genetic difference is almost non existent so what was that all about?
    In my experience there is no difference in the range of character traits which is really the big deal. My mixed marriage friends have wonderful children who should never have to be confused about what race they are. There are so-called black, anglo Asian and what ever people in my village Kyra. My daughter has dated four so-called races and I only cared about their character. Not that I got any say. Race is hardly a useful classification and although it is unlikely, my preference is that the out dated concept dies away.
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      Apr 22 2012: This is great that you offer your sharing. I want to get people to stick to the question. There is something absolutely brilliant that emerges if we don't go past sharing vividly and deeply about the first time and notice for ourselves what we got trained in from that earliest memory or moment that may still be impacting us today inadvertantly (I don't want that to happen ever again so I avoid that) or by somehow thinking we are past or above the impact of racial perceptions and perceived differences. The media feeds it to us daily. Even I have biases against not only whites but blacks because of it that go unchecked unless I really notice my indifference to thinking it's me, too.
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        Apr 22 2012: Ahh, but my perception is any mention of race is some what charged. Sorry for straying off topic.
        My earliest memory eh. I was not sure if it was this, Gone Withe Wind or something else but what I recall is seeing an early black and white TV show that only featured black people. I was some where between 7 and 10 years old and had only known white people and only seen them on TV. I cannot recall if my parents were there or there was some narration but I do know I came away with a sense of difference. My middle class, white parents were markedly anti racist but in those early years we no doubt felt we were in general, more privileged. Divisions along racial lines were building in my young mind. I knew it was a good question. You have me thinking and I'm not quite past it. However, I am not so worried about my lingering and errant racial thoughts as much as I am about the errant ones on other matters that have still to be discovered.
  • Apr 22 2012: Kyra

    Actually, I'm neither a white person, nor a black person. I come from Asia. Since I was small kid, there are many tourists to my hometown from Afria. People, especially old ones are more likely to aviod them because of fear, I think it's more than skin colour, media portrals of race stereotype is also an important reason. But, as for younger people, most of them do not care races (at least friends around me the same viewpoint). And, the most popular English teacher in our school is a black uncle, he is very nice, we all love him very much! Once, a girl in class said want to marry him. Maybe what I said it not that related to your question... I just want to say something from another positive aspect.
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      Apr 22 2012: NOtice that I never said I was excluding anyone above. Notice how we exclude ourselves from the discourse of discussions when no one said "Not you!" I've love to hear more about your story. What happened when the girl in class said I want to marry you? What was the reaction and where in Asia. BE SPECIFIC and as personal to your experience as you can. The more specific we are the more universal it seems believe it or not.
      • Apr 22 2012: The first time I notice about blackness when I was in grade 1 or 2, I just looked at him for a long time, didn't know how to behave due to the difficulty of communication, but he was tall and kind and gave me a hurry smile. It's a pity I said nothing to him. As for that girl, we all very very admire her because of her bravery. (my hometown is in south China.)
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      Apr 22 2012: Thanks Ken. Why do you ask about males? Are your responding to your earlier memory? I don't think there are any thoughts that are genetically conditioned to one sex or another of the human species. Racism is anything, in my book, that separates us from the remarkable oneness of humanity (anything else is an illusion)
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        Apr 22 2012: I deleted them as they might be construed as too depressing to other Tedders who might want to add a positive post and be put off,i'm not that great at structuring my posts properly so,confusion is the norm with me.

        Thanks Kyra I'll look out for your book.
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          Apr 22 2012: Poo poo. You are not alone in what you shared and no one would construe it as odd here, imho. Delete buttons should be removed from this conversation. Acceptance and hearing where we each are coming from. That is your experience. Ain't nothing wrong with it. But it cannot grow in a vacuum with no light or interaction. humans are meant to share and grow from the process.
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        Apr 23 2012: "Oneness" I had not thought of that word. It is yours, but my sentiments exactly.
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    May 1 2012: I had honestly skimmed over your diacussion here, because I could really not be mistaken for anything other than either Caucasian-American or White European. But my earliest memory of this difference in blackness came to me in a memory, today,so your question must have been on my mind.

    It was fairly early Fifties, so I was about 10 or so, and my father was having one of those parties where he would invite a mix of neighbours and office co-workers, and I remember once the discussion led to Truman's desegregation of the army. Blacks were being, or had been recently, integrated into units in Korea, and this one guest was really really upset by this. It seemed like he felt that it would lead to our troops fighting each other more than the enemy.

    What I remember most about that night was that my father was normally a man who always was putting people at ease and never wanted to say anything to upset people (my mom had no such restraint!). But on this night, I remember my father telling this man, "why can't a black man fight for his country? You are saying it would be easier for you to fight at my side, me - who isn't even from this country, than a man who was here and whose family was here for generations, just because he's black. That doesn't make sense at all."

    Not being raised in a neighbourhood with any African Americans in it, it was the first time I can recall even having to think about this division.

    I don't know if that has any real bearing or relevance, but thanks for the memory. I was actually quite proud of my dad, because usually he was just trying to hard to assimilate himself this was one of the rare times he stood up to anybody.
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    Apr 29 2012: Great question. But I find it hard to answer. Seems like I just always knew what I was/am. There was never a significant moment that made me realize I was Black.
  • Apr 28 2012: It seems to me that people in America confuse colour and race. Black is a colour. African is a race. The words are used interchangeably in America. For example, is Obama black? No , he is mixed race. Using colour makes one myopic and sometimes can cloud your racial origin . Tiger Woods is not black , to identify him by his colour is to cancel his Thai ancestry. Using race makes you think about your origin rather than lumping yourself under some administrative categorisation such as the word black.What do you think ?
    • Apr 30 2012: I think there is a lot of legitimacy to this argument. To me, there is a lot more than skin color that distinguishes the outer appearance of a typical 'African of origin' person--shape of nose, color and texture of hair, certain musculature, etc. Anyway, I think the major significance has much to do with the history of peoples, particularly in this country. I think one will just be confused until one takes a course on the history of the United States and gets some knowledge of the history of the world more broadly. I think it is legitimate to say that there are races and ethnic groups that still have some degree of integrity that traces back hundreds of years. So, we certainly can decide to label a person with one parent white and one parent black as black or not. It is arbitrary, but also traditional.
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      May 1 2012: I agree Kameel and Bob,
      "Using colour makes one myopic and sometimes can cloud your racial origin". Perhaps that is why the term "people of color" has been adopted by many Americans. By "Americans", I assume you mean everyone from the Arctic Ocean down to the tip of Argentina? Yes, I can see exactly how "lumping" labels can be confusing.

      The topic is:
      "How did you first learn to be black or African or what was your earliest memory of learning about blackness/Africaness as different?" Would you care to share your stories that are on topic?
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    Apr 27 2012: Hi Kyra, 15 years ago I adopted a Vietnamese boy and a couple of years later a girl. I am white European and live in a predominantly white community. I was curious and attentive on how color or race would affect my children's life in society. The first time it came up, they were 5 and it wasn't them or the other kids that raised it: it was their parents who were asking their 5 year olds "who these chinks were". A year later, we visited Vietnam and on arrival, my son had his face glued to the taxi window. "look dad", he said, "these people are all like me!". He paused and added, "now you'll be the one that will be teased."
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    Apr 27 2012: The first time I remember being aware that people came in different colors was my first day of kindergarten. I climbed into the car when my mom came and picked me up and started rambling about my day. One of the first things that came out of my mouth was "Mom! There's a little brown boy in my class!"

    I don't remember attributing any value to this observation. I just thought it was neat. We became friends and he was my first crush. If I was aware of any negative attitudes towards blackness it was only through preventative anti-racism messages on TV and in school.

    I'm not sure if things would have been different if I lived in a more multicultural location or if I just was lucky enough to be brought up in a relatively tolerant place but racism is not something I have experienced first hand. Ever :)
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    Apr 22 2012: PS An early interaction can be when you were 4 or 40 depending on your circumstance.
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    Apr 22 2012: Sorry if what I was trying to do didn't do it the way I really intended. There is NOTHING you could say that wouldn't add to the conversation. But I am REALLY interested in your earliest memories and what you can see for yourself and share with others...esp. your earliest memory with living people not mediated ideas of people but any will do. TV still today is not really a true representation of people.
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    Apr 22 2012: My earliest memory of learning about my blackness was in elementary school in rural Alabama, I was maybe 9 or 10.
    You see, I was born into a military family and we traveled frequently. I grew up with Whites, Blacks, Hispanic, mixed...you name it and I never knew or realized or possibly even thought about the fact that I was different except that my hair was not a straight as my best friend’s. My parents were not really political or religious, so I never heard about my African American heritage except for Black history month. But when I moved to Alabama my world changed. I was no longer just a normal kid. I was different, special, and unique. High yellow and white girl was something I heard on a daily basis, I was ridiculed and picked on because I was different. You see I went to an all black school, where I was the lightest person in the school with long hair and a strange accent.
    To me...I was just me...average. But from the moment I stepped into that school, my reality changed. I learned about the power of color and the separation it causes even within my own race. I experienced my first dose of racism from my own people.
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    Apr 21 2012: I really wish this simple idea, asking one question (what is your earliest memory of learning about race or blackness or Africaneness) was common in your circle at school or work, in your social networks of innovation or your social networks of exchange and transaction. For instance what if you ask your dry cleaner, your day laborer or contractor, or your administrative assistant not to mention your boss?

    Watching Seth Godin's video on standing out reminded me that spreading and sharing the question and the answers in your own communities matters. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/seth_godin_on_sliced_bread.html