Seeing The Color of My Skin

I have a hard time writing about being mixed-race because I’m white-passing and benefit from that privilege.

Felicia C. Sullivan
May 30 · 10 min read
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Photo by Felix Ramirez from Pexels

rarely write about my race because I can never find the right words for it. When I was small, I bore the weight of a question mark on my face. Growing up in Brooklyn, people would look at my bone-white mother, my non-existent father, and then they’d see me: the pale face, the kinky hair as we called it back then. A girl you spoke Spanish to because you thought she knew it. A girl that held your gaze because you couldn’t get the make of her. Whispers on the stoop.

She looked white but wasn’t.

When I asked about my biological father, my mother was an artisan of fiction. He was American Indian, Peruvian, Spanish, but mostly he was nothing at all. A conversation stopper. A silent retreat. My father was a man who once came back for me and she slammed the door in his face.

It was only after her death in 2015 that I learned my biological father was black. A few years earlier, I took one of those DNA tests where you spit into a tube and a computer analyzes your geography. And I remember opening the envelope, expecting Puerto Rico but found Africa.

What do I do with that — even when everyone always gave me a double-take? A lifetime of white-passing, white privilege — I never felt I had the right to claim…the right to…finish this sentence because I never felt my voice was deserving. I didn’t want to take up space; I wanted to step aside and fill it with people who were never followed around a department store. Never considered a suspect. Never dehumanized. Never given The Talk. Never knowing The Nod. Never murdered for the color of their skin — a charcoal black where whiteness felt entitled to pillage their way through.

There was never a place whiteness didn’t feel the need to occupy.

All because people looked different in a world where everyone desperately wants to look the same. You talk about coloring outside of the lines while buying black and white coloring books.

Even growing up in the Brooklyn of the 1970s and 80s, before it was whitewashed and colonized, even though my friends were Black, Dominican, Chinese, Persian, Italian, Russian Jews, there was always something simmering just below the surface. Something I could never understand or identify. The way people looked at my mother with unease, but they somehow forgave me. The one time she applied for welfare and the woman was brazen enough to laugh in my mother’s face and say, you’re white. Get a job. The unspoken knowledge that the police were never to be called — even while you lay dying. And even then the trash was picked up faster than the bodies.

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Me. Photo Credit: Author

We would take care of our own because we knew no one else would.

It wasn’t until I heard a podcast about AAEV did I realize this was the language I’d spoken for the first twelve years of my life. Before we moved to Long Island and were forced to blend in. My mother warned me that we could no longer speak the language that felt like Brooklyn, like home. He be coming in here became he’s coming in here, though I knew the meaning was different, I just didn’t know how.

I wonder if you can tell by reading this how hard this is for me to write. It’s as if the words I want to use are in witness protection. I can’t make them do what I want them to. My insides never matched my outsides; I forever felt foreign in my own skin.

Valley Stream in the late 80s horrified me because nearly everyone was white. I’d never known this place existed until I entered it and felt confused because I didn’t speak right, look right. I didn’t know what Guess or The Gap was since I grew up wearing $1.99 sweaters from the clearance bins on Fourth Avenue. In eighth grade, I used Queen Helene on my hair because Prell or Breck failed to transform me, and all the girls like Lea and Brett would gawk and laugh at my hair that was the texture of a Brillo pad — or so they said.

It was only when the tight-knit clique of Puerto Rican girls staring the cheerleaders down that the taunting stopped. The tiny crew, though a minority in our junior high school, was feared because they knew people in the city, and nothing frightened suburban white girls more than friends in the city. Drop Brooklyn or The Bronx and watch everyone run screaming.

For the next four years, I was alienated and alone. When I called my old friends from a payphone, I noticed the edge that had crept into their voices. To them, I had changed. Paled down to corpse, I had become so white they thought. You sound white, Judy Rivera said, which made me laugh because I wanted to respond, “I’m glad you think so because no one else does.” But instead, I said, I am white. And she laughed and slammed down the phone and that was the last time we ever spoke. Sakima, Millie, Ruthie, Tommy — they all faded from the frame. It became clear to me that if you weren’t there, you could never be there and you could never go back.

I never found a place where I fit. I was never white enough, never anything “other” enough.

In college, there were blowouts and hair rollers and products that could temporarily change the texture of my hair. For $15, I could go to a Dominican salon on a Saturday and spend four hours trying to get my hair to look the way my friends toweled their way out of the shower. Fordham was divided by residents and commuters. Residents were predominately white and hailed from the affluent suburbs of the tri-state area while commuters weren’t — it might as well have been two different countries.

What was strange to me was how subtle racism was — the coded language, the looks, and gestures. My best friend looked practically Aryan, but her last name was Luiz, Portuguese, and she had to keep reminding people that Portugal was European. M. Sabino was Cuban and while he was core to our friend group, I saw his face darken when the boys chided him for being Cuban when they were drunk. There was this underlying air of distaste, which blew up even further when everyone suspected one of our suitemates was gay.

Let’s first rewind the tape. Freshman year, I got a verbal beatdown for calling out a guy for raping my best friend. They were dating. They were in a relationship. They were drunk. Mixed signals and all that. And my friend, who told me he had held her down, she had said no, suddenly took on their stories as a second skin. What had been rape became a misunderstanding because good white boys from Connecticut don’t rape their girlfriends. I remember shouting at him in the street and all my friends telling me to shut up. He wasn’t a rapist; I had gotten it wrong.

I realized then the cost of stepping out of line, and I’m still angry how much I had succumbed to pressure. How groupthink could actually change a woman’s no to yes, and it didn’t matter anymore because my friend returned to Italy after freshman year.

It wasn’t until junior year that I felt strong enough to open my mouth again, shooting down friends who made snide comments about the sexuality of our roommate. It’s not your business and who cares if she is? I had created a quiet fissure that year, which would follow me into my senior year. My friends were my friends, but something was missing.

Before the 2016 election, I’m on the phone with a friend from college, someone I’d known for two decades. We’re talking about who we're voting for, and I casually drop how hard it must be for her, a conservative Christian Republican, to vote for Hillary. The pause on the phone line couldn’t have been more pregnant. She said, “I’m not voting for Hillary,” which started the first of many arguments. For years, there was an unwritten rule between us — no politics. Even though I was a centrist Democrat, to her I might as well have been on another continent politically.

I remember a conversation we had about Black Lives Matter. How I grew up distrustful of the NYPD. I would rather bleed out than call them even though I was the color they so desperately wanted to save. But still. And I don’t remember much from that call other than her referring to BLM as a terrorist organization. Are you fucking serious? Is this really coming out of your mouth right now? And I went on to explain the reasons it was decidedly not a terrorist organization, and then I said something that shocked even me. Even though I was a mixed-race, I never felt blackness. I had been coddled by white privilege because I was white-passing. You do realize I’m part black so when you say these things, you’re saying them to me, to which she responded, but you’re different.

We haven’t spoken since 2016.

How do you write about something you don’t feel comfortable claiming? Instead, I focused on being an ally, navigating white spaces where few can trespass. Having uncomfortable conversations, passing on what I’ve learned and have continued to learn. Confronting people about the businesses they’re building, the conferences they’re hosting, the emails they’re sending. Do you realize there’s not a single non-white person at this thing, in this company, on your website? Do you see the messages you convey, the people you’re excluding because they’re unfamiliar to you solely based on the color of their skin and nothing else?

I don’t write about this because I don’t deserve ally cookies or pats on the head for doing the work. Of wanting to open the doors, level, and widen the playing field. Of dismantling the systems and structures from which I continue to benefit. We shouldn’t be celebrated and lauded for reminding others who look like us that those who don’t look like us should be treated as humans. Given the dignity, compassion, and respect we would demand ourselves.

So many people claim allyship. They share memes and pen Medium essays, but they rarely get their hands dirty. They don’t do the work but say they do. Being an ally is more than being not racist, it’s about making yourself uncomfortable. It’s standing beside people whose lives are in danger. It’s about the risk of losing your status and privilege because it’s the decent and humane thing to do.

During the election, while Hillary wasn’t my ideal choice I never conceived of a reality where she wouldn’t win. But all my friends of color said evenly and calmly that he would win. You don’t understand, they said. But Pennsylvania, Ohio! I stammered. And they were right — I didn’t understand. I was blind, shielded by the cruel reality they’ve always been forced to see.

Lately, I’ve been reading articles where white people are upset about being called out for their privilege without realizing that even saying that is a privilege. Are you being surveilled in stores even if you carry a fancy handbag? Are you being pulled over for no reason? Are you being sidestepped for a promotion for how you wear your hair? Are you being murdered? Do people call the cops on you for living your life?

Will you ever feel the weight of a boot baring down on your neck?

The thing about privilege is no one’s asking you to be ashamed of being white. No one’s asking you to apologize for what you were born with. The discomfort comes from realizing all the ways you benefit in society because of what you’re born with, and how, disproportionately, others suffer. You may not feel like you’re privileged because you’re struggling to make ends meet, that classism in this country is also a real, breathing thing, but you do in so many insidious ways you’re able and not able to see.

I’m privileged because I can turn off the television. I can run and look away. Privilege, to me, is how you’re able to control what you see. I can be willfully blind if I want to when others have no choice but to see because their life depends on it.

But I can’t look away because we live in a deeply racist country and every single person who has power needs to start using it.

How do you write about something you don’t feel comfortable claiming? I don’t know. I don’t know blackness. I don’t feel the weight of it, and I probably never will. But here’s what I do know — I can show up and stand up. I can squeeze myself into the spaces that whiteness occupies and work together. Give us all the space to be vulnerable to say and feel the wrong things as long as we keep doing the work to make sure everyone has the respect, empathy, compassion, and dignity they deserve. To ensure everyone is treated like the humans they are.

I don’t know if I’ll see this in my lifetime, but that won’t stop me from doing the work.

Let me be clear — if you’re tempted to drop an ignorant, flippant, hurtful comment you will be blocked. Open, empathic discussions are encouraged, but I’m not tolerating trolls. This is my house and I have a closed-door policy for assholes. And if you email me your litter, know I won’t read it.

The Dark Country

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Felicia C. Sullivan

Written by

Marketing Exec/Author. I build brands & tell stories. Work in Human Parts, OneZero, Forge & Marker. Hire me: Branding & Freelancing eBooks

The Dark Country

Personal essays on mental illness, disconnection, rootlessness, and a desire to find our way home.

Felicia C. Sullivan

Written by

Marketing Exec/Author. I build brands & tell stories. Work in Human Parts, OneZero, Forge & Marker. Hire me: Branding & Freelancing eBooks

The Dark Country

Personal essays on mental illness, disconnection, rootlessness, and a desire to find our way home.

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