I Spent Years Being the "Cool" Brown Girl Who Was Okay with Racism

A study in regret and reckoning.

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(Image credit: courtesy of Michelle Mulligan)

My first week as a freshman at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I learned how things would go for me. 

"Hey," my new roommate told someone on the phone breathlessly one day. "My boyfriend and I just heard those niggers and faggots are gonna try to start their own fraternities." I was sitting on my hard mattress two feet from her–I couldn't deny I'd heard. I sat still, waiting. 

"Yeah, we gotta get together and burn that down," she said.  She glanced my way, "Oops, haha, probably shouldn't say that out loud." She covered the receiver with her hand and turned my way.  "You're alright, aren't you? I'm just joking anyway." I nodded my head and looked down. "See, I told you she's a cool little thing," she said to the receiver.

In high school, I wasn't a "cool little thing." Rather, I prided myself on being an iconoclast. I wore T-shirts with the word "shit" emblazoned in pink letters to algebra class to make a statement about free speech. I co-hosted an anti-prom party, silently daring anyone to ask me why I didn't have a date. I'm sure it kind of went down like this: 

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Sitting on the curb with my friends, exuding coolness.

(Image credit: Archives)

After high school, I decided to leave Chicago to go to college in Columbia, Missouri, an eight-hour drive down south. I did it for the journalism degree, but it also felt like one of my signature rebellions. The summer before I left, I corresponded for months (in actual letters!) to my future roommate, an aspiring beauty queen who sent me framed pictures of herself holding parasols and wearing Chantilly lace dresses to state fairs in her hometown of Sedalia, Missouri. I laughed when I showed them to my friends. "I'm going to live with a woman who dots her eyes with hearts," I told them.

Once we moved into our 250-square-foot dorm room, though, the "hilarious social experiment" crumbled. My half of the room was Nine Inch Nails and Hole; hers were the Kansas City Chiefs and Alpha Kappa Omega cheerleader clones. Our conversations were mostly her recaps of the sorority houses she had visited and planned to pledge. 

I wanted to be a "cool little thing" who didn't call attention to herself. Cool girls didn't get uptight about offensive terms.

"I'm soooo excited," she would say, swinging her long limbs in routines across the room. "My audition dance is sick!" Soon enough, there was a Ken doll fraternity boyfriend crawling into her twin bed. I didn't want to hear any of the action, so I got earplugs and covered my head with my blanket. I also used this cocoon to hide from her constant use of the n-word. I can't tell you when my badass  identity unraveled, the one that would have told her how offensive she was. But in that space, where I was the only brown girl as far as the eyes could see, I said nothing.  

I had a choice: I could be the kind of girl who called the police, or at least my RA. There had been violent incidents on campus. There had been threats, and I could have at least reported it. I could have started a movement, like the leaders of Concerned Student 1950 did this fall on the same campus, galvanizing students to organize and ultimately demand the University president's resignation. 

But I didn't. Instead I wanted to be a "cool little thing" who didn't call attention to herself. Cool girls didn't get uptight about offensive terms. 

Her boyfriend had gotten into two or three fights in the few weeks they'd been together, and he joked about how much fun it would be to burn one of "those nigger houses." His voice scared me, and so did the way people talked about race. One minute, racist "jokes" sounded like light-hearted jabs; the next, like pretending to run people down with your car.  

When people made jokes about whether I knew how to "dirty Sanchez" or "Mexican deep clean," I laughed.

But when it came to speaking up, my throat was tight and my words felt brittle. I'm ashamed that I stayed up for a week wondering if I'd hear about a scorched barren hole where someone's home had been. I'm ashamed that I lost my voice to fight back and rabble rouse, and for the next ten years I didn't speak up when someone said something racist, even when it was aimed at me.

When people made jokes about whether I knew how to "dirty Sanchez" or "Mexican deep clean,"  I laughed. At a party, a guy asked where I could possibly be from.  I explained it was Chicago. "C'mon," he said, tipping into his Solo cup, eyeing me warily, "You're not really from there. Say a word in Spanish, say something in your real language." 

"Ok," I would acquiesce, "Como te llamas?" I invented an accent and spoke my Spanish 2 level Español at parties to be funny—or was it to appease people like him? It became so rote, I didn't know the difference. I laughed wildly when people would call a group of immigrants in a field my brothers. "Hey, hermanos," I'd say, "I'll be there to help soon!" When people got offended by racist comments I rolled my eyes and called them uptight. 

In the last two years of college, I stopped laughing. I studied abroad in Guadalajara, Mexico, the beginning of a process of speaking for myself. I learned from the women that surrounded me. Women that gathered on the streets toting children and heavy bags yet spoke loudly and unequivocally about their rights as they marched for miles demanding clean water, work, and access to food. Women who sang and yelled and looked squarely ahead even when the police came and took them away, sometimes permanently. 

While there, I wrote my first article, in Spanish and English, about what I'd seen and how it changed me. I described the raw souls of people who organized in dirt cabins and the rich taste of tamales sold from warm clothes in the backs of buses. I took that message home with me when I got back to Missouri, and  I took it with me when I moved to New York to become a writer. 

 Years later, when I was working at a major magazine in New York City, where people don't use the "n-word," I heard a coworker refer to a blouse as a "wetback shirt." A moment later her eyes went wide. "I probably shouldn't have said that, but everybody here is  cool, right?" She did a quick brown people check and didn't even notice me. My blood seared. The blouse she had in her hand was pink, with embroidered roses, the kind that the women I marched with in Mexico would wear every day. To me, they symbolized vida

I wish I had a great ending, in which I reported her to HR, but I don't. I did have the will to tell a manager it was not ok, and that I didn't feel comfortable in that environment. What I meant was that I couldn't create a voice in that place, and both I, and my employers, were worse off for it.

In the end, I left that job, and worked as a freelancer for more than 10 years. One of those jobs turned into Cosmo for Latinas, where I was editor in chief for four years. I'd like to think my work there provided a platform for diverse writers to use their voices. In that universe, women with wide, brown faces and embroidered shirts are beautiful. Immigrants who fought their way to success are heroes. Tamales, arepas, and pupusas are treasured treats that needed no explanation. 

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(Image credit: Archives)

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Michelle Mulligan