The Innocent Racist – Elaina Portugal
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
The sun beat down on our backs; sweat trickled along our hairlines making us scratch. Sweaty fingers pointed and the arguing continued.
“I’m always in the middle and even when I catch the ball, you never switch spots! You be in the middle this time!” Even though he held the ball, I yelled like I had power. I was the new girl and I wasn’t going to let him bully me. I’d had enough of that at my old school.
“You can’t throw! I catch the ball the first time you throw it, so you be the monkey!” I knew he spoke the truth, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be the monkey in the middle again.
“Recess is almost over. Let’s do eenie meenie miny mo,” I suggested. We all put our right foot into a circle and I started the process of elimination.
“Eenie meenie miny mo, catch a nigger by the toe,” I said, pointing at a new foot with each syllable.
“Elaina?” I heard my teacher call from a few feet away.
I looked up.
“We say ‘tiger’ here. Catch a TIGER by the toe.”
“Okay,” I said and continued on until the last person had a foot in. It wasn’t me. I was the monkey again, but at least it was fair and square.
“Elaina!” my grandma called from the couch in the family room. “Can you bring me some nigger toes? And don’t forget the nutcracker.”
I went to the bowl of nuts on the table and picked out the big, hard brown wrinkled nuts, hoping she wasn’t going to ask me to crack them for her. The shells were so hard and I always pinched my fingers trying to get the nut out of the shell. I put them on a paper plate and carried them into the other room with the nutcracker.
“My teacher says they’re called tiger toes. They don’t use the word nigger here.” A strange look came over my grandmother’s face as she took the plate.
“Thank you,” she said. I tried to get a glimpse of whatever it was she was watching on TV. These were her adult programs and we weren’t allowed to see them. There was a woman sitting at a table crying and her friend sat across from her and patted her hand. I didn’t see what was so bad about soap operas, but we had to stay in the kitchen while she watched them.
My grandpa leaned against the counter, upset about his friend from work who lost his job. My mom, dad, and grandma sat at the table listening to him.
“It’s not fair. Just because he’s a nigger doesn’t mean he should lose his job. He’s a better mechanic than half the people I work with and he works twice as hard. I went and talked with the foreman, but he said there was nothing he could do. They needed to cut back and he was the one that had to go, unless of course I wanted to give up my job. I’ve been there for 20 years, but damn! Joe keeps messing up and costing them a ton. He’s the one who should go!”
The conversation bored me, but I couldn’t help wonder if my grandpa called him a nigger because he had brown, wrinkly toes like the nuts. I almost turned back to tell my grandpa that he should call him a tiger because they didn’t say nigger here, but I knew better than to interrupt.
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Yep, that’s what we called Brazil nuts, but coming from pretty much all white South Dakota I was clueless. I remember when I was a teenager and smoked I used to say n-lipped. I said it once in front of my black coworker. I felt so bad