If you’ve never paused when asked to identify your heritage on a health form, you live a blessed life.
As a half-black, half-white woman I’ve been asked to identify my race on paper, to acquaintances, and to perfect strangers more times than I can count.
It’s easy for me to identify my racial heritage. Those are facts.
But, my racial identity — how I see myself — has become more and more vague as I’ve grown older. And I don’t see a problem with it.
My First Identity: Mulatto
Did people know the origin of that word in the ’90s? Because I don’t why I was running around in grade 2 proudly identifying myself as mulatto.
But, I felt proud of who I was. Proud to be more than one thing. Proud to be both white and black.
When I was young, I loved when my Caribbean mom would turn on a movie and braid my hair. I loved going over to my aunt’s house to eat her amazing roti shells and curry chicken. I loved Soca music and was ready to correct anyone who called it Reggae.
I really think that this was the most secure and confident I’ve ever felt in my racial identity because I am both black and white. But I was a kid. I didn’t know what the one-drop rule was, and how that idea still exists today. And, more importantly, what that meant for me.
My Second Identity: White Wannabe
Eventually, I became aware that people treated my mom differently.
It was something in the way that they held their bodies when they were around her. They were stiffer somehow.
And they enunciated a little more when they first spoke to her. That faded after they realized she had almost no accent and her English was as good as theirs.
But, if she disagreed with something, they didn’t take her seriously or treated her like she didn’t understand the complexities of what they were saying.
I think that’s where wanting to be white started for me.
I didn’t want people to treat me like that.
That feeling overwhelmed me when I moved into my dad’s house at 10 years old.
Other than sushi on special occasions, prepared by my half-Japanese stepmom, it was a white household. My dad is white. My step-mom passes for white, and so do my 2 half-siblings.
My dad and stepmom often spoke poorly about my mother but tried not to take the conversation too far while I was around. But there was something else. Something I could detect, but could never identify…
In that house, I felt ashamed of my body. They frequently commented on my lower body and told me I needed to exercise more.
While I was in the room, they told family and friends that my hair was like steel wool, and openly complained about how much work it was for them to maintain it.
Around the time I hit puberty, kids made jokes about my hair looking like pubic hair. My friends freely commented on how light my skin is compared to other mixed people and the fact that I had the biggest butt in the class.
Those comments wore on me.
I was tired of feeling like my body was a burden to other people. And I got tired of being compared to black, white, and other mixed people.
By the time I was in high school, I was done being black.
My clothes didn’t reflect my personal sporty style anymore. I wore what the pretty white girls wore, even though white people were the minority at my school.
I hated my hair. I actually used to pray to wake up with straight, blonde hair. But, that never happened. I didn’t know what to do with my natural hair; no one had taught me or tried to learn for my sake. So it was stuck in French braids, which I would turn into a wavy ponytail — also known as a braid-out.
I also straightened my bangs every day. Not because I liked doing it, but because I thought it made me stick out less.
My mom, knowing that I wanted straight hair so badly, and not knowing how to care for my waist-long 3c/4a hair, took me to a salon. The black woman showed me a picture of a dark-skinned girl with shiny, straight, black hair, and promised I would leave with hair like that when she was done.
Instead, I got dry-and-brittle chemically relaxed hair that stuck out in all directions, and a chemically burnt scalp. For weeks after that, washing and brushing my hair was so painful it literally brought me to tears.
It was also at this time that I became heavily involved in a church that has an inclusive doctrine, but whose members were not. Unfortunately, I didn’t see that at the time.
I made some good friends, and looked up to adults from church who were kind to me, but also had some racial biases of their own that I didn’t pick up on.
Maybe I was desensitized. Or maybe I was in denial that some of them were straight-up racist. Either way, it added fuel to my fire.
I wanted to be white.
My Third Identity: More Black Than I Wanted To Be
By the time I graduated, I had been lying to myself for so long, that I think I really did identify as white. I was so used to being a wannabe white girl that it was easy to keep it up. In fact, it was so easy that I had no idea I was still doing it.
But things started to change when I met my husband.
He is one of the few white people who never made me feel othered. So, when I met my husband’s family and friends and they made jokes about my heritage or commented on the fact that he wanted to marry a black girl, I was shocked that that was how they saw me: black.
That’s when my white facade started to crack.
A couple of years into our marriage, I put down the straightener and started researching and experimenting so I could learn how to take care of my natural hair.
The top layers of whiteness really started to come loose when we started having kids.
In my first pregnancy, I thought I knew what our baby was going to look like. My husband is white, with medium brown hair and hazel eyes. So, I was sure that our child was going to have pale skin, with my dominant dark features.
Instead, we got a blue-eyed, dark blonde baby, with light, olive-toned skin — absolutely stunning. But, a tiny part of me was disappointed that she didn’t look anything like me.
I was convinced this was a fluke, so I went into my second pregnancy just as sure that I would have a dark-featured baby. I was so over the moon to see brown eyes looking back at me, that I was able to overlook her hair colour, which turned out to be even lighter than her older sister’s.
It was unexpected when I suddenly felt the urge to cook curry chicken for my kids. I tried, and failed miserably several times, though my kids and husband ate it with gusto each time.
With two little kids, I only had time to dip my toes into what it actually means to be both black and white. That is until George Floyd.
My Fourth Identity:???
It sounds weird to say that a stranger’s death changed me, but George Floyd’s death changed me forever. I knew racism was still happening regularly; I had been the victim on several occasions. But, George Floyd’s death opened the flood-gates. Suddenly, other stories of past victims, marches and riots kept popping up. I was emotionally flooded.
But, when my social media feed was inundated with people and companies making statements about their personal zero tolerance for racism, I was angry.
I tried to explain it to my husband, but I didn’t know the right way to express how I was feeling. I was upset by the riots and also confused by the people who defended the police officers in all of these stories. I couldn’t understand how someone’s murder was dividing people. Most of all, I couldn’t believe that people, brands, and companies could think that sharing a statement on social media was anywhere near enough effort to truly combat racism.
It was the beginning of an awakening for me, that would eventually shake off the remaining layers, and help me see myself more as I truly am.
I started wearing my hair in braids more regularly, asking my mom to teach me to cook her curry chicken, and following more black people on social media.
Most importantly, I started seeing the people in my life for who they truly are.
After George Floyd’s death and the marches and riots, some people were curious and had honest questions and open hearts. Some people voluntarily apologized to me for past aggressions. Some people looked past the riots, without condoning them, and understood that the black community is hurting and looking for empathy, and did their best.
But, others shared divisive sayings and memes. They asked loaded questions and willfully failed to acknowledge their own bias. Other people found fault, looked for loopholes, and dismissed the entire issue.
I love the people who were trying.
And I now keep my distance from the people — family or not — who are willfully ignorant, and without compassion. Not because I’m trying to create a divide, but because not even Jesus stuck around when people started throwing stones at Him.
So who does that make me today?
Someone who won’t make excuses for other peoples’ poor behaviour.
Someone who won’t subject themselves to improper treatment.
Someone who tries to deliver thoughtful and honest responses to sensitive issues.
Someone who loves to wear her hair in braids, and eat curry chicken roti.
Someone who always tries to be kind to everyone.
And that has nothing to do with race.