Yes, I’m Black! Here’s why.
Part of an EmbraceRace series on “mixed-race” identity.
Based on how people identify themselves, and accounting for their parents’ and grandparents’ identities, the Pew Research Center recently found that 7% of US adults are “mixed-race.” Mixed-race kids are at least double that proportion of all children.
EmbraceRace invited members of our community to talk about their experiences as mixed-race people. We provided Dr. Maria Root’s 1993 Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage as a prompt, which several writers identified as crucial to their own early development as multiracial/mixed- race people. We asked them to use it in any way they wished, or not at all.
Below you’ll find “Yes, I’m Black! Here’s Why,” by Megan Madison.
Yes, I’m Black! Here’s why.
It was Passover. And as an anti-bias educator, I couldn’t help using the Exodus story as an opportunity to talk about civil disobedience, to talk about the difference between just laws and unjust laws. Just as we were discussing the bravery it must have taken Moshe to stand up to Pharaoh, the GPS interrupted, instructing us to turn left onto MLK Blvd.
“Do you know who Martin Luther King Jr. was?” I asked.
“Yeah. I know already.” The white 8-year-old boy in the backseat rolled his eyes. “The busses and everything.”
We talked for a while longer about risk, and courage, and sticking up for what we believe in. And then came the question that triggered in me a familiar warm wash of shame and panic: “You’re black?” he asked.
I glanced up at my reflection in the rearview mirror.
“Yep. I’m Black,” I replied, doing my best to convey the assuredness that I’ve learned can sometimes protect me from further interrogation. The air of confidence that might just save me from having to justify my existence one more time, spare me from having to trot out version #7,280 (5 times per week x 52 weeks per year x 28 years — rough estimate) of the speech I’ve given since childhood.
[The boy is] unsure how to identify me because I don’t fit the stereotypes of Blackness that he’s already absorbed. In his mind, Blackness means poverty, saggy pants, and Otherness. I, on the other hand, am like family — someone he knows, trusts, and loves.
A loaded question
Of course, he had no idea that his simple question was so loaded. I don’t think most people who ask it do. They have no idea that it took me more than a quarter-century to be able to say those two words — I’m Black — without crying. To say them with pride. To offer them as an authentic expression of my own identity, as opposed to just giving the “right answer” to the What are you? question.
While this question (and my reaction to it) says a lot about me, it also says a lot about him, and about society. He’s certainly not the only person who has a hard time seeing me as Black. In my young adulthood, white friends and acquaintances would say that they don’t see me as Black, or announce that I wasn’t “really Black” — and mean it as a compliment.
The boy in the backseat isn’t questioning my Blackness because I can “pass.” He’s seen pictures of my darker-skinned African American father. Just the day before, my t-shirt read: I love my Blackness and yours. I have light-brown skin and curly hair; I don’t think I’ve ever been read as white.
Still, he’s unsure how to identify me because I don’t fit the stereotypes of Blackness that he’s already absorbed. In his mind, Blackness means poverty, saggy pants, and Otherness. I, on the other hand, am like family — someone he knows, trusts, and loves.
At age eight, it is already easier for him to see through me than to see me for who I am. In other words, it is already easier for his brain to redefine me outside of Blackness than to redefine Blackness to include me.
In that respect, this kid is by no means alone. Research indicates that most white people in the United States begin to absorb society’s messages about race in early childhood. Before they set foot in kindergarten, many young children learn that Blackness is something to pity, fear, or “graciously” ignore. Reflecting back on my own childhood, I too remember learning at home, at school, and in the media that my Blackness was something to be ashamed of.
For me, identifying as Black … is one way I resist racism every day. By claiming and embracing my Blackness, I push back on the messages within me and around me that would have us believing that being Black is anything I wouldn’t want to be.
Black is… Black ain’t
Now in adulthood, claiming, embracing, and celebrating my Blackness as a person with mixed racial heritage is my way of rejecting society’s crooked invitation to distance myself from Blackness, as if I should be eager to do that. It’s my way of saying, “Hey White Supremacy, I see you. Don’t get it twisted. I’m not about to play that game.” That’s why I don’t identify myself solely or even primarily as “mixed” or biracial.
I know my history. I know that the Madisons were of ‘mixed racial heritage’ centuries before the term existed, and it never made us any less Black. Quite the contrary. It is a part of our African American story.
I know that race is not even a matter of biological ancestry, but a matter of power and lived experience.
And I strive to live a life that aligns with my values. To live every day in a way that affirms that Black lives matter. I aspire to use my privilege as a light-skinned person to resist the system that oppresses all Black people, especially those for whom this construct, Blackness, is a matter of life and death, as well as a matter of identity.
For me, identifying as Black has nothing to do with distancing myself from my mom, her whiteness, her family, heritage, or culture. Rather, it is one way I resist racism every day. By claiming and embracing my Blackness, I push back on the messages within me and around me that would have us believing that being Black is anything I wouldn’t want to be.
So when this white boy asked, “you’re Black?” I sat up tall, put my shoulders back, and replied, “Yep. I’m Black.” And I hope that with that simple assertion, we both moved one small step closer to reclaiming our full humanity.
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