What Are You?

Is there a balance to be struck?

Is it even possible?

Growing up, I was surrounded mostly by white people. I wanted to look more white.

Attending Howard University, and being around pretty much all black people – I wish I looked more black.

Will there ever be a time or an environment, I suppose, in which I feel completely comfortable with my appearance?

Or do I just need to establish it for myself and accept it ? Get over it, and move on?

To a point, this is what I do. But it is also something I struggle with.

***

A good place to start is usually at the beginning, the prologue. So, here is my Background Information: My momma is a black woman. My dad is a pasty white man (no hate Dad, just true).

For the first few years of my life I was: Other. Other is the bubble people who are like me, as in more than one race, fill in when the government wants to get to know you through things like state education tests and censuses and such.

(LONG INTERLUDE): Generally, us folks who reside in the United States of America do not like to talk about racism. In fact, ask a majority of white people and they like to avoid any discussion of racism by telling you that racism is long over, that they are “color-blind.” Aren’t they funny? In case you didn’t know, race is a social construct. (social construct: a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society; a perception of an individual, group, or idea that is ‘constructed’ through cultural or social practice). Seeing as race is a social construct, it follows that racism is a social construct – built by the white folks long ago, maintained today still by the white folks, but assisted by other groups of people as well, to a lesser extent. If you’d like to further understand this concept, I encourage you to read Angela Onuwachi-Willig’s article in the NY Times: “Race and Racial Identity are Social Constructs.” My point is that race is a social construct, right? Race is actually not a real thing. We all know this. Yet, when it is convenient, like when categorizing information on how students of different ethnicities perform on state education tests, America then likes to use race. Except they code it differently, using the polite translation for black, i.e. “African-American”. Through race, America continues to socialize “differences” between groups of people: “Asian-Americans tend to perform better on the Math portions of state exams.” “Across all subjects, African-American students performed below average.” Before you can even realize what is happening, you believe it – you have swallowed the stereotype. Asians are good at math. Blacks are good at sports, but not school. This is one of the many tools America uses to indoctrinate. But racism doesn’t exist anymore…sure.

As I said though, I was Other. This was during the time when America wasn’t as considerate to those who didn’t fit into the main groups: White/Caucasian, Black/African-American, Asian, Hispanic/Latin American. Other is for all the unlisted minorities, and like I said, for those who are more than one. When faced with this question I always hesitated before bubbling. My inclination was to fill in “Black”. Back then I didn’t know why though, I just felt it. I’m black. I would look at the “White” bubble, but it just didn’t feel 100% correct to bubble that one. Eventually, I would always settle for Other and that was that, even though Other felt inhuman.

My intention is not to give you the impression that I struggled with my identity – I didn’t. My mom always made sure that my sister and I used the correct term: “bi-racial.” We would come home from school or our days out and about, and regale the tales of who asked us “What are you?” that day. I always respond to this question the same way: “I am bi-racial. My mother is black, my father is white.” The reactions though would always vary, from excited to understanding to the popular remark, “Oh! That’s different. Usually the dad is black and the mom is white.” The response my mother never appreciated though is, “Oh, so you’re mixed!” Mixed – she doesn’t like that word. I remember she expressed her distaste once though a perfect simile: “Mixed, ugh, that makes you sound like you’re a cake that’s been baked.” So, bi-racial I am.

Sometimes I liked to play a game with people. When they asked me, “What are you?” I hit them back with “Guess!”, a gleeful smile on my face. People always start with something south, like Mexican, Dominican, Venezuelan, Panamanian, Brazilian etc. Then they go with Pacific Islander. Next up is usually Native American. I’ve even gotten Thai before! After exhausting their guesses that’s when I reveal my chocolate vanilla fusion. That’s right – I am a swirl! “Ahhh, okay yeah cool!”, they say as recognition passes over their face.

People never guess black, they never guess white. Occasionally some people do guess bi-racial, which is always nice. But 90% of the time I can say confidently that people do not see either of the two tribes I belong to. This is my problem. However, before I expand on that more let me get back to where I was.

In elementary, I think there were maybe 10 (if that) black kids at my school. When you grow up around kids who don’t look like you, most of the dolls you play with don’t look like you, the Disney princesses don’t look like you – you start wanting to look like what is popular. And that is the white girl. I already had the long straight hair, but my nose was wide, and my skin brown…I never disliked my appearance, I never hated on my caramel tone, but when my friends would say to me, “Oh thank god you have more of your dad in you!!” I would laugh along with them and say, “Yeah, I know!” But really that comment made me feel sick. I was never confident enough to say what I really felt which was “What do you mean ‘thank god I have more of my dad in me’?? Why would it be a problem if I looked more black? What’s wrong with my brown skin and wide nose?” This feeling of wanting to look more like what was desired got stronger as I progressed into middle school. It also didn’t help that my peers were calling me “white-washed” or “Oreo” – ‘black on the outside but white on the inside.’ It makes me laugh to realize even then I wasn’t black enough.

By the time I graduated high-school I was on top; my self -esteem was high, I owned my brown skin proudly, but I was still worried about how people at Howard University would accept me. Would they also consider me “white-washed”? This is when being bi-racial gets really interesting because I switched environments entirely. I went from a life in which my two best friends for the past forever had been white and I was one of the few black kids in all my schools, to a new habitat in which white people were finally the minority! Deciding to attend Howard University ( a Historically Black College and University – HBCU) is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I didn’t realize, until I got to Howard, how much connection I was missing to the part of me that is black. I didn’t realize how many assumptions and prejudice I had built up inside me against black people, until I got out of a world where I was only hanging with white people. Arriving at Howard was like inhaling the longest most fulfilling breath of fresh air. As the tides changed though, so did my queries. Now I walk a new tightrope, of not being black enough.

I can’t explain the anger that surges inside me when I hear of a new police brutality case, or I read the headline announcing the new victim of a police shooting. And they’re always black. That is a limitless, seething frustration I have at the world we live in. I’m very passionate about social justice, and within the black community there is an entire gaping hole that needs be filled with justice. To represent those issues and fight for our long-waited equality, I think it would be better if I had a personal story. If I had a moment where I experienced police brutality, or racial profiling then I could be a more convincing advocate. But I don’t really, because I am Other. At most, all I can say is that on a few occasions at different places the owners of a convenience store have followed me around, making sure I don’t steal anything. But what black person hasn’t experienced that? Honestly. When you don’t look black, and you’re also part white, it feels a little less than authentic to have such a strong voice for discrepancies in the criminal justice system and issues affecting black people in general. I just wish I had more moments in my life where I could sympathize, instead of empathize. To really put this into perspective, my roommate freshman year said that when she first saw me she thought I was just a really tan white girl. We were getting all our stuff moved in, and my mom was in the room with me, and she literally thought that my mom was my aunt or a family friend – not directly related. I’m sure you can imagine my disappointment.

Maybe you are reading this rolling your eyes. And that’s fine. Maybe some of you think I’m stupid, wondering why I would want to look more black because that’s going to put me in a worse position, because people will really start treating me differently..maybe you think I’m stupid for wanting that. And maybe I am. Maybe you think I need to grow up already, stop complaining – which is valid. But oh well. I can’t help that this is how I feel.

Being bi-racial is an interesting debacle. And I want to end emphasizing that this is not a question of am I black? Am I white? I still am very sure in my identity that, yes, indeed I am bi-racial. I just simply wished I had a little more background in my life that would allow me to relate more to the black experience, since it is something I am passionate to change. However, acknowledging that this is something I can do nothing about – that’s it. *shrugs* Now, I simply wonder if there will ever be a time in my life where I feel completely comfortable with my appearance. If I’ll feel an exact 50/50 balance in my whiteness and my blackness. I don’t know. But we’ll see. I’m optimistic.

***

“We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.” – Chuck Palahniuk

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