Blackness and Whiteness
Growing up as mixed-race alongside my white mother
Growing up, I was unaccustomed to discussions about race. For most of my life, the color of my skin was something simple, a fact that became more or less apparent alongside the changing seasons. When it started to become impossible to ignore, as a young child, I pushed to downplay my color difference. I sat in the shade with my white cousins at the beach to prevent the sun from reaching me, complained with a gentle fierceness each time my mother took me to get my hair braided, said quiet “thank-yous” with no further explanation to people who gleefully oohed and ahhed at my beautiful tan.
As a teenager, I embraced wholeheartedly the idea of tan equaling beautiful, at least so far as in the context of tan being simply a new shade of whiteness, rather than brownness. I was a tan white person. At least, that is what everyone in my town assumed me to be, and rather than fight the simplicity of that label, I allowed it to begin defining me.
My mom, a white woman and single mother, was quiet during these years. If I had questions, she would answer them willingly, but quite honestly, I rarely ever asked her anything. Sometimes, when she took me to Baltimore, we drove home the long way, observing dilapidated neighborhoods and houses with wooden boards with holes in them where windows should’ve been. The sidewalks and the weeds in the place of gardens made these communities look tired, winded. It was clear that places like this were worlds away from where my mom and I lived; yet we were both keen outsiders, desperate for a deeper understanding. There’s something funny about an obviously white woman and an obviously brown child alone together, trying to find a community. On those trips to Baltimore, my mother and I had not quite identified our community yet.
As a teenager, my mother moved from the integrated and very black city of Baltimore, to attend high school in a very segregated, very white suburban town in northeastern Maryland. I don’t know many stories of the difficulties she faced by leaving her friends and her community behind, I know only that my mother adapted, and as soon as high school was over, she moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, for college. Upon graduating, she moved further south, to another historically black city — Atlanta. When my mom talks of Virginia and Atlanta, she speaks with fondness, the protective kindness reserved for the first city one chooses after moving away from home. She speaks of tiny networks designed to fill the gaps left behind for people without grand wealth and inherited Southern royalty. She tells stories of inclusion, and sweet tea, and the famous Southern hospitality.
My mother moved back to Maryland for two reasons: she had enrolled in graduate school there, and she had become pregnant with me. I began the first months of my life wrapped warm and tiny beneath her shirt in speech pathology lectures; we created an existence together in a tiny apartment in the town my mom had left after high school. Her main reasons for the impossible choice of moving seemingly backwards to a life left in Maryland: it was safer than the neighborhoods she could afford in Baltimore, it was close to her family, and to my father and his family.
As I got older, my mom set down more permanent structures in our tiny town. She bought a house, took a job as a speech therapist at a local public school, enrolled me in private school after observing the inadequate education of our town’s public school system. I grew quickly, like a small green weed, and I adopted the mannerisms of a girl growing up in the white section of a small, segregated, suburban town outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
In college I started to understand the depth of my identity, and the sacrifices my mom had made as she tried to help me understand it. In a private university, I witnessed the inherent cruelty in a world where a kitchen full of black men and women serving young, majority white students seemed normal. It dawned on me that my place was not so clearly defined by my ability to pass as white; I could no longer sit quietly on such an unequal playing field and neglect a large percentage of myself and of my family history.
My awakening was slow; it came from reconnecting with my father’s family in adulthood, discussions about race in classes, watching documentaries, observing race while studying abroad, and seeking to understand the breadth of black Baltimore’s anger at what happened to Freddie Gray. Most of all, it came from confusion — a sudden feeling of discomfort at the way I had grown accustomed to living and the sudden truth that whiteness no longer defined me.
After graduating, I moved to northern California. The prospect of spending time with family I wanted to know better and living in the center of a well-known big city where things were happening thrilled me. I came to California and felt accepted immediately. It felt like home in a different way than Maryland defined home for me for so many years. Somewhat naively, I thought I had come to a place where racism was gone and people could be acknowledged on their merit first.
I met and began dating a San Francisco native. He told me stories about the first time he had been arrested while he was a college student in Arizona, and how in San Francisco he would have received a slap on the wrist for the same offense. I rejoiced at the idea that he didn’t need to talk about the relationship between the police and black people in the United States, but the bliss of ignorance didn’t last long. I moved to Oakland, learned about the Black Panther Party, watched Fruitvale Station, and observed the way racism had cloaked itself in clothes different from the ones I had grown up with in the Mid-Atlantic.
Upon this realization, I threw myself headfirst into black culture and its influence. I wanted to know intimately all that I had missed while growing up and insisting that I was white. And it was in this seeking that I started to recognize the complications in being a person of mixed-race descent. As badly as I wanted it to, black culture was not defining me entirely; not the way that I wanted it to swallow me whole. It wasn’t replacing the parts of me defined by whiteness, and sometimes I felt like an imposter when I tried to pretend otherwise. It felt a little like trying to replace one side of my family with the other, and that mutual exclusivity felt sad, and a little unfair.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize the individuality of my experience as a mixed-race person, and so I sought mixed-race materials. When I couldn’t find much, I tried creating them for myself. I interviewed people in order to derive a more whole understanding of what it means to disrupt the system by either creating or being someone of mixed-race descent. I started with my mom.
In the absence of asking her questions in my youth, I learned that I missed many of the things she had done for me. I was unaware of the ways she felt confusion and isolation, and the ways she fought for me while I had railed against anything that might mark my difference in the small, limited world that I knew at the time. I asked her when she first recognized that her experience raising me would be different than what she’d been exposed to because I was biracial. She told me stories of overt disapproval from the doctors who treated her during her pregnancy. She told me of being tested for far more diseases and birth defects than if my father had been white, and of her primary obstetrician asking, not unkindly, whether she was sure this was a pregnancy she wanted to see through to the end, as my race would make things much more difficult than necessary for her. She described the faces of white people, aghast, who would see us in a grocery store and chastise my mother for not keeping me out of the sun, for tanning an infant with no sunscreen in some vain attempt at achieving beauty. She described the faces of black people, confused, who asked if she was sure, really sure, that I was mixed with black.
I asked her what was the most difficult thing about being a white parent raising a biracial child, and she said feeling so helpless in trying to expose me to black culture. As a newborn, she took me to my grandmother, my father’s mother, and immediately my grandmother lathered my hair and my skin with coconut oil and cocoa butter. My mother felt a sense of relief and desire to be further educated; she had known that the needs of a black baby would not be the same as a white one — from the beginning, my skin cried out for different care than the babies she had known — but she had never been told what exactly to do. Everywhere she looked, she was judged for doing the wrong things, but she was never offered help or correction.
I mentioned how long it had taken me to recognize my blackness as a part of myself, and her relief at my recognition spilled out of her — it had been so frustrating to see me be so uninterested in the part of me that was so clearly there, and so visibly different from my whiteness. She had expected there to be natural reinforcers that pushed me toward black culture, but each time she tried to find them, it felt like I pushed back harder, and with more resentment. She wondered at her failures. Was I angry at her for having not exposed me enough to black culture, for not having tried hard enough to find it in order to give it to me? Had I ever felt a distinct loss, and did I blame her for it?
The vulnerability and guilt she expressed shocked me. My mother had been my hero, the one who had always been there to recognize me as distinctly myself, to answer questions as I was ready to ask them, to take me through Baltimore and tell stories about her experience fitting so well into black culture, when it was willing to open its arms and accept a white woman. Of course I wasn’t angry at her for not taking me to see my father’s siblings in another state, for living in a community she could afford to live in — albeit a rather unfriendly one, for keeping me safe and giving me the best education she could find.
If there is anyone I blame for the longevity of my denial at blackness, it is my father. Being biracial as well, he is the person who could offer the most understanding and support for my experience. But this is not a story about him. The breadth of what is relevant here is that he kept me from his family, he prioritized his whiteness, and he chased the American Dream as if it were real, had always been real, and was tangible if only he tried hard enough to succeed in convincing everyone of his commitment to white culture. He never taught me about my skin, never opened himself up to my questions, never helped me to understand that I, like him, was different, and that difference was not something to hide, but something to celebrate. Lost in his own identity, he had no room for mine. Sometimes I understand how difficult it must have been for him to simply exist, and I feel empathy. Sometimes I feel angry at what I missed, what he missed, what we both missed, together.
It is not difficult to have brown skin that people call exotic, to have features that people call beautiful, to have the opportunity to fit in, in different ways, to multiple systems of culture. I live an experience different from white people, and different from black people, and I make sure to emphasize that I do not know what it feels like to live the unique and sometimes corrosive experience of a black person in a segregated and racism-centric society. That is a level of difficulty that I do not expect to ever truly understand nor do I pretend to, but I do respect this difference.
But here is what is difficult: feeling defined by everything and nothing all at the same time. Feeling part of two cultures that are pitted against each other, that present extreme differences from each other, that consider themselves mutually exclusive from each other. Having a white mother who wants desperately to be part of a community that only accepts her sometimes, and understanding, intimately, what that feels like. To be minimized to the point that I am not really considered part of the conversation — to be forced to choose one culture or the other. My answers that I am not just black and that I am not just white are not accepted, at least not willingly, and not without endless explanation. Where do I fit in? Where does my mother fit in? We are still, together, as a white woman and a brown child, trying to identify our community.
I watched a few videos on YouTube recently about mixed-race children, and the immorality of creating them. Most notably, a clip from Muhammad Ali talking about the natural instinct to want one’s children to look like oneself. Why, he exclaims, would he want to dilute the beauty of his culture, a culture that fought and clawed its way to survival amongst multiple attempts to destroy it, by procreating with someone of a different race? I understand this sentiment. I understand the strength of blackness and its ability to survive, and not wanting to lose that. But I am already here, and I did not choose for my parents to have different, opposing races. So instead of talking about whether it is right to create people like me, let’s move forward with the fact that people like me already exist.
I’ve found to be mixed-race is not to be one of my races at the exclusion of the other, although the cultures in which I was raised might suggest this. The best thing a mixed-race child can do for her- or himself is to be honest about their difference, and to insist on their right to be different. Parents of a mixed-race child will be judged as creating difference, whether that is in a celebratory end-of-racism way, or a derogatory dilution-of-individual-cultures way. It is important that they not get hung up on these explanations.
What they have done in fact is created a human being.
Raising one has never been easy.
Under any circumstances.