Biracial and (not) proud
When your skinfolk don’t want to be claimed
“Your hair is like Buckwheat’s.”
“You have the wrong kind of hair to be from Chicago. The wind just makes it blow and stay that way.”
“Why are there HBCUs anyway? There are more white people in the U.S. than black people.”
“I’m not even black. I’m American.”
“Dreadlocks are just made of dirty hair.”
“George Zimmerman was protecting himself. Trayvon Martin was an adult.”
“Why do we have to have a black woman as the featured image on that piece? Diversity means more than black people. You can just pick somebody whose Hispanic instead.”
These were the kinds of comments that stuck out to me when conversing with a former colleague. I would’ve been better prepared to hear this kind of rhetoric during my first two college years, where I was one of less than 100 people of color in a school of 8,000 students. But I was somewhere between startled and disappointed to hear these comments from a biracial man who was also a person of color.
Now whether he wanted to be a person of color was an entirely different story. But he grew up in the kind of household that definitely voted for Donald Trump and listened to FOX News regularly. While his biological parents did not raise him (one of which was Jamaican), he’d never had black friends or even black families come into his childhood home.
I once explained “passing” to him, and he smiled broadly and said, “That’s me!” Initially I hoped he meant that as a joke. I quickly realized he did not.
He was absolutely stumped when I asked him to name a handful of black actors or black women emcees. Discussing “The Cosby Show,” “House Party,” “A Different World,” “Blackish” or even “Grownish” were simply out of the question. His understanding of Malcolm X stopped completely before the trip to Mecca. He had no clue who black historians like Marcus Garvey were. (I found this to be a double violation, considering Garvey’s Jamaican ancestry and Garvey’s widely known activism within the United States.)
He did have Hispanic friends growing up. But for some strange reason, these were the kinds of friends who would make snarky comments anytime black people would enter their favorite hangouts.
This bit of news boggled my mind. From high school to college to adulthood, I’ve had so many brown friends I’ve lost count. I even took Spanish for eight years. So in my naive mind, I was under the impression that black and brown folks (at least those in Generation X and younger) typically stick together.
But in the West Coast city he lived in, black people were few and far between. That was also odd to me considering I’ve been to this state three times (in different cities) and found it to be pretty diverse.
I befriended him anyway. Although we both agreed that race was a touchy subject for us, otherwise, he was actually fun to hang out with. But in the back of my mind, I kept reflecting on two other people I knew in elementary school.
Biracial skinfolk who may as well be my kinfolk
When I was a kid, I had two biracial friends. The first one was an adorable little girl who was (if I recall correctly) Italian and black. She always smelled like strawberries and cigarettes, for some reason. She was proudly the teacher’s pet and got along with everybody. I don’t recall ever bringing up race with her one time. But it was pretty obvious that she was biracial from her reddish hair, cheeks filled with freckles and very light skin. Then there were the occasional relatives who stopped in on Report Card Day, who clearly looked nothing like the parents from my predominantly black elementary school.
But my elementary school was the kind of place where we read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and saw the Denzel Washington flick soon after. We were an unapologetically black crew of kids, with our freckle-faced biracial homegirl in tow.
Around middle school, I befriended a girl who was Mexican and black. But her Mexican father was nowhere to be found, and she was raised by her stunningly chocolate African-American mother. I asked her once if she considered herself biracial. Her response was, “I don’t know my motherf*****g father, so I’m not Mexican. I’m black. Period.”
I held up my hands in peace. She clearly had strong opinions on this. Who was I to tell her otherwise? But I often wondered if she would benefit from learning more about the Mexican heritage side of her family, even if her father wasn’t around. One man should not mean ignoring an entire culture, language and place.
In many ways, she reminded me of the Jamaican/white colleague. So I made the mistake of going on a mission to try to make him want to know more about the other 50 percent of his kinfolk.
Where I went wrong: “Black Hair or History” fact?
Everyday for at least a month, I would text him or stop him in person to ask, “Black hair or history?” This idea came from him doing what all black men know is a violation: touching a black woman’s hair without her permission. And he didn’t just touch my hair. He snatched the hat off of my head, exposing a head wrap underneath. I hadn’t even had a chance to use my feather comb to let my long, thick mane fall into place. After I told him never ever to do that again, he was perplexed by why my hair looked straighter than days prior.
I mentioned I had a relaxer. His mind was completely blown to learn that perm for black women makes their hair straight while perm for white women results in curls. And that was where the “Black hair or history” daily lesson started. At some point, he decided that “nobody knows this stuff” and challenged a mutual white friend of ours to answer one of my black history lessons. I was not even slightly surprised that the mutual friend didn’t miss a beat. He answered correctly and strolled on. My biracial colleague stared at him incredulously, hissing, “How’d you know that?” The savvy friend had black friends growing up, plus his Native American roots were pretty obvious to an observant eye. Although both men were well-traveled, they clearly came from two different neighborhoods.
This daily tip went on for a month or so. But the more often we spoke of race, the more our conversations resulted in tension. And finally one day, I just threw in the towel. I’d grown tired of trying to make him embrace a culture he simply didn’t give a damn about.
Should I have just minded my business and let him be as proudly white (on the surface) as he wanted to be while I was just as proud being an African-American woman? As someone who has never lived in the body of someone who is biracial, what nerve do I have to tell someone else how (s)he should live life?
Considering he’d already told me that having me as a friend “is like having eight black friends all at once,” it is almost impossible to not learn more about African-American culture around me. I didn’t even need to do the extra daily tips. I’m the type of person who helped organize a black history party at one job and celebrates Juneteenth instead of the Fourth of July every single year.
As much as I think the parents of biracial children should make a point of letting them learn about both sides of their culture and race, I’m also not a parent. So maybe I should just let them do them and I do me. In the mean time, I’ll let my “wrong hair” keep flying in the wind, cheering on all things HBCU-related, making POC photos top priority and enjoying the skin I’m in.