Before I Was Black: A Very Abridged Account of Departure from a Post-Racial to a Racial Identity.
I am the child of a dark-skinned Black father and a fair-skinned Irish/English mother, born into the Golden Age of post-racial America, the mid-eighties. This era marked significant prosperity in America, along with being 15 years removed from the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, it could easily believed that American culture had truly transcended our racist past.
Their interracial marriage, although not unheard of, was still (and is still) relatively uncommon, and when raising two (later three) biracial children, you kind of have to believe you are entering a post-racial Great Turning. This was also the late cold war era, with the threat of nuclear war looming over head. With that kind of stress, I can only imagine a certain level of cognitive dissonance was necessary for survival.
My parents did their best to instill that I could do, be, and accomplish anything, regardless of my race or gender identity. When you say this to a 4-year-old, their priority is to grow up to become Ariel in The Little Mermaid. My first encounter with my race came from the realization that I could not grow up to be White, with luxurious red hair and a fish tail. I recall telling my mom I wanted to be White, and she kindly told me that people spend lots of time and money tanning to become my color.
My parents consistently instilled that everyone was equal, with Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” blaring in the background, and just like most lessons learned from my parents at that age, I said, “okay,” and went about my 4-year-old business. Over time, the reinforcement of the message “everyone is equal,” led me to internalize the belief that all people were born with a blank slate, had equal access to opportunity, and had equal advantages and disadvantages, regardless of race.
Enter elementary school. My parents mindfully moved to the diverse 98118 neighborhood in Seattle because they wanted to raise their kids around a wide variety of ethnicities and cultures. It was around third grade that I started to get bullied for the first time, mostly by Black girls who ragged on my inability to play double-dutch (which, I maintain is a form of wizardry), not having the fashionable hair accessories, and for being “too smart,” (likely provoked by my incessant verbatim recital of Roald Dahl’s Matilda).
If all people are equal, why did a disproportionate percentage of Black girls bully me? My third grade level deductive reasoning concluded that Black girls must be choosing to be jerks, because we all had the same choices. I had literally no concept of the disproportionate inequities impacting Black families: the higher instances of incarceration, single moms, and poverty.
To me, the children of these families were just jerks, not victims of institutionalized racism. To them, I was an oddity, a freak, a weirdo, and a teacher’s pet. I didn’t know the difference between Warren G and Kenny G. I didn’t have a Nike binder. I didn’t have one of those mini draw string backpacks that I will never understand. They made it clear that I didn’t fit with them: I was not Black enough. I instinctively began to avoid Black girls, even to the point of preemptive strike, assuming and Black girl that talked to me was trying to trick me. One of the interactions that irritated me was the constant question, “are you mixed?” I always had a hard time with this question, convinced I could never give the “right” answer. If I said yes, that would confirm my differentness and perpetuate my exile. If I said no, it would be a lie, and would lead to more questions. For years, I’d reply with, “I’m just me.”
I spent elementary, middle, and high school in the company of White nerdy boys and girls, who reflected my middle class privilege, love of geek culture, and unconscious belief in a post-racial America. I felt I had found my people: these people saw beyond my race and truly accepted me for me. We rarely talked about race, as I pleasantly ignored the fact that I was usually the only person of color in our circle.
Even in high school, I maintained the unconscious belief that Black people just chose to be jerks, bullies, and bad students. I had embodied all of our cultural stereotypes about Black people. I had spent so many years shying away from Black people that I hardly knew any intimately, and at an age where I had the capacity for empathy, I had prevented access to their experiences. I was irrevocably “other” to Black people, with the rare exception of the handful of Black people in my AP classes, cross-country team, and Japanese class. Even among them, the subject of our race was never explicitly addressed.
I did a really good job of ignoring my Blackness well into my twenties. In my late teens, I began playing bass in the predominantly white and male arena of heavy metal. I went to fashion design school where I was the only Black student. I worked at Hot Topic, where I remember a customer trying her best not to describe me as “the Black one.” I dated a succession of White men, all of which I was their first Black girlfriend. I sincerely don’t know if I could have traversed those arenas so brazenly if I had fully conceptualized my Blackness. It was the epitome of blissful ignorance.
It wasn’t until my second round of college that I began to fully explore my racial identity. We had mandatory social justice classes at my university that called for a deep exploration of the oppressive systems still impacting our nation. This was just after the death of Trayvon Martin, and before the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and the dozens of innocent Black people who have died because of institutionalize racism since. I learned in explicit detail the plight of the Black Panther Party, the story of Malcom X, and had to confront the reality that America has never been post-racial, and that belief itself is extremely problematic.
I began to explore my deeply internalized racism, and began to confront for the first time my lifetime of self-isolating from the Black community, forging an even bigger rift in the color line, subconsciously siding with White supremacy, contributing to colorism, and completely disregarding my light-skinned privilege and middle-class privilege.
I also began to understand that I had effectively amputated half of my identity by refusing to identify as Black. I had rejected my natural hair texture, denied myself the pleasure of listening to Black musicians, and prevented the formation of friendships with truly dynamic, talented, and resilient individuals. It breaks my heart to reflect back on how effective I was at denying my Blackness, how many people I hurt, and how I mindlessly contributed to White supremacy, and how much culture I deprived myself of.
As I began to put these pieces together, I was overcome with a flood of realizations of the thousands of racial microaggressions I had been able to overlook my whole life. Even though I didn’t see myself as Black, the rest of the world did. Not mixed. Not biracial. BLACK. I recall all the times I smiled through Black jokes and N-words spoken by “friends,” who behavior I was more than happy to excuse. I examined in more detail the complex experience of dating White men, and all the times I suppressed my legit anger out of fear of being an angry black woman, all the times I’ve been followed around in higher end stores, and all the times I was the one and only POC in the majority of the rooms I had been in.
Seeing the truth of institutionalized racism in America is like opening Pandora’s Box. The flood never ends, and you can never go back to before, nor would I ever. Embracing my identity as a Black woman has been a journey of pain, joy, sorrow, embarrassment, and empowerment. We are impossibly far from a post-racial America, and the more work I do on my own racial identity, the more I am convinced that post-racial is not a goal to aspire to. My own racial identity is not a destination, but a journey. Every day I learn more about what it means to be a Black woman in America, and what I can do with the experiences, perspectives, resilience, melanin, and kinky hair life gave me.