When Color is Clear
Even in the 1990’s, segregation colored my existence. I grew up in Northern Delaware, my family moved often within the state—a nod to my parents’ dedication to giving us more space, more grass, more suburbs. At school, my Black peers expected me to live in the inner city and act within the confines of their perception of Black people. When I did neither, I continually fell victim to their ridicule as a result of falling short of their ideals. I didn’t talk or act in a way that made sense to them. I was called “white girl” as an insult far more times than I have ever been called any actual racial slur. I didn’t believe in white as an inherently bad thing to be, so I fought with the confusion of being hurt by being called a name that wasn’t actually deplorable. My classmates would watch as I stepped out from a school bus full of white suburbanites and tease “white girl!” “You act white, you sound white! You are white!”
To my white friends, I was a novelty. They, too, noticed my crossover appeal and that my suburban existence made me an outlier, and I was singled out as a safe, approachable option for a Black friend. My white friends would touch my hair and question how I cared for it, remarking: “Oh, it feels SO weird!” Never considering that maybe it was their hair that felt weird. At their houses, I was always hyper-aware of my Black face in their white world. Never missing that inkling that even my friend’s parents saw me as the Black friend.
This went on for my entire school career, even in college. I have spent my entire life as a Black person in a Black body being treated like an intruder in or, worse, an evader of my own race. Sure, I was teased about other things, too, but at the forefront of the taunts was a perpetual belief that I was betraying my ancestral truth by living in a different part of town and speaking in a manner that defied stereotypes.
At the same time, I spent my childhood like many little Black girls; my hair in cornrows or puffy twisted ponytails, my summers in the rural South eating fried foods and penny candy at my great-grandmother’s house. When school was out, as a kid and teen, I often traipsed through the depths of Baltimore City, where my extended family lived. Here, I was still in tune with the ways in which I didn’t belong, but I reveled in the anonymity of unobscured Blackness. Here, I could play with my cousins who were not only Black but also loving enough to not constantly point out my paradoxical imaginary whiteness. Here, I could walk through an urban mall surrounded by hundreds of other people of color, and as long as I didn’t give myself away by talking too much like me or dressing too much like me, I could successfully blend in. I basked in the seedy vibrancy of the big city, where I was not Black girl wanting to be white or the lone Black friend, representing an entire race, here, I was just a Black girl being.
Growing up, I had the same insecurities as other young Black girls. Mentally wrestling with media imagery of white women as the standard of princess perfection and the contrasting depiction of Black women as video vixens. Constantly wondering if I’d ever be good enough, smart enough, vixen-y enough—if that was what was expected of me? Living in the suburbs and “sounding white” never saved me from the heaviness of being Black.
When I wasn’t harboring the worries of my place as a Black girl in a white-centric but relatively diverse world, I was being mistreated by those who were supposed to protect me. My emotions perpetually dismissed. Time and again I was assaulted, bullied, groped, and preyed upon by classmates, only to have their indiscretions ignored and my subsequent reactions punished. My teachers and principals wrote me off as being an Angry Black Woman when I was barely even a teenager and years away from being a woman. Outside of school, I was treated like a criminal in stores, threatened by adults who were afraid of my Blackness, and denied basic rights by white employers. Everywhere I went, people looked me up and down when entering—assessing the worthiness of my Black lungs to breathe the same air as everyone who belonged. This happened in white spaces, Indian spaces, Asian spaces, Hispanic spaces, and, thanks to my aforementioned perceived but very nonexistent whiteness, even Black spaces.
My whole life I have been typecast. From the Black girl who wanted to be white to the out of control African-American who couldn’t hold her temper. From the token melanated friend, bearing too much of the responsibility of diversifying the birthday photos, to the confused teen trying to define her self-worth on imagery from L.L. Cool J’s Hey Lover video. I have existed in this vacuum surrounded by other people’s narratives of who I must be, solely constructed from everyone’s expectation of Black.
I have always found myself trying to reconcile my non-stereotypical existence with the realities of societal expectations. Never in my life have I been afforded the ignorance required to be oblivious to skin color. Never in my life have I had the privilege necessary to ignore and separate myself from race. Which leaves me here carrying a wealth of baggage that holds within it some useful pockets of hard-earned, trauma-packed clarity. I am Black, yes, and my Blackness is precious. It is somehow both fragile and monumental, both unearned and invaluable, delicate to the point that I would never have risked shattering it by admitting that Blackness was painful, too. I’ve skirted around it and hidden behind it and pretended to not see it, but in every town and every school, in every city and every suburb, my Blackness made sure to occupy the center of every experience.
While, today, society is much more blended in some ways, many of the refrains from my personal history continue to repeat. My newsfeed is filled with welcoming white liberal friends who believe in their commitment to anti-racism but are still unwilling to step outside of their comfort zones and make genuine efforts to unite with other races. Offline, my Black extended family is filled with a checkered history of earned and unearned prejudice against white people and an intolerance of other cultures and ideologies. Among many white people, in particular, there is a collection of “I’m not racist” + “We don’t see color” + “I try not to get political” bricks that are used to build a wall that blocks one from seeing exactly where their prejudice lies—and who it hurts.
We may think we are presenting an inclusive and colorful world to our children, who we are unable to picture holding onto the same misguided beliefs we grew up with. There’s no way my son would have collected the mental data necessary to believe all Black people must talk the same way, live in the city, listen to rap music, and play basketball. There is a way. Perhaps you’ve bought just one or two books that feature brown kids. It’s not possible that my daughter’s only experiences with people of color have come from those two books, surely we must know some people of color! Do you? If you are Black, perhaps you are more focused on the immediate matters of dealing with the impact of racism and you haven’t devoted much time to helping your children eliminate the cultural biases that creep up. My kids would never say to another, “you can’t play with us, you’re white!” They might. Or maybe your family is biracial or multiracial and you feel like trying to balance your identities and representation in-house is enough. It isn’t.
I know internal dialogues and good intentions are not enough because, like so many, I’ve spent all of my 35 years on the wrong end of America’s racial and cultural climate. Not only was I the token Black friend at birthday parties back in the 90s, but now, in 2017, my family is often the sole source of melanin in the group party photo. I always notice, every time; I’m confident my kids notice, too.
I know hiding your prejudice behind your ignorance isn’t enough. Because I have been the mom scrambling to provide my four-year-old with a somewhat intelligent, unproblematic answer when he went through a phase of questioning bindis (and fashioning his own replicas out of modeling clay). Ignoring things I don’t understand can’t be an option given that I am guiding the next generation.
I know that claiming to love and accept all people but neglecting to forge real, compassionate relationships with a diverse group of friends is damaging. Because I have white friends that still treat my children like they are puppies, trying to pet my sons’ hair like it’s ornamental, there for the enjoyment of white people.
Above all, I know that social construct theories aside, it is not enough to pretend race isn’t a factor, cultural appropriation is not an issue, and our differences are irrelevant. Because as a collective, America is still raising unenlightened, intolerant youth. We are still raising children who bully each other to the point that victims turning to self-harm and chastise others because of innate biological differences. We are still raising kids who will grow up to be teens who commit horrific hate crimes, who grow up to be adults who use positions of power to oppress people of color. You may shake your head in disbelief, No way that could be me, no way my child will become one of those people she’s talking about! But, really, what are you doing to stop it?
Having one Black friend won’t stop hate from brewing. Your children may never see the dollars you donate to underprivileged people of color, this invisible exchange of money won’t halt the allure of bigotry. Sharing Facebook posts that emphatically proclaim Black Lives Matter won’t actually teach your children, who live in your house and not in the bowels of your social media accounts, that Black Lives Matter.
It is insufficient to only tell your children that racism and racists are bad. It is insufficient to simply explain “we love people of all colors.” It is lazy and near damaging to proclaim a love for all people but never make the leap of actually reaching out to people of color or adding tangible diversity to your life. In a world filled with empty rhetoric, our children don’t need to hear words from us without action. They need to see us embody the beliefs we claim to hold dear. We all know American history is rooted in racism and segregation, but are we aware of the ways we, possibly subconsciously, perpetuate that truth today, and then teach it to our children?
My understanding of the necessity of dynamic representation has had to evolve because I don’t want my sons to look back at their lives and say: My whole life I have been typecast. My whole life I have been Black first, and a talented, complex human last. My whole life I have been the token melanated friend, bearing too much of the responsibility of adding diversity to the birthday photos or the confused teen trying to define myself by the imagery of rappers made famous by way of YouTube. Because of an abundance of color-blind parents who, at the turn of the millennium, though it more beneficial to proclaim tolerance and openness than to actually teach their children to value inclusivity and acceptance, I have existed in this vacuum. Stifled by other people’s narratives of who I must be—solely constructed from everyone’s expectation of Black.
In thirty years, the narratives of my sons will be different from mine, better than mine. I know this because I am humbling myself with honesty and checking my notions and my biases. I am reflecting on my missteps and reconciling with my prejudice. I am begging myself for the forgiveness I am owed after more than three decades of never once digging deep into the understanding of my Blackness and how it has colored not only my skin but the essence of my existence for all of my days. In thirty years, the narratives of my sons will be different from mine. Because today I am telling my truth and standing in a pool of my trauma, making myself uncomfortable and, hopefully, making you uncomfortable too. Today, I am making it known that when color is clear when race and inequity are not ignored, and when our differences are not only acknowledged but championed as one of the most valuable aspects of life, we can work together to make meaningful strides toward true social justice.