When I was four years old, I came home from preschool and said to my mother, “they think I’m one of the white kids.” To their credit, I have always looked like one of the white kids. Unfortunately for those not interested in giving evidence to the proverb about books and their covers, my appearance is phenotypically misleading.
My mother is white and my father is Black. My older brother Miles looks, as he describes it, “ambiguously brown.” I on the other hand look unambiguously white. And not just in the way you tell your lightskinned friend he looks white. But invisible to the police, pre-Tiger Woods golf course, Applebee’s in the suburbs white.
The way I look has allowed me to occupy a space of “accessible Blackness” to many of my white peers. In other words, I have Black blood but not Black skin, meaning I can be seen as interesting but not scary. This has also functioned as my greatest tool of influence. I often find myself in discussions around race that I know my father, brother, or anyone visibly non-white are not included in. This is because I evoke much of the white fascination directed toward Black communities without donning the Black skin that the white world has been taught to fear so strongly. In this space I am able to “be a part of” genuine conversations about cultural appropriation, white privilege, racial common sense, etc. within white spaces because I pass so easily. These conversations have become taboo in multiracial spaces for fear of upsetting the colorblind “politically correct” balance that has pushed both straightforward racism and productive conversation underground. Unfortunately I have also become the acceptable target of much of that pent up racism that can no longer be expressed explicitly to those identifiably Black. It is this constant grappling of placement, membership, and authenticity that have provided my greatest privileges and contributed to my strongest feelings of isolation.
It is an odd feeling to be one race at the beginning of a conversation and another by the end. When I was in high school a white friend asked me about Emmett Till. The question was prompted by listening to Kanye West’s “Through the Wire,” and particularly West’s verse including the line: “On the plane scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till.” In response, I explained the 1955 lynching and how it fit into the long history of Black men (and in this case Black boys) being lynched in this country under the guise of them being “rapists,” and about Mamie Till’s bravery and foresight in the creation of the infamous Jet Magazine cover depicting her child’s savagely beaten face that had inspired the verse.
My friend’s response was to make a joke about how he and some other white friends were going to lynch me because I had “raped” the white girl I was dating at the time. When I responded angrily about the joke, my membership to Blackness, the very membership that caused him to make the joke in the first place, was suddenly revoked. My white friend said: “Maliq, go like this,” he pushed up his sleeve and looked at his arm, “you’re as white as I am.”
In the few minutes in which the interaction took place I quickly went from being accessibly Black to being inescapably white. My racial identity had become whatever was convenient and useful to my friend, a trend which has characterized much of my life. Not that this is something unique to me, or even unique to mixed-race people for that matter. The ability for Blackness to be seen as the defining characteristic of behavior one second, and simply a creation of the “race-baiter” the next, is an important aspect of white supremacy.
Before I could articulate the fallacy of white supremacy I learned I didn’t make sense. As a child it took me a long time to fully understand the racism embedded in who we, as Americans, consider to be good looking. Both of my parents were adept at having these conversations, even when we were far too young to deconstruct an unnecessarily academic phrase like “Western image politics.” It made sense to me that blonde, blue-eyed women could be considered attractive, I have a beautiful mother who matches that description. But it was completely lost on me that white men could ever be considered handsome.
All of my role models, and the templates I had for what constitutes appealing masculinity were Black, ambiguously brown, or Bruce Lee. As a result, I couldn’t stand that my skin was white, that my hair was blonde, and my eyes were blue. I wanted to look like my father. I was some odd inversion of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (minus the incestuous pregnancy).
Even though I couldn’t apply the concepts to my own physical appearance, I fully internalized a Black Nationalist rhetoric that my father embodied. When I was little I remember being in school and being handed a test. It was one of those “you’re in the Xth percentage for your age” tests. Generally we had to bubble in our names and other information on the front cover, but this time they had already been filled in, even a box I had never seen before that asked you to identify your racial background. My box told me I was African-American.
After school, my dad asked me about the test, and I told him that it had gone well but that the school had put African-American on my test which surprised me. I knew I wasn’t white, but I suppose I never saw myself as Black either. My father replied that he had made the categorization, not the school. When I asked why, he told me that because I was smart and did well on tests, it was my responsibility to represent the race and give proof that Black kids were smart and could do well on tests. I think that was the proudest I have ever been, with the potential exception of the first time I was mistaken for my father on the phone (instead of my mother). I felt like I was part of something larger than myself and not only was I a member, I actually had something to contribute!
But then I got a bit older and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time, and my membership seemed to be in question. I made it through the first half of the book with ease, drawn in by the stories of Malcolm Little’s days of hustling, dancing, and crime on the streets of Boston and Harlem. Then he was arrested and sent to jail for burglary/consorting with white women and it became much harder to turn the pages. While incarcerated, Malcolm Little joined the Nation of Islam, eventually becoming Malcolm X (to make a long and complex story much too short). The vast rhetorical shift at this point in his life stems from a thorough self-education and his dedication to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The reason I struggled to continue reading was because he began heavily referencing the description of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white devil. In the chapter titled “Savior” he claimed: “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.” The demonization of whiteness certainly didn’t make me uncomfortable, but it was the first time that I felt that someone meant me. To that point I just thought I was ugly, but I definitely wasn’t white. Part of growing up is wanting to fit in, or be better at sports, or more intelligent, etc. My coming of age crisis was that I just wanted to prove I wasn’t the devil.
The requirement of mixed-race people to “prove” their racial identity is central to the isolation that is felt by those who do not have a “clean fit” within one of the census boxes. While recently discussing this process with my brother, Miles, he recounted his exhaustion of constantly “coming out as biracial” when he was moved to a white school around the same time that I was born. He had previously been in a situation where “half the people [he] went to school with were mixed.” He said that he has not been in a mixed space like that since. He also said it was when he moved to the predominantly white school that he started rocking a kufi and Africa medallions that matched the continent that had been shaved into the hair on the back of his head.
He was on his third reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and for a short time he began going by Ibrahim and practicing aspects of Islam. When the discussion began about what to name me, my brother suggested Malik, in reference to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. It was my mother who made the decision to switch the “k” for a “q” because she was worried that white people would mispronounce it if it had a “k,” and the “q” would at least make them ask. He said all of this was in an effort to avoid the reoccurring conversation in which he was forced to come out and to defend his racial identity. In his suggestion, I suppose he was trying to save me from some of those conversations by naming me something that made it clear where my anticipated brown ambiguity came from. Little did he know, I would show up and look all types of Wonder Bread, giving the name an unexpected importance. In many ways, my name became a signifier of authenticity, and is one of the few surface connections I have to my Black heritage.
So where do I fit in with current social unrest? Where does my skin color situate me in regard to Black Lives Matter? Like everything else regarding race, it’s a bit confusing, and far from a definite answer. I feel uncomfortable when I am called an ally. It is not that I lack an appreciation for the necessity of allies in social movements, but it implies a voluntary interest in race. “Ally” implies a decision to pay attention when one’s privilege would otherwise allow them not to. This is not the case for me. Of course, looking the way that I do yields a multiplicity of benefits, but the ability not to think about race, one of the mainstays of white privilege, is not one of them. I have never felt like my racial consciousness was a decision. And although, I have never been forced to endure the gamut of daily aggressions and acts of violence that are perpetrated upon visibly Black bodies, understanding how those things impact my family makes it impossible to truly remove myself, regardless of my visual whiteness. Even if it isn’t my body, it is my life.
The exclusion of allyship doesn’t really represent my involuntary presence, but neither does my appearance. It would be irresponsible not to consider how the way I look and my access to white privilege necessarily excludes me from certain aspects of the movement. My presence is inevitably seen by most as that of a white person, regardless of my actual racial background. Therefore there are times, however uncomfortable, that I must embody the role of the ally. My actions have the possibility of putting others at greater risk of violence due to my ability to pass, so it is important that I conduct myself accordingly.
People that look like me have the ability to violently riot (in the name of a sports team’s victory or defeat) without the fear of being called a “thug,” or being lectured on how “the real issue” isn’t the system but is one of “culture” or is the amount of “Black-on-Black crime.” People that look like me that break windows, flip cars, and light things on fire are protected by infantilizing comments that state: “boys will be boys,” absolving them of any responsibility. Whereas people that look like my father are shot in the back as they run away, choked to death, or have their necks broken. The current conspiracy of American colorblindness (“I just don’t see race”), and the belief that racism died with the election of a Black President, continues to justify people being killed.
They still think I’m one of the white kids, but they’re wrong.