I literally had one day between returning home from Hawaii with family & friends, to leaving again for a cruise through Scandinavia with my mom and grandma. It was 2004 and I was 14. My grandma was somewhere in her early 80s and basically, boring. She rarely left her home on the Jersey Shore, never learned how to drive, lived for The View, and whispered the word “Japanese” because her husband fought against them. This was just one aspect of what I was to be dealing with for the next two weeks in a cramped cruise ship cabin.
My mom is white (Irish), my dad is black (Bajan) and thus, I am brown. This has never posed an overtly negative problem, but growing up unaware of where to racially fit was an internal strife I would deal with up until college. At 14 however, I was just about to embark on a trip that was to really show me something about Americanism, capitalism, socio economics, and how race inevitably links it all. I was the only person with any pigmentation on that ship. Needless to say, walking around with my blonde-haired blue-eyed mother and brown-haired brown-eyed grandma, people were overtly confused. People would stare for a few seconds too long over lovely sirloin steak during dinner or as we queued up for disembarkation into port. This is not what I imagined when I told my mom, “yes! More travelling; I’m in”. I absolutely did not want to be here.
Through my 14 year old eyes, watching prostitutes scramble onto the streets earlier than noon to start on their days adventures should have been excitingly terrifying; seeing something that my mom could not shield my eyes because it wasn’t a movie, it was real life! I was annoyed and frustrated. I was annoyed that my grandma wanted to do exactly what she does at home; sit on the edge of her freshly made bed watching cruise ship TV. What’s even on cruise ship TV other than the ocean water in the front of the ship? I was frustrated because now people had decided to pry my mom and ask questions and “get to know each other”. They wanted to know if I was adopted or if she was divorced. I had dealt with this my whole life, but never in a captive situation. My dad was home because he was unable to take another week of vacation off from work, and it being summer, my mom was off because she was a teacher and I was clearly still in school. I should have just worn a sign.
The silver lining you must be asking yourselves now. There in fact was such a thing. Docking in St. Petersburg, Russia was one of the best twenty-minute periods of my life. We walked off the ship and were on our way to the Peterhof, passing golden statues and dilapidated housing projects at the same time. The city was such an extreme dichotomy of poverty blended with remnants of a gilded era that I was transformed. I felt liberated because there was no obvious pretending as I’d been dealing with on this ship. People were rich or poor and carried on with their lives accordingly and that was simply that. Until we ended up in front of a local boat letting many passengers off (mainly female). They were all tall, blonde or red headed, and extremely fair skinned. One of the women stopped and didn’t just stare at me, she seemed to want to sit down and talk with me.
Instead, she looked at her friend, looked at my mom, and then smiled at me. She asked to touch my curly brown hair, which was out and looking outlandish. I was astonished. Suddenly, about 15 Russian women were laughing and smiling with me as they felt and understood my mixed hair. I felt accepted in that moment. The language barrier meant nothing and I was somewhere sitting on a cloud. Then we returned to the ship.
Grandma was in the room, sick from cruise ship food poisoning…I guess that’s possible. I was back on this little world of American judgment based on race and class and wondering how I’d afforded to be on this trip. Whether this was a possible mindset or not, it was my honest 14 year old consciously self-conscious feeling. I was exactly back where I never wanted to be again.