Sometimes I’m White. Sometimes I’m Black. Sometimes they can’t figure it out, so my race is just another question people passing me on the sidewalk must ask me about. But, being black-ish isn’t something the strangers I meet have questions about, it’s something I often question as well.
I didn’t always know I was black. I actually found out in the 4th or 5th grade that I was mixed. Until then, I thought I was Mexican. My best friend was Mexican and I had her skin color, so that was what made sense to me. When I finally told my mom that I thought I was Mexican, she knew she would have to explain my race to me. My dad wasn’t in the picture when I was growing up, so she went to find a picture of him. Once she came back, she sat me down and explained that she was White, he was Black, so when they had a baby, it came out as a mix of those two races. She told me I was half-Black and half-White.
And, I cried. I didn’t want to be Black.
At a young age, I had already understood the shame that came with being Black, but what I wasn’t quite ready for was the shame that came with being mixed.
That realization started in high school. That was when I first realized that there was a rift between “dark black girls” and “light-skinned black girls.” Being mixed meant that I was a “light-skinned black girl. I remember being told that because I was light-skinned, I was more attractive than darker girls. I was even told that I got a certain high school boyfriend because I was light-skinned. People who were darker than me assumed that I was given better treatment because my skin was whiter than theirs. Even though we were both black, I was presumed to have more privilege because of my “whiteness.”
While black girls couldn’t see past my whiteness, my extended family had the opposite problem.
They couldn’t see past my blackness.
I have aunts, uncles, and grandparents on my mother’s side of the family who are racist. Not the “let me make jokes about black stereotypes,” but the “let me treat you differently because you are black” type of racist. It took me until I was 24 (and until I found my biological dad- which is a topic for another blog post) to finally admit the depth of this truth in my life. When I was a little kid, there were racial slurs and jeers hurled my way. I was aware of being treated differently as well. Then the icing on the cake, was a few years ago my grandfather tattooed a Confederate flag across his chest. Even though we were family and I was white, I was presumed to be inferior because of my “blackness.”
This struggle of being white-ish or black-ish began to crystalize when I began applying to college. Since I was raised by my mother and with her side of the family, I didn’t get the chance to learn much about my African heritage, culture, or traditions. For that reason, I wanted to attend a historically black college or university and I wanted to join an African-American sorority. I wanted to learn about the “other” half of me. But, when I told my mother and step-father (who is black) about this, their response was,
“There is still deep racism in the south and you’re mixed. The black girls won’t think you’re black enough and the white girls won’t think you’re white enough. You won’t fit in there.”
So, I didn’t apply. I ended up going to a school in Southern California. But, every time I tried to find somewhere that I fit in, I only felt more and more out of place. My feelings of not being black enough would come rushing back, so I would talk myself out of giving the African Student Union or the African-American Sisterhood a try. My feelings of not being white enough would come rushing back, so I would talk myself out of giving predominately caucasian sororities a try.
It has taken me until this year to finally appreciate and accept the full weight of the following statement.
I. Am. Black.
Being light-skinned or white-ish will no longer shame me into being afraid to learn about my culture. Being mixed will not keep me feeling like I cannot take part in African traditions. Being bi-racial and being light-skinned does not take any of my “African” away. I am a descendant of Africa. That is something the shade of my skin cannot take away. That is something no one can take away from me.
For years I had wanted to celebrate Kwanzaa, but I never felt like I had the “right”. But, for the first time in my life, this year I will be celebrating Kwanzaa with my wife. One day, I want to be able to teach my children that regardless of the color of their skin, they have the right and the opportunity to know, to appreciate, and to understand that the shade of their skin does not change the ancestry they come from. You don’t have to be “Black enough” to celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is about celebrating the history, the journey, and the victory of our ancestors.
We all are from the same country.
Skin shade will never change that.
Harambee. All pull together.