I feel very privileged to have attended summer camp as a child. I know that wasn’t a luxury that everyone had. Even more so, in hindsight, I feel privileged the summer camp I attended was racially diverse. Back when I was a kid, I didn’t think of camp as being “racially diverse.” It was camp. I had Black friends, I had Asian friends, I had white friends. We were all campers.
One summer, my cabin happened to only have one Black camper in it. Her name was Bernadette*. (Name changed for privacy purposes.) Everyone in the cabin got along. We didn’t have any issues. We were all about 10 years old and little girls at sleepover summer camp, having fun.
One day, one of our cabin counselors was calling us each by name for some activity. When she got to Bernadette, I think she forgot her name and was struggling to remember it. Now, you know sometimes when you forget someone’s name, you improvise and say something like, “Hey, you” or “Hey, what’s-your-face?” For reasons that I do not understand, this cabin counselor referred to Bernadette as, “It.” I heard the roll call go something like, “Jennifer, April, uh … It, Denise, Jill …”
A handful of the girls, the “cool” ones in the cabin, found this hilarious and giggled wildly. The improvised nickname caught on like wildfire and Bernadette quickly became known as, “It.” In hindsight, I get angry that the counselors didn’t put a stop to this immediately. It’s not a great excuse, but I realize now that our counselors whom I thought to be adults, were really teenagers in high school at the time. They probably didn’t know how to handle such a thing. Factor in that it was also the 1980s, and things were just different then.
This continued during our camp stay, Bernadette being referred to as “It.” My adult brain processing the memories now thinks that the poor girl just went along with it because she didn’t know what else to do. My memories now realize that there was hurt and pain in her eyes.
I admit that I went along with calling Bernadette “It” — at first. I was insecure and of course wanted to follow along with what the “cool” kids were doing. But, it never sat right with me. I remember feeling this pain in my stomach when I heard Bernadette called “It,” and felt it when I forced myself to say that name as well.
It took my 10-year old brain some time to process this, but I realized that if I stopped calling Bernadette by that dehumanizing name, my stomach pains would go away. So, I stopped. I only referred to her as Bernadette from then on. If I heard a fellow camper call her “It,” I’d say out loud, “Bernadette.”
The next time our cabin was at our Arts & Crafts activity, Bernadette quietly came over and sat down across from me at the picnic table. I distinctly remember that we were making God’s Eyes, those crafts of popsicle sticks and yarn. The Arts & Crafts room was filled with the clamoring din of 10-year old girls chatting and laughing. From across the table, Bernadette said to me in a low tone, barely above a whisper, “You don’t call me It.” I froze. I didn’t know what to say. Without looking up from my crafting, I replied in the same hushed tone, “That’s not your name.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bernadette smile, as she also buried her head to concentrate on her own crafting.
After that day, I don’t recall Bernadette being called anything other than Bernadette for the rest of our camp stay. I don’t know if she said something, or if one of the actual adults in charge intervened, or if the popular girls just got bored and moved on. But, the dehumanizing nickname disappeared.
I never stayed in touch with Bernadette, but I never forgot about what happened. The Black Lives Matter movement this year brought this camp memory back to mind on almost a daily basis. Part of me gets mad at my 10-year old self for not being bolder at that time. But, also, part of me understands that I wasn’t equipped with the emotional intelligence and awareness then that I have now.
I’m writing about this now in hopes that people further understand the power of speaking out against something wrong. I’m writing this to let people know that it’s ok to learn and grow, that sometimes awareness of a problem doesn’t become apparent to you at first.
Yes, I regret ever calling Bernadette the name “It” at all. I knew something was wrong about it, but my brain and my experiences at that point didn’t give me the ability to fully understand at first.
Being a better ally means to continue to learn and grow. Learn from your past in order to grow in the future.