At the tender age of seven I lived with my mother in Vancouver.
Thanks to mom’s well-thought-out career choices (artist), we were living on welfare in a co-op housing complex. The co-op’s ethnic makeup was as diverse as only the best university pamphlets can be: canadasians, africanadians, canadindians and etceteras, with me, mom and another single parent duo representing the only caucasianadians in the whole complex of 60 or so unfortunates.
I never really saw any of the parents getting together and hashing things out over spicy indigenous dishes, but most of us youngsters got along famously. The complex had a sort of “yard” at the center (like a jail) where all the kids would congregate. It was during one of these congregations that I found out for the first time that I was inherently racist.
During the nineties a horrible man named Weird Al made horrible music parodying other horrible music. One such parody was of a long forgotten group known as New Kids On The Block and their hit, “You Got It (The Right Stuff).”
Being an impressionable youth I was quite taken with the parody, the chorus in particular. And so, with malice of pigment, I set about singing this chorus one day with a bunch of the other co-op kids. “What’s in the middle?” my not-yet pubertal soprano coyly asked, “the WHITE stuff!” Weird Al had subverted teen love into a tale about Oreo cookie discovery…or so I thought. But one girl thought more than me, I won’t disclose her name because I was 7 and can’t remember it; she was like part Indian or Ethiopian or something and she’d had enough.
“That’s racist. You can’t say that.”
I stopped myself. Racism at that point in my life was like eating too much candy, it was supposedly really really bad, but I still couldn’t figure out why yet. Confusion forced a “whahuh?” out of my ruby-red boy mouth.
“Because it’s an Oreo, it’s black except for the middle,” she told me with the kind of wisdom only having melanin and being eight-and-a-half imparts, “so you can’t sing about it.”
I wasn’t sure she actually understood the point she was trying to make (it seemed like the black part of the cookie had the upper hand in that struggle for representation), but that didn’t stop me from feeling ashamed about my impromptu mentioning of a color in song.
Was the problem that the “white stuff” is the focus of the song and not the noble chocolate cookies that did all the work and stopped the lazy white goo from spilling all over the place? I wasn’t calling her an Oreo; I only learned that that means something bad or whatever last year. Was it that the white cream tasted far better than the chalky sawdust flavor of the twin choco-cookies?
None of my theories seemed to register with her so I did the best thing I could as a racially insensitive seven-year-old: I bowed my head in shame and I apologized—not just for the singing, but also for not understanding my crime.
Whatever the answer might have been it was unimportant. What was important was that I learned a valuable lesson: Tread lightly, because what might seem like solid ground you’re walking on right now can turn into a sea of brittle eggshells at any moment when you’re born into the kind of luxury and affluence I was.
When I last tracked her down she was busily in the midst of a new campaign against the new Aryan super-cookie, the Golden Oreo.