“I’m talking to you, zebra.” His words still reverberate, like sounds bouncing off the steep canyon walls.
As a girl, I thought of zebras as black-and-white-striped animals, sort of like the horses I rode. I imagined they had individual personalities, like my chestnut quarter horse, Chip, who was inquisitive and affectionate, greeting me with his ears perked up and a low, rumbling neigh before he nuzzled my hand for a fistful of grain. At the zoo, I marveled at how the zebra’s bold stripes continued up through its spiky manes, as if a hairdresser had created a perfectly styled black-and-white Mohawk.
In physics, black and white are not defined as colors. Black is the absence of light and, therefore, color. White is the sum of all possible colors. I am mixed-race, black and white. Since it is impossible to mix light, black-and-white paint can be combined to create gray. I’m brown-skinned so none of this makes sense, just as physics didn’t make sense in high school.
It seems like a thousand years ago. Or yesterday. It’s the mid-1970s in Topanga, an idyllic hippie community overflowing with pot and patchouli oil. I am a terrified 10-year-old girl, with deep-brown skin, dark-brown eyes and untamed hair, hoping to suddenly become invisible so Jimmy McAlister, my red-haired classmate, won’t see me. He lives down the street, where he’s seen my parents, my dark-skinned mom and my pale, green-eyed dad, the only interracial couple in our town.
On the expansive, black-asphalt yard at Topanga Elementary School, there is nowhere to hide. He always finds me, no matter where I am. It is always so hot up on the playground. The yucca plants scattered across the adobe-red hills behind the yard offer no shade. The blacktop seems to blister as if ready to explode.
“Hey, zebra!” Jimmy shouts. I look away, walking as fast as I can toward the cafeteria. It is recess and five minutes remain before the bell rings. Jimmy’s face burns hot. Thick strands of his long hair whip around his head like crimson flames. If he catches me, I fear a spark from his fiery hair will ignite my clothing, incinerating me in an inferno of terror, leaving only smoldering, white-hot coals and black ashes.
“I’m talking to you, zebra.”
Without looking back, I break into a run. Footsteps behind me, I feel a hard bump to the back of my head as he hits me with his open hand. His friends hoot and holler.
“Get out of here, ugly.”
I run faster across the playground, breathing hard. Too lazy to chase me, he turns around, walking slowly toward a tetherball game. His friends follow him.
Years later, my dad calls to tell me Jimmy was killed in a motorcycle accident in Topanga. He was 26. It makes no difference. Still, he is alive.
Every zebra has unique stripes so they can identify each other. Scientists believe their stripes serve as a form of camouflage by making it difficult for predators to identify a single zebra from the herd. Zebras must be very careful because lions hunt them. The plains are littered with their bloodied, decaying carcasses.
Like a zebra recognizes another’s stripes, mixed people can almost always identify each other. We see ourselves in the person looking back at us. A light dusting of freckles on mocha skin. Hazel eyes flecked with amber. Long, thick hair with too many shapes and sizes of curls to count.
In my 20s, I boomeranged back and forth between two identities. An all-white dinner party one night. A date with a black basketball player at Harold and Belle’s soul food place the next night.
Now, I no longer shuttle frantically back and forth between black and white worlds, camouflaging one part or another of myself to blend in. When somebody ignorantly asks me if I’m a “mulatto,” I no longer get angry. I am more comfortable in my own skin: black and white, two parts of a whole.
It took a lifetime to get here.
Waiting in the school carpool line, I watch Cara, my 15-year-old daughter, laughing with a group of girls. At first they are a golden glimmer in the midday sun. Moving closer, I see there are four of them who are mixed-race like Cara. Black and white.
What beautiful girls, I muse silently. Exquisite. A small herd of zebras.
Christina Simon is a mom, writer and native of Los Angeles. She writes about the competitive world of L.A. private school admissions, financial aid and diversity in her book and on her blog, which have been featured on NPR, The Hollywood Reporter, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, L.A. Parent, The Pasadena Sun, Quartz and Business Insider. Simon’s essays have been published in Salon and The Mother Company. Formerly a staffer to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, she now volunteers at 826LA, where she helps high school students write their college essays. Christina holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in urban planning from UCLA. Her work can be found at beyondthebrochurela.com.