On the day of college graduation, I told my friends and family the news: I was leaving the country I had lived in since childhood.
“I just need a change,” I told them, but they knew there was more. Was it some romance gone awry, they wondered? Some impulsive response to a broken heart? And I was running from heartbreak. My relationship with the United States of America is the most tumultuous relationship I have ever had, and it ended with the heart-rending realization that a country I loved and believed in did not love me back.
Back in the ’90s, my mother brought me from our home in the Caribbean islands to the U.S., along with my brother and sister. I was 4 years old. She worked as a live-in nanny for two years, playing mommy for White kids whose parents had better things to do. She took trips to the Hamptons and even flew on a private jet to California as “the help.” My mom didn’t believe that nanny meant maid, but she did whatever was asked of her, because she was thirsty. She had a thirst that could only be quenched by the American dream. One day, she thought, her children would be educated. One day, they might have nannies of their own.
That was our path. Get a “good education.” When the neighborhoods with quality schools became too expensive for my mom to afford as a single parent with three kids, we traversed the United States with GreatSchools.net as our compass. New Jersey, elementary school: decent, mostly Hispanic school, even though my gifted and talented program was predominantly Indian. Texas, middle school: “Found a great school for you guys,” my mom said while rain poured into our car through the open windows where the straps of our mattresses were tied down. It had an “A” grade and was 70 percent White. Florida, high school: “Hey, Tiffanie, you should have this egg. It’s the only brown one like you!” my classmate told me during AP biology. Philadelphia, Hawaii, North, South, East, West. Car, U-Haul, Greyhound, plane, train. New York City, private university: “I really want to write an essay on being the gentrifier,” one courageous young man pitched in a journalism class. I was one of only two people who were disturbed.
For a long time I survived by covering myself in the labels I’d accumulated over the years. I plastered each one to my body with super glue as if they were Post-It note reminders that I was someone. Sports fanatic (hot pink). Feminist, beautiful, writer, comedian, fashionista, friend (fuchsia, yellow, blue, purple, red, green). I hid behind them; they were my only shields.
Green covered my eyes when a childhood friend’s family banged down my front door and demanded their daughter get out of the house full of Blacks. Blue protected my heart when my Black peers ostracized my enjoyment of complete, complex sentences. Yellow blocked my ears when whispers floated through the air at my ex-White-American boyfriend’s home like haunted ghosts: I can’t believe he is dating a Black girl. The words passed like a gentle breeze barely creating flutter.