Hold Fast to Blackness

Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, Nederland

This is not another essay about how hard it is to be light skinned in a dark man’s world. Why? Because the suggestion that this is a dark man’s world is ridiculous. Unless you’ve had your head up your butt, we quite clearly do not live in a version of the universe where overall it is better to be dark. The reality is that 2Pac was speaking in opposition to mainstream logic when he rapped, “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I say the darker the flesh, the deeper the roots.”

I’m sure there are many light skinned people including those with bi- and multiracial/ethnic families who would complain that 2Pac spoke words of erasure. But to make this complaint is to not acknowledge, plainly, that in fact he is speaking against erasure. To be light skinned, in reality, is to have a choice about what role we play in this process, for or against, constructive or destructive.

I have a Black Caribbean momma and a white Jewish father. My mom’s family hails from Barbados, vaguely of “West African Origin.” We don’t really know where or if maybe we come from somewhere else because identity and language are one of the many things European slave traders and slave owners stole from kidnapped Africans and their descendents. My dad’s family was chased out of the Ukraine and Russia by anti-Jewish pogroms and were Yiddish speaking until it became clear that looking like them and being English speaking was better.

When I was born, my parents were scared to introduce me to my dad’s maternal grandfather. It wasn’t clear whether he would accept a “nigger baby.” This is the first story I know of that clearly delineates the difference between my white father and me. My white father lives in the tent of whiteness: he is accepted as white and is treated as such on the street, in airports, by the police, by shop clerks, by everyone who speaks to and everyone who sees him. My dad lives in a version of the world where who he is is the default and where no one ever had to ask whether he would be excluded by members of his family simply because of his skin color.

It is true that my father has a different experience with the tent of whiteness than his father did in his early years. Born in 1917 in Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn, my Grandpa Norman would have been a dirty Jew to many white non-Jews. But when he died in 1988 Los Angeles, my Grandpa was white with the rest of them. The tent of whiteness expands as people sufficiently European-looking become broadly accepted as, “not-Black, not heading toward Black or any of the other darker kinds.” This expansion is predicated somewhat on the fundamental belief that the darker people are, the more dangerous, deficient and less human they are.

I am dark enough to not live within the tent of whiteness, but I am light enough that many people experience significant confusion when trying to class what level of “not-white, maybe heading toward-Black, deficient” I am. Depending on the year and location, I am a “dirty Arab/Muslim,” a fellow Latina, a Mulatto, a Mizrahi Jew, a half-white person who suspiciously may not be down with Black folks.

I mind the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia because they are racist and Islamophobic. I also mind being called a Mulatto because it’s an outdated term that refers to people who were usually the products of rape. (Can someone tell almost everyone I met in Ontario, Canada please?) I don’t mind that Latin@s often see me as one of them, usually for the purpose of giving directions in Spanish on the street or when I’m at home in the Mexican American neighborhood I grew up in. Recently someone sent me a really racist email where he suggested I was actually Dravidian. My legitimately Dravidian friend and I joke now about how I am part of the family.

But it is not these people that folks who identify as biracial and multiracial European and something else are usually upset about or trying to be down with. Growing up, Black people and white people alike said, “But why do you say you’re Black? You don’t have to. Say you’re half white. Say you’re mixed.” Everything you need to know about the value of Blackness and whiteness in America is in that statement. “You don’t have to.” Like being Black is a burden. Like it is something to be avoided. “Say you’re half white,” like white is something to want, to have, to get if you can. “Say you’re mixed,” like I’m part of a new special and superior breed, to be distinguished from the older, darker model.

My white father and Black mother both encouraged me to be Black, to embrace Black, both as a label and as a way of being part of the world. To claim the Black community as my own. To them this was an act of resistance against a society that would devalue Black people and Blackness as a concept. But it was also an act of love for me, a gift to be part of this incredible community that fuels phenomenal intellectual and artistic culture all over the world.

My father and grandfather also instilled in me a sense of pride in my Jewish identity. A recent spate of anti-Jewish emails has reminded me that this too is still an act of resistance. But it’s also the case that no one has ever said to me, “Well, why identify as Jewish when you don’t have to? Say you’re half-Christian.” Most people respect that I am Jewish, respect that I asked my husband to consider converting when we got engaged (he’s a Yid too now), respect that for me it is both an ethnic identity and a religion. No one has ever tried to take that away from me, and only once did someone — a blond, blue-eyed German — try to tell me that I had to use a different word. (“Yiddish” which means “Jewish” in Yiddish. He’s got a masters in physics, but is clearly not the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to linguistic and cultural competence.)

I have learned to love and appreciate my semitic facial features which make me indistinguishable from both Mizrahi Jews and Arabic Palestinians, even though I am Ashkenazi. I have learned that my hair texture is shared by people of a variety of non-African diaspora identifying ethnic and racial heritages, although many of them can probably trace those curls back to either North or West Africa (i.e. the multitude of groups historically known as Moors in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and victims of chattel slavery in the U.S., Caribbean, and Latin America). I have resented the unnecessary interrogation about my race from white people at work; I have learned to accept that from other brown-skinned people, they are often wondering if I am with them, on their side.

To consider this question, we must return to mulattoes. Mulattoes like Sally Hemings have been both weaponized and victimized in a complicated racial structure designed to protect white supremacy while satisfying the sexual fetishes of white, slave-owning rapists. Light skinned slaves were often given better positions on plantations, treated better. Sometimes they became enforcers over other, darker people. Sometimes they were freed upon the death of their masters/fathers. But, the success of the Haitian Revolution was predicated in part on the ability of mulattoes, quadroons and octaroons to overlook these light skinned privileges and see the white supremacy behind them so they could join in arms with darker Black people to throw off their French masters and become the first free, European-style democracy in the western hemisphere. Around the same time, laws defining whiteness and the rights of white people in the United States were being more clearly and cleverly delineated, to prevent indentured Irish from joining with Black slaves in a similar fashion.

Darker skinned people have been suspicious of lighter skinned people in this country for centuries and for good reason in many cases: we have not always been on the right side of history, often did not link arms the way they did in Haiti. Instead, sometimes we supported our father masters and benefited from their skin colorist hierarchies.

Thankfully, in the late 20th and early 21st century, most of us who can point to a white biological family member do not have to say the word “rape” in the same breath. I am not a product of rape, unlike so many other light skinned people before me, although like many light skinned Black people with two Black parents, I am the descendent of rape. And because rape was so prevalent during slavery, it is estimated that more than half of Black America has some European heritage. But there is no benefit to pointing to a legacy of rape in your blood stream the way there is a benefit to pointing to a white father. No one tells people who can’t point to a white family member, “Oh but you should really say you are part white.” When darker skinned people say things like that, others quietly and with ableist entitlement write them off as sad sack crazies.

Because I am lighter skinned, I am not always saddled with strangers’ (and friends’) racist fantasies about what a Black person can and cannot do. I have an easier time with the police — sometimes. Skin lightening creams aren’t marketed to me. I am somewhat regularly told that I am an “exotic kind of beautiful,” which while racist is better than being told I’m “dark and ugly” as my darker friends have heard. My hair texture is now in Vogue, a thing even white people want. I have an easier time finding foundation that matches my skin tone.

In exchange for these benefits, which are in fact basic rights, I also have to accept that Black people don’t always recognize me as “one of them.” Many light skinned people write about how hard this can be. It is indeed frustrating. But I try to think about how frustrating it must be to not have all of these rights come so easily to me, or at all.

I remember that I know what it’s like to be followed around in a store starting from childhood. I can be carrying an expensive purse and still be followed around the purse section of a store that could never carrying something as nice. When I’m in a group of cars all going the same speed and I’m the darkest driver, if the police want to pick someone off, I will be selected. When I go to the opera and ballet in the Netherlands, people will stare at me with confusion. Professors will ask me about my race while asking white postdocs about their research. I will be told repeatedly that I don’t look like a physicist. I have to be more careful about what jokes I make in the airport. I am acutely aware that people who look like me are shot by police in the barrio I grew up in somewhat regularly, that women who look like me die in police custody. I also know that my mother and half of my family are at risk to be randomly murdered, any time, just because they are Black. My Blackness is shaped not just by my own individual experience, but that of my family and more broadly my ancestors who wrote the earliest chapters of my story. I was born into this story, and I can’t dispossess it, nor can someone else adopt it.

I am not white. I do not live in the tent of whiteness. And that is okay. What I would prefer is that instead of people like me gaining entry into the tent of whiteness is rather that there wasn’t one at all, that we all had equal access to all of our rights. I will claim Blackness with pride both as a political statement and a statement of identity. I will also claim Jewishness with pride, both as a political statement and a statement of identity. But I reject claiming any part in whiteness. I see claiming whiteness as a statement of power. For people who are white by lineage and experience, this is a statement of reality; for everyone else trying to claim a piece, it is a statement of aspiration for power. I’d rather aspire for equality and better uses of conjunctions.

I am Black and Jewish. I am Black and European Jewish. I won’t claim European alone because Jews have never really quite been accepted in Europe. I have a beautiful niece who is Taiwanese, Japanese and German-American. It will be hard for people to tell just by looking at her that she has European heritage, and she too will not have the option to choose whiteness in what people project on her. But I support her in claiming that she is Asian American and European American if that’s what she chooses. My sister who can pass for white is Mexican American/Chicana and European Jewish. I support her in her identification as a person of color.

I would like the conversation about “mixed” identity to move away from those of us with mixed parentage thinking we are special. We’re not. Many Black Americans have mixed heritage without the privilege of knowing and being loved by the non-Black descendents of their ancestors. I would like the conversation about biracial and multiracial identity to move away from claiming whiteness, first of all because a lot of people who have mixed parentage are not of European descent, but secondly because whiteness and the tent of whiteness are part of a powerful and dangerous social structure. I would like other people who know and love a white parent or grandparent to join me in changing the conversation. And I would also like white people to join me in dismantling this habitual discourse that centers whiteness so that we can favor of one which is predicated on solidarity and loving non-European peoples and cultures.

Hold fast to Blackness
For if Blackness dies
White supremacy has won.