OREO! Zebra! Names I recall being called when I was growing up. We lived in a diverse Chicago sub-city called Hyde Park (near the University of Chicago). In the 70’s it’s where all the liberal hippy parents wanted to live and raise their broods. Anyone with a desire for change from the norm made it a point to live here. My parents Ronald Carl Gerstner and Donna Ann (McNiel) Gerstner were quasi-hippy in my opinion. They lived well, worked hard and shaved & showered regularly. Our home was full of love, good cooking, and people. Extended family was always around. My father’s best friends, Uncle this or that and my mom’s sister from another family “Irene” and her son Rasul – another bi-racial child of the time.
We lived contentedly in our Hyde Park condo – with many friends/extended family members around. I loved living there. It was sort of a sanctuary for mixed kids. A majority of us from the neighborhood were bi-racial children or families that broke from the norm in ideology or family composition so there was nothing obscure or different when we were all together. I guess I would categorize our town as a melting pot or misfitville. Although I believed and still do to this day that Chicago is a grand melting pot of cultures, races, dialects, religions and so on it was the era that I was growing up that I could feel the difference that may not be so relevant today (or at least that is my hope).
When I would venture outside of our quaint gem of a town, snuggled just adjacent to the metro, is when I began to notice – Hey Oreo! I was a quiet and reserved kid (All those years of Grandma saying you are to be seen and not heard) rang through my brain. So, I pondered what does reference to delicious cookies mean? OH! And kids (even today) are eager to school you on what something means if you happen to give a slight twist of your head and squint your eyes as though you do not understand. “It means you are black on the outside and white on the inside”. Wow! what a revelation, I actually had no idea I was black (Mom what’s black?)– when I pick up the crayons to compare I most resemble the tan one – so what they were saying was absurd in my mind. All I could gather is that because my diction was flawless and I apparently did not fit into the style of dress code approved for black youth on the Chicago South side (Evergreen Park & Marynook to be precise – you Chicagoan’s will know exactly what I am talking about) I was a cookie. WTHeck!? I mean what does it mean to a 7-year-old, to be black on the outside and white on the inside.
Well, now I was beginning to be concerned about the color of my skin, which I had no cause to be prior to this. At home I had no worries, no one ever pointed out the differences between my mother and I – shoot still to this day people say you “look so much like your mom!” Twins even, “I could be confused by who is who”. Unable to comprehend or distinguish by color was a blessing and a curse. I felt stupid for not seeing what my South side peers and Suburban family so readily saw. Then it happened again, we would regularly visit cousins, aunts and uncles that lived in the Naperville & Bolingbrook
suburbs (that would say to my parents the city is dangerous – why raise our beautiful niece in the midst of all that, excerpts of adult conversations that I could clearly hear but have no idea what they meant). Then while playing outside I hear hey Zebra! What is this relationship to multicolored (specifically black and white) entities? And why am I being singled out on both sides of my family/friends? Now I am even more concerned. What is it that makes this outside world so concerned with the color of skin?
As I grew in the midst of this conundrum one thing was for certain – the stigma attached to skin color and grade of hair was beginning to take a toll on my little brain. Where do I fit in? Who can I or do I most identify with? And the even bigger question from the scary world is which side will I choose. I ponder now why I had to be forced to make such a definitive choice, one side over the other – in their minds (closed as they may be), I had to choose just one. But, wait I am not just one. I am a mélange of races. And at eight how am I supposed to know which is the superior choice?!
In our home, there was a barrage of ideals, textures, races, synthesized into what my parents believed this wonderful melting pot of people should be teaching. I communed with my best friend Jodie at her synagogue, I retreated to holy spots for meditation with my mother and my catholic dad just ignored all the catholic stuff altogether – but I got some here and there in rantings about this religion and that with their diabolical ways and such. Again, more conversations for seen & not heard children. I believed that everything was mixed – everything was connected until I left the comfort of my home. Then the real world slapped me right in the face and said look here make a choice and it better be the right one! Well, this is too harsh for anyone let alone a child who has no real concept of this division but is getting a crash course!
I had to figure out what to do. I loved both sides, I felt connected to both sides and I truly wanted to be approved by them all so I chameleonized myself (yes I made up a word – you can use if you like). I learned to act, speak and present myself different depending on where I was & who I was with. The long-term effects of doing this can be detrimental in my opinion – I may have been better off just choosing one side and leaving the other out to dry. But then again I am connected to both so why must I choose?
After many many years, I am just now able to even identify that I did that chameleon thing. I wonder if all those years of acting could get me a leading role in the next big blockbuster hit movie playing Colin Farrell’s love interest (Yes, I must be specific with my outlandish dreams just in case karma wants to kick me a streak of good luck)? If anyone is interested in hiring me, you can contact me at… 45&startingover.com. Just kidding! If that email works let me know. (*Snickers out loud and it reverberates around the room). Thank goodness my kids are at school or they would think mom is off her rocker! The whole race thing is such a mess. I mean aren’t we all just mix breeds? Or at the least won’t we be by 2050?