Middlesex United Way: Being black, and white, is not so gray

Editor’s note: This week features a guest column by Middletown resident Lanea Sellem. “We want to do our part to create an environment where everyone is heard and seen,” according to CEO and President Kevin Wilhelm, who usually writes this column.

MIDDLETOWN — I remember growing up in Hartford, an all-black community in the north end, and being the only household that was white. Then, for a better education and a better life, my mom decided to move to Wethersfield, where we suddenly moved to an all-white neighborhood and became the minority.

I was 7. It was the first time I would hear the “N” word, many times directed toward me. I didn’t understand racism, but I understood my grandparents’ pain. As a multi-racial woman, I ascended from Holocaust survivors (my white side) and slaves (my black side). The stories told were remarkable!

Growing up I was often faced with the same questions: What are you? It was a question that I did not really know how to answer other than “mixed.” That would later turn into “Mut,” “Mulato,” “Oreo,” along with many other names.

This would be the first of many experiences along with trying to correctly pronounce my first or last name, touching my hair, examining my complexion, or being dazed and confused on how I speak multiple languages.

What side are you on? This question was often prompted by my proper speech, my curly Afro or straight hair, or if I was listening to alternative rock or hip-hop. Being seen as “colored” in a family of five mixed kids and a white mother, they would stop, they would stare, they would question.

I was too black for the white people and too white for the black people. Did I really need to pick a side? I’m for humanity. I’m for all. I’m for the both of me. Besides, my parents did teach me that we are all created equal.

I would later realize the outside world would be a different place than the house I was raised in. Black, white or mixed, we ate the same, we laughed the same, we watched the same movies and shows and listened to the same music. We were the same. We were equal.

Then I would leave my house and go out into the world, and suddenly we were not the same. We were not treated equally. I felt this in school firsthand when faced with the SATs. Check a box: black, white, Latin American or Pacific Islander.

When questioning which box to check, as I am both white and black, the teacher responded, “Just check black, as that is what society will view you as.” This was a statement that I didn’t want to believe. I didn’t want to be viewed by color.

I wanted to be viewed as smart, kind, hardworking and talented. I wanted to believe that people thought like me, were raised like me, and viewed others the same as I did. I was wrong. My journey would take me through a pain that is invisible to the eye. With unjust school systems, systemic racism in the workplace, and everyday racial profiling, I became distant to society.

There was a time I became silent, a time where I accepted this is life here in America and this is how people are. I knew in my heart when I was treated unfairly. I knew when the system was not in my favor. I knew using my voice and speaking up could come across as “an angry black woman” or stereotyped as “just another woman playing the race card.” So, I didn’t.

I observed. I watched. I listened. I suffered. I cried. I changed. I could no longer sit in silence. I could no longer watch my people be oppressed by my people. I can no longer sit among ignorance, and continue to have my silence be part of the problem.

I want to be a part of change. I want to contribute to mankind and the unity of humanity. I want to one day walk and truly not see color, and know that you walk side by side me as equal in all ways. I want to be a part of a community that shares the same values and morals of decency. I want us to want what is best for us to be the best for our neighbors.

As a past international flight attendant, I wanted to see the world. There were so many unique cultures I learned from as I gained a love for food, language, art, music, dance, history and people. People are so different and yet so alike in so many ways. We share the same values and morals amongst many and our common goal is love.

I have settled down as a resident in Middletown raising my girls here for the past two years. I’ve immersed my family in a world to better understand all parts of who we are, and have participated in workshops to gain more knowledge of others.

As a teaching artist, I have had fun teaching some of your children Dr. King’s 6 Principles of Nonviolence, taught by the CT Center for Nonviolence, through a play performed at Oddfellows called “Agape.” I’m also a proud member of the Parent Leadership Training Institute, a program that allows parents to become leaders in our community by using our voice, breaking our silence, advocating for our children and connecting through our community.

Through Middletown Works I have met some great people and I am proud to be a resident here. I hope to see you all in the community, and stand with you all side by side as we continue to be resilient during these times. I encourage anyone looking for a change to start by seeking groups, training programs and conversations. Ask questions. Break the chains of society and be free.

I am an American woman and I choose the side of justice. I see you. I stand with you. I hear you. I mourn with you. I cry with you. I am you.

Middlesex United Way is taking an opportunity to use its platform in future weeks to help elevate the voices of those in the black community, according to Wilhelm.

Lanea Sellem is a member of Middletown’s Parent Leadership Training Institute, an initiative of Middletown Public Schools.