Since doing my DNA I’ve been considering what I’ve learned about myself that I didn’t already think I knew, if and how my identity has changed, and what that means about how I choose to live my life. I’m not sure I have fully developed answers to any of that. I didn’t really learn anything new about my heritage. I’ve always known that I was a biracial Black girl, so that was confirmed. And in the end, it doesn’t really change how I live my life. I guess doing my DNA added clarity for me.
I think about my ancestors often – what they went through and survived for me to be sitting here today. What they experienced, the trials they faced. For me, as a biracial Black woman, it is a strange space to sit as I’ve ever only known one half of my family and have little to go on for my other half. I see both sides as hearty people who endured many struggles to survive harsh conditions. Now, of course those conditions are nowhere near equal. For the most part, when I think of my ancestors, they are people I know or were known to me through family story, tradition, living memories of my mom, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, and cousins. Stories passed down through generations. And ALL of these stories are white stories. Every single last one. The ONLY story I have of my Black ancestry is my people were slaves, experienced every horror that was slavery, survived all of that to survive mass lynchings, Jim Crow, the struggle for civil rights, and so much more.
Knowing my DNA confirmed my Black story to me. But it did not give me relatives. Nor did it give me a family. Even if I find my people, that doesn’t mean we are family. We may be related by DNA but we are not related in the same way I am with my white people because I do not have the stories, I do not have the first-hand accounts of family memory passed down from generation to generation through people I knew and physically held space with. And even if I learn of my people, there is no guarantee that I will have that. I may be able to begin fostering that for my kids to continue to nurture how they choose and I will play my small part in our family tree, our family story.
To me, family and relatives are much much more than what DNA we share. I get that certain horrors evoke a visceral response, so strong that sometimes it’s like we can place ourselves in that moment in history and feel what the people actually living then felt. I’m a huge empath and super sensitive to people and their vibe. But, and I remind myself of this often, we can never actually feel what anyone else feels whether sitting with them in real life or sitting with their ghost in the past. It’s important to empathize and I want us all to do more of that but no matter the deep pain I feel or have felt when I read about, watch film renderings of, or imagine the horrors of slavery, being torn from my family or having my children torn from me, being gone over like cattle for sale, dealing with the indignities of Jim Crow, the anxiety or fear of police violence, I will never fully know or understand how living in those times, in these moments really felt. It is a mental exercise but it is not reality or truth. I may feel the deep pain, understand that I would be fearful and feel true terror, I still can never know even as I walk around in this skin, with this hair, and am clearly a person of color.
White people being able to identify their ancestors so clearly is a measure of privilege I will never have and can not earn. That they can attach themselves to any racial categorization they choose because they share DNA with people is not a level of privilege I will ever have or earn; it’s also a privilege that has been violently stripped from one half of my people.
White people can claim they are a melting pot in ways people of color cannot. By claiming they don’t identify as white, they are everything an also nothing, and are elevating themselves as just that, the melting pot and that melting pot is white. That is saying that through interracial relationships, we’re all going to be white people through time. There are plenty of examples of families breeding (not quite the right word) the races of color out of them. White is then viewed as neutral, as the height of racial evolution, if that kind of thing actually existed. It is another form of white supremacy, perhaps more virulent than the overt ways in which white supremacy plays out because it is insidious and people can claim they still like Black people or have Black ancestry without getting close to or understanding the struggle that Black culture was born from.
Again, DNA does not make a person whatever race they find in their DNA. Genealogy doesn’t make a person something, someone different than who they are. For example, I’m related to John and John Quincy Adams. That does not make me a Daughter of the American Revolution because I’m related to the Adams’. It’s a neat little piece of genealogical trivia, not who I am. I also have one Native ancestor, I am not Native. To pretend I was either of these things would be the pinnacle of disrespect, would be the worst form of violence, epistemological violence. I simply have no other way to describe that. It would be me thieving their stories to make myself something I am not. Taking stories that are not mine to take and using them for my own gain or my own comfort. Doing so does not hold me accountable for doing the work to understand, to continue the fight for equity, to participate in the struggle. I can sit in my comfortable little life and ignore the realities of the lived experiences of people I share DNA with.
We live in an era where people “try on” other cultures. As a biracial Black woman who appears to be mixed, I am constantly negotiating the line of being true to who I am, not thieving from Black culture, learning from those aspects of the culture that speak to me, talking with other Black people, and trying to figure out which parts of Black culture belong to me – if that sort of thing can belong to any one person. Yet, much will forever be out of my reach because it wasn’t Black culture that raised me, that gave me my foundation.
I learn the history of my people, open my eyes, and speak up when I recognize racism and anti-Blackness, pay extra special attention to the media I consume, and I work really hard to see because I was not raised to interact with the world as a Black person. My upbringing was pretty similar to that of my white peers in terms of messages within my community and we were raised to believe this was a colorblind world. We were lied to but that is another blog post swimming in my head. These are the things I do to hug my Blackness and hold it close. I don’t know this side of my DNA relatives. All I can do is conjure a series of painful images, drawing from history, and work to honor everything my people went through so that I can be here today.
Yes, I am made up of many things. But the reality is that I am a biracial Black woman. Full stop. I have this skin and this hair that I navigate the world in. People see me as not white even while I am racially ambiguous. My experience in the world and my Black ancestors’ experience in the world, regardless of all the various components that went into making them, their skin and hair tell the world they are people of color, they are Black. That is how they experience the world. And I recognize that while I am Black, my experience in the world is vastly different than theirs because I am racially ambiguous and light skinned. When these folks talk, I listen because I literally have no business interjecting about an experience I know nothing about other than through what I have read, watched, or otherwise learned. I work instead to amplify their voices because I have some privilege they may not.
Since I was raised in whiteness and inhabit a light skinned ambiguous Black body, white people feel all sorts of comfortable saying things to me, telling me things about myself, or behaving in ways they would never say or do to or around a darker skinned Black person. It’s been that way my ENTIRE life. Part of my Blackness and me owning ME is to be, to become, the Black person white people see as dangerous. That they are no longer comfortable enough to say the things they say to me in the ways they say the things or behave in the ways they behave. I am rolling hard for my Blackness and the Blackness of my people. I am no longer standing for what kills me or kills my Blackness or kills my people. I am no longer turning a blind eye because my eyes have been opened and I cannot see things the ways I once did or unsee what I see now.
The conclusion I’ve come to about who I am is based on near 50 years of data and lived experience. I like some of the whitest stuff: foods, music, television. I’ve believed some of the whitest shit, shit people now say to me from time to time. AND some of my very favorite music, television, and foods have always been Black. Of course these things are not the culture. However, through consumption, seeds of knowledge were planted, challenging me to learn more. I’ve concluded that I’m a biracial Black woman, raised in whiteness and I’ve always been sorting out what that means. It’s been a prevalent thought since I saw Roots at 7 years old, trying to figure out who I was, what I was about, and what my Blackness meant to me. I am a hybrid, a chameleon in some respects. I have always had multicultural friend groups, even if made up of few Black people because I was often the only one in my schools or neighborhoods. So I sought racial safety and security in other ways. Just now, I am not willing to let my Blackness lay dormant and hidden under ambiguity. I’m not willing to let others define that for me. I’m Black and I’m proud. I’ve always been proud, I am just filling in the context as best I can and am committed to this work for myself.
I say all of this, with so much more swirling around my head and wondering why in Black History Month, I’m puzzling over this and kind of wishing I wasn’t. If not for comments from white people white peopling on my Facebook page, I probably would not be reflecting and thinking about this. On one hand, I’m thankful for those white people doing what white people do when made uncomfortable because I’ve been really puzzling over what my Blackness means to me without having a real baseline or my Black family raising me up. I’ve needed to do this work. I’m just salty about white people forcing me to do this work at this particular time. Some things need a response in the moment because I’m no longer letting that shit stand. So, I guess I’m cranky about the way this reflection and work came about while also being thankful it pushed me to do this work for myself. This mode of white peopling has always flown over my head, I’ve never known how to respond in the moment, and I’ve too often been unable to call these shenanigans out in the last. I guess I am also thankful for this invitation to grow because I’m not letting that shit slide anymore and I’m becoming better at spotting and addressing it with each new challenge.