I think I have struggled with my identity for as long as I can remember. A biracial child born into and raised in a white family, in white communities, and attending white schools. I was often the one black kid in my classes. I was definitely the only one in the two parts of my extended family for most of my life. I am also ambiguous – my skin is olive-ish, my hair is curly when I don’t flat-iron it, my black hair bleaches out with blonde highlights from the sun, my facial features are nondescript, they are the features of my mother and grandmother.
My mom and grandma tried to get me in touch with African American culture as best they could. And it was never that I rejected this half of myself, it was more like I didn’t want to see it and didn’t want others to see it. I grew up at the height of a rhetoric of colorblind politics. So we weren’t supposed to see color, except we did. I have had my fair share of racist comments hurled in my direction from a young age and often blew them off – be the bigger person, ignore the ignorant people, don’t engage. I just wanted to blend in and not stick out. And this feeling grew more intense as I moved through adolescence, puberty, and young adulthood. At age 10 we moved from what I felt was the multicultural mecca (it wasn’t but I was 10, that was my perception at the time) of Spokane, WA to the largely Scandinavian town of Anacortes, WA where my peers were blonde haired, blue-eyed, and white.
I remember my first realization that I was black. I was 7 and we were at one of my mom’s friend’s houses watching the airing of Roots. I don’t remember which scene it was, perhaps when Kunte Kinte is whipped or any other horrific and violent scene. I cried uncontrollably until my mom held me and I said, “I don’t want to be a slave!” I was horrified that this was a part of my history, a history that ancestors I did not know had survived so that I could be there in that moment to witness this groundbreaking mini-series.
Probably around that same year that I saw Roots and began realizing my own blackness, my teenage neighbor boys called me nigger while on their way home from school as I played with barbies in the front yard. I had no idea what that word meant or the history they were placing me within. I asked my mom and grandma about this and what it meant. They were both enraged and told me that a family friend’s teenage daughter would clap back with “That’s the way God made me and I’m proud of it” when she was called that word. So the next time the teenage boys called me nigger, that is exactly what I said. To which, their mouths gaped open and they never called me another name again. We weren’t religious (I can literally use all 10 fingers to count how many times in my life I’ve been to church services and still have fingers left over.)
I can hardly blame my mom or grandma about not knowing how to more robustly deal with these two moments. They did the best they could. When my mom and her sisters were growing up, they were forbade from playing with the poor black kids in their neighborhood. That, too, was a long racial project of which they were players. Because of this multicultural repression, my mom and two of her sisters joined the Army (they were WACs – Women’s Army Corps) and set out on their own independence. I was the first biracial child (black/white) in the family, two biracial (Mexican/white) cousins closely followed. Maybe we cousins were acts of rebellion against this repression but into the world we came and our family dynamic changed.
Growing up my black contacts included some family friends and their children, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and other television shows. However, as I got older and we moved from my little multicultural mecca, the contacts and touch points became fewer. For many years Jesse and Angie on All My Children were a few of the black people on TV I saw. So now engulfed in a sea of white, I only really wanted to fit in, go unnoticed, and not be recognized for my blackness. I was different than my classmates but I didn’t feel different. I had the crushes on the same boys, liked the same music, and was interested in the same things as my peers. We caught the bus to rollerskating on Friday nights and hoped to get our first boyfriends. Sounds corny now but that was a primary focus of our pre-teen angst.
In middle school another black kid came to school. I can’t remember his name but I remember all my friends and kids I wasn’t friends with assuming he and I would or should partner up. I didn’t think he was cute and never spoke to him – I either avoided him or we just never had the opportunity. I was too busy trying to fit in and survive a fairly unpleasant middle school existence (as, in hindsight, I’m sure he was as well) and a challenging home life. I just wanted to be unnoticed. Then one of my middle school science teachers asked for a strand of my curly hair and one from another student in class to put under the microscope projection. I don’t remember the reasoning only that I was mortified to be singled out. Part of my racial ambiguity meant that people in my white little enclave didn’t know what to make of me. They didn’t know if I was black, many thought I was Mexican or Puerto Rican. I’ve heard so many different guessing about what my ethnicity was (at the time called nationality – American, duh) and when I was a kid I never really knew how to address the question, “what are you?” It wasn’t something often talked about in my home and some previous experiences left me apprehensive at explaining.
I didn’t ever spend much time thinking about my racial identity, what it meant, or where I located myself in history beyond the one side of my familial history to which I had access. I often felt more comfortable in hick dive bars than in multicultural settings. My friends were often an eclectic group of misfits, the majority white until college when I hung out with a multi-racial group of characters. Throughout my life I often heard the backhanded compliments – how I didn’t seem black, I wasn’t like others, I didn’t look, I didn’t act, I wasn’t really…you name it. I was accustomed to it and never really paid it any mind, although it stung a little bit. I felt further removed from some part of myself, disconnected, disembodied, and dispossessed.
I guess I always felt people were people and that most people were basically good. I operated from that basic premise and I rarely considered my own racial heritage. I just went through life just being me.
Sometime over the last 15 years, I have started waking up gradually. Partly because of my daughter who is part Mexican and was very proud of that until she heard racist jokes involving Mexicans in 2nd grade. Partly because of my son who lacked the knowledge to identify white nationalist propaganda in his mid-teens. There were two incidents that jarred me awake: The first was my son having a neo-Nazi background on his MySpace page. I was shocked, nauseous, and intensely worried about him and his safety, who he was running with, if he was being lured into something, and realized I had done little to prepare him for how to identify these things. The second was one day at the grocery store and running into the mother of a friend of mine. My daughter was with me. I asked my friend’s mother how her daughter and granddaughters were. She caught me up and whispered that one of her granddaughters was pregnant with a black man’s baby. I didn’t know what to say and my daughter who was probably around 8 years old or so was gazing up at me the whole time. As we walked away she continued to gaze up at me with curiosity and confusion. All I could tell her was, “what was that about? I didn’t know what to say or how to react.” We spent a little bit of time talking about it and thinking about what I could have said instead of standing there shocked and speechless.
Anyways, I struggled. I have always hung out with white people in white spaces, dated white guys (or at least biracial guys), I think white, I act white, and I’ve had some of the same racist thoughts and behaviors as many of my white friends. I’ve had multicultural groups of friends. And I’ve always felt safe and comfortable in most spaces and been mildly careful in others. It’s all a part of the white supremacist project. So as I began waking up, so to speak, I started learning – reading, talking with others, exploring. My knowledge base has grown significantly, I was coming from behind. I didn’t know my people. I still don’t know my people, to be honest but it isn’t quite what one reading this might expect. I always thought my people were my white friends. They were my extended family at times. These were people that I grew up with in some way – whether from childhood or in my young adulthood. We leaned on each other and confided in each other.
Something in this latest election snapped inside me. Some of the people who I thought were people I could trust, turned out to be people I can no longer trust. Where I used to walk through the world and the many spaces in which I live/work/play/exist, I now have a lot of suspicion around white folks I don’t know and some that I do. Through my reading and listening to my friends who are people of color, I am learning this is how they have experienced the world all of their lives – every. single. day. all. day. long. And I am exhausted from this short little time that I am walking around, existing, in hostile territory. I never used to see it. Even when it smacked me in the face, I thought of it like some fluke, and oddity, a rare occurrence of racism not the actual way things are all the time. In that way, it was so easy for me to explain away the stories some people told me or I would hear as being some anomaly not the normal state of affairs.
I still don’t know what my identity is. I am a biracial academic woman who is a single mother of two amazing kids who have opened my eyes and opened me up to the world in ways I could never have imagined. That is my identity. I thought I knew what it meant to be white – I likely know this better than most white people do. I still don’t know what it means to be black – I likely never will to some extent. I will never know what it means to be black because of where and how I was raised, who raised me (not meant to be a diss of any kind, just a fact), and the fact that I am racially ambiguous – I can pass in many ways and only recently (in the last 15 years or so) started not allowing myself to pass. I never really questioned this passing before. I wanted to blend in, avoid trouble, and not be singled out so I tried to be a chameleon. It worked for a long time until I had to answer to my kids and realized I have a responsibility to the various communities of which I am a member.
I’m still puzzling over my identity, my growing discomfort in predominantly white spaces with the rising white supremacy and white terrorism, and who my true white allies are because they aren’t who I thought they were.