Don’t Call Me Colored: A Reflection

Shirlyn Hillson, Retired Teacher The Black Lens

It was the beginning of a new school year and for the first time in 20 years, I was nervous about what that day would look like.Today, as I prepared my classroom to welcome a new group of students, I wondered what they would think of me. How much of who I am should I share with them, I wondered. Would they simply hate me at first glance? I had no idea what to expect. Spokane was all new territory for me.

Having moved across the country, reaching far south from Florida to Washington state, was a shift from my southern roots and an adventure in itself. I was used to living in a place where the people I saw regularly reflected me in both culture and appearance. Being in this new place somewhat amused me, but I must admit, it also felt a little intimidating. Thank goodness for my husband, the reason I found myself in what I would call Martin Luther King’s Dream.

My relocation to Spokane actually brought back some of the feelings I felt many, many years ago when I was one of the few Black students in my school back home in Florida, during the era of integration. Coming from the South, I didn’t realize there were places like the Pacific Northwest; it had never even crossed my mind. Florida, though Southern, is also quite a melting pot of culture. You can always see yourself mirrored in the population; from the darkest of night to the brightest of bright and everything in between. That’s the America I had grown to know.

The bell was about to ring, announcing the beginning of the school day. I took a big breath, opened the door and stood quietly next to it. Placing a smile on my face, I awaited the first of my students to enter. Not surprisingly, my first student arrived with her mother. Looking from the student to her mother I can see the surprise on their faces when they looked at me. Glances were exchanged. Here I was, a Black woman standing at the entrance of the classroom. Placing a smile on her face, she gathered herself and asked, ”Is this room 6?”

“Yes,”I replied.

“Are you the teacher?”

“Yes, I am Mrs. Hillson. Welcome. And who is this young lady?”

She mumbles something I didn’t hear clearly, as I turn to show the student to a seat, with a smile. The mother looks back questionably. Then leaves without a word. The rest of that period is basically the same. Parents escorting their children into my classroom on the first day. Students arriving without their parents seemed more curious than surprised. Seemingly, they wanted reassurance that I was, indeed, “the teacher.” “Yes, I am the teacher.” I found myself repeating this continuously.

Once the bell rang to signify that class had officially started, I made it to the front of the classroom. I began, “Good Morning, I am Mrs. Hillson. Welcome to your first day in middle school. I know if we work together, we can make this experience enjoyable and exciting. For now, please check your schedules for the following information, homeroom 06, teacher Hillson and Math 7- Advanced.” I quickly began to walk around the room, assisting students who may have needed additional instructions in locating the indicated information.

When everyone knew they were in the correct room, I began saying “I know we will have a great year together as we learn and explore so many interesting math concepts. But first, let’s introduce ourselves. I will go first. As you can see, I am a Black woman from the South. I was born and raised in Miami, Florida and I am excited to be here today with you and to learn so much about you and my new home.” As I described myself as Black a few students looked shocked. I thought it was all in my head. Little did I know it would become an issue.

I called the names of the students listed on the roster I was provided and had each one introduce themselves and share a fun fact. The day went well as class after class proceeded the same way. Lunch was interesting. I was used to the cafeteria providing home cooked meals versus fast-food alternatives. I brought my own, thank goodness. The other teachers were welcoming and seemed nice; however, I noticed I was the only Black person there. Never-the-less, things seemed to be going great. Or were they?

Feeling pretty good about my first day and having set up my room for the following day, I headed to the office. As I was signing out, the principal noticed me and asked me to join her in her office for a moment. I was taken aback, since I felt things had gone great. I assured myself she was just checking in with me since I was not only new to the school, but the city as well.

Once the door to her office was closed, she did not immediately acknowledge my presence. Time seemed to slow down and I could imagine how a kid would have felt if they were summoned to the office and had no idea why they were there. I took a deep breath and waited. She began by asking me how my day had gone and I told her I felt that things had gone well. That the students were delightful, inquisitive, and seemed ready to get started on this new journey. There was a pause before she spoke again. Looking down, at what seemed to be notes, She began, “I had a few phone calls concerning something you said in class.”

“Really? Me? Couldn’t be. I didn’t say anything inappropriate.” I was alarmed and confused.

“Well,” she began, “some parents have called concerning you referring to yourself as, and I quote ‘a Black woman from the South.’”

I replied, in confusion, almost like a question instead of a statement, “Well that’s what I am.”

Looking intensely into my eyes she said,”We don’t use that term. We say ‘person of color.’”

Calmly, counting to ten, giving myself time to think and not explode, I replied, ”No one can tell me how to identify myself. I know who I am. I refuse to accept the designation of being a person of color. I find it offensive.” Thinking back to my own childhood, that term symbolized something derogatory in the era of segregation. “Colored” was plastered on water fountains, restrooms and stores that banned us because of prejudice, preceded by the word “NO.” I hated it then and even more now, at that moment.

Thinking quickly, I said, “They need not worry about how I identify. They can simply call me Mrs. Hillson.” I refused to let anyone put me in their little boxes. I am who I am. With that, I stood up and left her office, bidding her a nice day.

After this awkward moment, I never heard anything else about it. But the experience reaffirmed that I say who and what I am. Others cannot define me. This is America. The words we recite daily in school, that have been drilled into every child’s head in these United States, “the home of the brave, the land of the free” beckons me to take my power. I am who and what I say I am! It is not negotiable. I am Black and my Black is Beautiful.