I am a woman of mixed ethnic heritage living in a predominantly white area of Northern California. Though most of my neighbors and friends are white, I consider myself lucky to live in a generally open-minded, tolerant area. But the word “tolerant” gives me pause. To be tolerant is to “show willingness to allow [emphasis mine] the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” When someone is tolerant, they are not fully open-minded. To be open-minded is to be “willing to consider [emphasis mine] new ideas; unprejudiced.” I do not think that I live in a generally prejudiced area, but as a woman of color I have seen and experienced the underbelly of racial prejudice in Sonoma County that many people do not think exists or do not wish to see. I am thankful that I do not live in an area where racial prejudice is the norm, but me being thankful is evidence that such narrow-mindedness still exists.
I have felt compelled to write about my experience as a half-black, half-white woman because of the nature of A Wild, Free Life; as a place to be open and honest about my life. But also because of recent outside factors. Beyonce’s video for her song “Formation.” Watching a documentary about Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Reading an article from my local newspaper a few weeks ago that detailed the injustices a student at a nearby high school endured because of his mixed heritage. This young man transferred to a different high school because he felt threatened by students at his school. This happened in an affluent, “liberal” town, where people were shocked to hear about this student’s treatment. I, sadly, was not. Because some of his story hit a tender spot within me, conjuring memories that I always try to transcend.
I was not attacked in high school to the degree this young man was, but I experienced many blows to my then-fragile sense of self. Growing up in an area where hardly anyone looks like me, I often felt like an outsider, a feeling which was magnified in high school. I always felt different, but it wasn’t until high school that this difference was really brought to the forefront. These are not memories I like to remember, but this young man’s story and then the questions from one of my friends whom I work with made me recall what I have often struggled to forget.
At work the other day my friend and I were talking about the power of Beyonce’s latest video and the SNL skit that followed: “The Day Beyonce Turned Black.” (If you haven’t seen either, I highly recommend watching both.) My friend, a white woman, asked if I had ever experienced racism growing up here in Sonoma County. She said she had never really thought of me “as a black woman,” but the discussion surrounding Beyonce had caused her to consider this aspect of me more than she had before. “What was your experience like? I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but I was wondering if you encountered racism growing up out here.”
I appreciated her candor; while I sometimes feel like I am inadvertently asked to don a “teacher” kind of a role for white people around me, being one of the few people of color they know, I felt that my friend was coming from a place of not just curiosity but also of empathy. We cannot expect people to walk a mile in our shoes if they have no idea what that might mean. So I was swiftly pulled back down painful, jagged memory lane, of which I felt it important to discuss despite the discomfort it gave me.
I cannot “forget” what has happened to me, but in order to live I try to leave the past in the past, rather than dwell on it. I used to be mired down in it, the murkiness of trying to make sense of intolerance or ignorance, but who and what does that serve? I found myself so angry or so sad all of the time, and I actually have my boyfriend, whom is white, to partially thank for getting me out of it. “You have to leave that behind you,” he has said. I would always get angry at him for saying this or something similar, telling him he will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, but he was and is merely trying to help me focus on the positive. There’s no point in getting angry and doing nothing. Funnel that anger into something positive.
In high school I did not have an outlet, a way to funnel my anger into something positive. I tried to speak up and out when I felt something was wrong, but my audience was not a receptive one. I would hear the word “nigger” thrown around at parties, and when I spoke up, I would often hear, “Oh, I don’t mean you.” Like that was supposed to placate me, like I was supposed to take it as a compliment. Oh, because I am a lighter-skinned woman I am not a nigger? Thank you!
I was at a party once where a boy was wielding around a small baseball bat. He told his friends it was his “nigger bat.” When I called him out, he couldn’t seem to understand how this was not only offensive; it was degrading to me, to people of color, to human beings. Boys at school tried to tell me that I shouldn’t be so offended, that “nigger” is just a word. That if I called the guy with Irish heritage a “mick” he wouldn’t mind. Because I spoke up and was offended by the word, the boys thought it would be funny to call me “Niggerella.” If I were to go through my high school yearbooks I would be able to find a scribbled-over (by me) portion of a back page where one of these older boys inscribed it with this name. Why did I have him sign my yearbook, you might be thinking? Because the messed up thing about high school is that all you want is for people to like you. Even people that are ignorant to the point of hurting you.
Back then I took what these fools said to heart, I took it personally. Because they were the majority, because I wanted them to like me, because I felt different and weird and alone. I was crestfallen because I had had no idea that this kind of bullshit existed in a town like mine, where people talk about crystal therapy and self-care. Because I considered myself a person, not a skin color. Now I know that what people say doesn’t have to break me. I can and should speak up, but if they don’t understand or don’t want to try to understand where I’m coming from, they are so not worth my time or my breath. But I am also strangely grateful that I heard and experienced the verbal slings and arrows. Because it made me think about myself as a black woman, and what that meant, and how I was proud and that I should be proud.
When people say, “I don’t see color,” they are saying that they don’t see me. They don’t see my history or my experience; they negate the reality of race as a societal construct that has tainted the fabric of everyday life. America itself was built on slave labor. Racism is ingrained into the structure of our society. So how can you not see color? Why would it be bad to see it? Because it makes you uncomfortable?
I used to parrot back how a girl in high school described me — “You’re the whitest black girl I’ve ever met” — when people said they didn’t think of me as black (whatever the hell that means). I am ashamed to say that I was proud to hear this, that I was happy my skin was lighter, that people thought I was Polynesian or Brazilian. But I know that I felt that way because I was young and confused in an environment that didn’t understand, negated, ignored, or dismissed black culture. And on top of that I had no idea who I was.
As everyone knows, it gets better after high school. Everything does. You don’t have to see small-minded people every day if you don’t want to. You start figuring out who you are away from the herd. After high school I truly began to embrace my appearance, my history, my skin, not only because there’s no changing it (thank God), but because I could see the beauty, courage, and creativity of women whom looked similar to me. I just had to look further than my general vicinity. I figured out that I am more than the color of my skin, but also that the color of my skin is an important part of my identity. Not as a way to be categorized, but as a way to assert agency, to embrace creativity, to honor my past. And I could see that no one ever did anything great pitying themselves or wishing they looked different. Looking like a white girl wasn’t going to happen, and it wasn’t going to enrich my life, either.
Though I am now twenty-nine and usually love what I see in the mirror, though I never wish I was a white girl anymore, though I am a proud African American, Sicilian, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian (and who knows what else) woman, watching A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary about Misty Copeland’s triumphant rise, made me realize all over again what a painful privilege it is to be a black woman in America. I felt this pride mixed with trepidation when I watched “Formation,” Beyonce’s video that damn near broke the internet, and read about the uproar it caused. We women of color are human beings like anyone else, but we are also judged by our appearance. This judgement, the inherent racism of living in America, can ruin our sense of self or it can strengthen it. It can light a fire beneath us or extinguish the fire within us. It is our choice how we use the intolerance that, no matter what we want to believe, still exists. We have come a long way as a society, but that doesn’t mean that the work is done. We still have a long way to go.
I wish that I had a succinct, powerful way to end my thoughts for today, but I don’t know if I ever will. There is still so much I want to say, but it is as if I lack the words to express how I truly feel. Being a half-black, half-white woman is something I sometimes forget, because I don’t spend every day thinking about my ethnicity. Being a half-black, half-white woman is something I sometimes think about all the time, because I am in an “interracial” relationship, because I live in a mostly white area, because people say things they mean or don’t mean but either way are hurtful. Being a half-black, half-white woman is a part of who I am. It both defines me and doesn’t define me. I don’t have a “teaching moment” for you. But I am here.
I wish you a wild, free life.