So imagine being near 50 years old and being struck by your own racial identity in all of the complexity, beauty, and complication wrapped around that. It’s both glorious and infuriating. At least for me it is.
I’ve had a couple of things happen over the last few years that have made me consider my own racial position in the world. But before I explain that, I have to explain my own cluelessness. I was born in the 70s at the height of “colorblind” politics both personal and public. I was the first biracial baby in my white family. Prior to my arrival into this world I know my grandparents thought similarly to other white folks in the 50s, not letting my mom and her sisters play with the black kids down the block. As far as I know, they were what I might term latent racists. They didn’t actively work to harm others, just didn’t want to be around others and probably felt superior to people from different races. I know this and have always understood that as just part of the times. It doesn’t make it okay, it just explains the context. And think about the deeeeeeeeep pain of imagining your immediate family being so racist as to loathe your very existence, I can’t and fortunately didn’t have to. So this is the conclusion I’ve rested upon and probably will live my life believing. So my mom and her two sisters closest in age joined the Army. My mom, in her youthful rebellion perhaps (I don’t know, that’s how I understand it and I think she must have told me this once), “experimented” and that’s how I was conceived, through rebellion and racial experimentation by someone who was denied access to other racial groups by her parents at a time the country was starting to deal with a violent racist history. I don’t begrudge any of my immediate family for how they thought or behaved at the time.
When I came along, I think it forced my grandparents to reconcile some of their racism. For my grandma, she had already been waking up and was becoming more feminist. I can’t speak for my grandpa as he was not a regular member of my life but at one time, he loved me. So the first biracial kid integrated a family.
When my mom became pregnant with me, she was discharged from the Army and moved from the Washington DC area back home to Washington State. She didn’t know who my dad was and didn’t/doesn’t really seem all that interested in trying to figure that out. When I was old enough to realize I didn’t have a dad, I began asking questions and she told me it was this guy and gave me a picture of a handsome medium complected black Vietnam vet. And oh how I cherished that picture and day dreamed about finding him one day. I realize now that this was also her way of telling me I was black. Like, I’m pretty sure this was already mentioned and I knew I was black but I had no idea of what that meant and neither did she or my grandma, who we lived with until I was ten. So I wondered about him. A lot. I wondered if he knew I existed, why he didn’t try to find me, what the rest of my black family was like, where they lived, what they did, and as I got older, the urgency to find him grew. When I was 16, I wanted to begin finding him (mostly because I wanted child support so I could leave home cuz shit wasn’t great). That’s when my mom divulged that she didn’t know who my father was and she couldn’t be sure if it was the guy in the picture. That was kind of a full stop for me.
When my mom moved home, we lived in white areas, I went to white schools, I had white friends, and for all intents and purposes, I believed I was white. I knew I was black but had no idea what that meant other than the fact that I was very likely a descendant of slaves. I think that is just an assumption of African Americans. We didn’t come from an international visitor attending college. And even if we did, we are still read against that history. Anyways, to my mom and grandma’s credit, they did try to connect me with some of my culture. My grandma had a black friend…I’m sure you see where that is going. Anyways she had a friend with a daughter about my mom’s age who also had a daughter about my age. I remember spending time with them for many years. I went to church with them but because I was raised sans religion, that was not super comfortable with me and after a few times, I didn’t want to go anymore. The girl my age and I had a hand full of sleep overs. Anyways, my mom and grandma also bought me books, lots of books about Africa, childhood stories from around the globe, Uncle Remus, and a bit more. That was my introduction to my blackness. And in all fairness and for all the problematics, I’ve always believed they tried as best they could at that time.
So I lived in white communities, went to a hippie commune pre-school, went to almost entirely white schools, grew up around bikers (Hell’s Angels, Banditos, and others) and my friendship group as I grew was almost entirely white. When we moved from a large city to a small Nordic town when I was 10, that racial isolation grew and I thought nothing of it. Ever. Because I was sufficiently indoctrinated into the colorblind mentality. We talked a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. We watched Roots with the rest of the country (and boy did I cry when I realized the legacy of my blackness). I tried to figure out who I was and what that was about. I was never popular (not only was I black, I was poor in a wealthy community). My friends had similar economic backgrounds or were at least understanding of poverty. I truly felt like I was just me, all was fine, the world was fair, and I’d get by. And I have gotten by, to be sure.
I always told people I was black when asked. I remember in middle school another black person came into my school all my friends (and the popular kids that were awful to me) believed he and I should date. Except I was not interested in him. I was raised in whiteness and those are the boys I was attracted to but because I was black with curly hair and different, they were never interested in me (and frankly looking back, I think I could say that about a huge swath of men that I’ve dated – they were only interested in me so long as I put out.) Imagine, a clueless biracial black girl chasing after white boys who were so uninterested in her unless they got sex and then they were off to whatever else they had to do without a care in the world. Yep, so that was my reality.
So here I am, peering in the window of 50, kind of more fully realizing these things. I mean I saw some of it from time to time but quickly pushed it away because it was uncomfortable and painful and I did not know what it meant to be black for myself or in this country. So I’ve had little revelations and insights throughout my life and quickly brushed them aside. I was trying to survive, raise my kids, find my own path. My daughter forced me to start dealing with my racial identity as she asked questions and watched me like a hawk, forcing me to reflect and consider. In fact, I remember the exact moment. We ran into a mother of one of my friends at the grocery store. I was asking her how her daughter was and how the grandkids were as we were catching up. She caught me up quickly and then said her grandchild was “pregnant with a black man’s baby”, whispering that part of the sentence. My 7 or 8-year old kid looked at me, waiting for my reaction as she was trying to figure out who she was, form her racial identity (she’s white, black, and Mexican). As I saw her looking at me, I realized I couldn’t fully ignore it but also didn’t know how to deal with that moment. So I did what I knew how to do and said something like, “huh”. I believe I also tried to say something affirmative but am not sure. I was shook. As we walked away, my child was staring up at me with admiration and curiosity and I realized I had to address it with her. At that point I just said, ” Wow, that was weird. What was THAT about?” We talked about it for a minute (because in her childhood innocence, she knew that was racist or at least severely off). I said I didn’t know what to say in that moment and we brainstormed things I could have said. It was a good exercise for her and I but too late for that particular interaction. So gradually, I was beginning to explore my racial identity and what that meant. It was really the election of Trump that jolted me more fully awake. I could no longer passively engage in my racial identity.
The election of Trump…good grief! I’ve had exactly 1 overtly racist incident happen to me. When I was about 6 or 7 and the teenage neighbor boys walked by me playing in the front yard and called me n***er. Now I can only imagine how terrifying that was or could have been for my mom and grandma because they were pretty clueless but also trying to be what was woke for the 70s. However, they also fully bought into the colorblind ideals and raised me to believe in that as well. They always told me if I worked hard enough, I would/could succeed just like whites folks and I don’t really fault them for giving me false ideals; they were fresh off the glow of the civil rights movement and I think like many children of this country, I was hopeful for some sort of racial integration; more or less or at least the allure. I believe fully that is the world they wanted me to inherit but we weren’t there as a world or nation then or now. Anyways, so when Trump was elected and I know full well which of my family and friends voted for him, it became painfully clear that racism was a-okay with many of my friends and family. Racism was a-okay with many people as long as they get what they want or don’t have to feel the pain of that racism aimed at them. I mean fuck their 1 black friend, their 1 family member and her family as long as they weren’t the ones hurt by this president. That was the first hard line in the sand for me and I keep negotiating that. Of course I have the white friends and fam who voted for open racism that are adamantly explaining they are not racist and pleading that I understand their reasoning. 🤮
In the last two years I have also had my DNA tested. Which was another mind fuck. It fully confirmed I am black; a thing some of my “well meaning” white friends would always question because of the mystery surrounding my paternal lineage. And this has happened with so many friends over so many years with so many guesses and ideas about what I might be (Latina, Guamanian, Peruvian, literally anything but black – as if the guessing was a compliment, they didn’t think I was black because I was whatever they thought was “good” I guess and black was ALWAYS the lowest). Even as I was doing the DNA test (at nearly 50 years old) my best friend said, “maybe you’re not black after all.” Which stung a little and which said to me that she viewed blackness as bad or less desirable, as a deficit, as a problem so if it turned out I wasn’t black that would be cool. So yeah.
Watching all the police brutality, police murdering black people, and other white violence against black folks had similar effects on me as it had with my more woke white friends. I wasn’t as surprised as them but the sheer magnitude of the injustices did surprise me a bit. We KNOW this is not new, it is as old as when the first black people were kidnapped from their homelands and brought to this continent. I am also somewhat removed because this harassment and violence was never a part of my every day. That violence has always been, it is the very foundation of this country. It has never been fully safe to be black anywhere in this country and perhaps that is part of why I tried ignoring my own blackness for so long. And can anyone blame me? I’m lighter skinned, I don’t pass fully as white but I’m light enough that white folks feel fully comfortable around me. So I’ve heard a LOT of racist bullshit about all sorts of groups. A LOT. And in some ways, that was also done to “keep me in place” lest I get too uppity.
And there have been other moments that have caused me a small (or giant) existential crisis. When I got my DNA results, I was elated to finally 1) have confirmation that I am, indeed black and 2) that my black half is super black, over 45%. But another thing happened. My resentment toward my mom grew. Not only were my ancestors kidnapped from their homelands and subjected to inhumane and torturous treatment, the likes of which few can or want to imagine, I was also denied any access to my black family. I KNOW that this was not intentional on my mom’s part. I was born just after she turned 20, so she was still a kid herself. I get that. But because she doesn’t know who my bio-father is and swiftly left the DC area, that entire part of my heritage and identity has been blocked from me. And at almost 50 years old, it seems like an outside chance I will even know my paternal heritage beyond my DNA composition. So I felt I’d been kidnapped twice. Logically, I’m not sure that is fully rational but yet that is the actual reality. So I’m smacked with my racial identity and the inability to fully know my heritage for two reasons: slavery and my white mom’s decisions. I feel like my search is amplified because of these two things. I will know where my people came from but will likely never know aspects of how I got here. And I may never know my bio-father but I know I have people out there. It’s both really sad and infuriating.
Perhaps the second largest existential crisis I’ve had recently is that I’m planning two trips to visit friends. One trip is international and the other is in the Midwest. I live in a state that legalized marijuana. We love it. Hell, not gonna lie, I love it. Both of them asked me to bring pot stuff to them when I came to visit. The white part of me was like yeah, no problem. Just gotta figure out how to smuggle edibles. Like I seriously, was down and trying to figure out how to do that. Then a friend and I were talking about smoking pot outdoors, which in my state is illegal in public if people can see or smell and we were trying to understand if smoking outside at our homes was within the legal parameters. This caused me to look up the state laws. And of course I know that MJ is still a schedule one narcotic according to the feds (and the reason it was ever classified this way is directly linked to blackness and white supremacy). So I knew transporting across state lines was a crime but I was still considering how to get pot across state lines or into another country on a plane. What am I? Scarface? Jesus. So anyways, I looked up the laws and THEN remembered my blackness. For me my blackness was never first in my mind even though it was first for others even as they could not identify it in me. And THAT is the point when I thought, “holy shit, did my white girlfriends just ask me to transport a schedule 1 narcotic across state lines or into another country on a federally monitored airplane in Trump’s America?” Holy shit. And was I actually considering that? Holy shit. Now, I don’t drink and drive because I’m not willing to pay the consequences if I’m caught. So at first, I approached it like that but realizing my own blackness, I then perplexed about why 1) anyone would ask a friend, any friend to commit a federal felony for them and 2) why a white person would ask their black friend (maybe only black friend, idk?) to commit a federal felony for them in Trump’s America. Like how would anyone paying the slightest bit of attention think that was remotely okay. And of course that sent me into an oh shit moment. I’m the only stable parent for both of my kids, I have no monetary resources to defend a felony charge (or any charge), and because I’m black, that is assuming I survive the particular interaction with the police. Just Jesus. And I WAS CONSIDERING IT!!!! Thank god for my other friend who was like, “that doesn’t seem like a good idea.” She gave me pause and I researched and realized my own blackness.
So since Trump (I HATE typing his name) and the amplification of black people being murdered, and at near 50, I’m FINALLY coming to terms with my blackness and because of the imminent danger I could be in at any given moment, I don’t have a choice but to put that first always. Now I know some of this sounds bad and it is actually pretty awful in myriad ways. Most of the people I mention are close and long time friends of over 20 or 30 years or they are family. And I love them with every fiber of my being. For these specific people, there is little they could do to shake that love I have for them. And I’m still grappling with my own racial identity and how to navigate it. I don’t blame them for not understanding or being able to prioritize or fully see my blackness when I have not been able to myself. For me, this is a new journey and I’m at the beginning of my exploration and understanding.
I do know that for myself and my continued survival, I have to be mindful of my blackness. As a younger woman, I felt I could behave without race and have similar outcomes to my white friends. And to be sure, I have done things that might cause many other black people to lose their freedom or their lives. I didn’t get the talk growing up because my white family could not fully see the potential danger lurking and/or perhaps they hoped that by not having the talk I wouldn’t be limited by my own mind. So my own imaginings had me behaving in ways I wouldn’t even consider now that I am more fully aware.
But I gotta say that from this particular background and my own racial obliviousness it is a mind fuck being biracial. And at nearly 50 years old, I have a growing distrust for white people. Or at least apprehension. It’s basic survival.