This is a guest post from Brandon at www.30and0.com where he normally writes about finance. He was kind enough to share a personal post about himself and struggles relating to race and identity.
“What are you?”
Hmm, pick an answer….pick an answer. Should I wax poetic to show how deep I am? Should I mention my career and aspirations?
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In truth, I know what this question means. I have been asked this so many times in my life that I have learned to read the signs it is coming.
The squinted eyes.
The deep breath of confidence. Maybe a head tilt if they’re fancy.
The casual guidance of the conversation to race related topics.
I know the person asking means no offense but I am not sure they realize word choice reveals.
Whether we realize it or not, we are often inextricably linked to our race and ethnicity. Subconsciously, we place value and familiarity along racial lines. This is why my ambiguous coloring and mild speech impediment (which many read as an accent) are so frequently questioned.
If I am attempting to impress the person, I’ll give them the lineage as it was passed down to me by my uncle, the family historian.
“I am African, Irish, Crow, and Cherokee Native American.”
For those who prefer to see things in more black and white terms, I am literally Black and White. I would say that no other characteristic has shaped my existence more than this fact. Another side effect of the lottery by birth.
Part of Both but a Whole Different World.
I was born in a small Illinois town in the mid 80’s to teenage parents fresh out of High School. It was immediately apparent to me that I was not a “normal child,” as so many of my interactions with others centered around how I was different from my parents.
As I mentioned in my fancy lineage description, the White side of my family tracks its roots somewhere far back, to Ireland. Needless to say, my mother was quite fair skinned. I was gifted with her dimples, nose, and smile, but thanks to the extra melanin in my skin none of that translated to onlookers.
There were jokes about bleaching my skin (not from her thankfully) to make me match, my paternal grandfather referring to me as colored, and frequent questions asking me if I was the neighbors kid.
That last line is not a modern adaptation of the old “Must be the Milkman’s kid” trope. These were full grown adults who truly thought my (financially impoverished) mother was out and about buying food for the neighbor’s kid. To this day I still wonder if this is a normal practice for some people.
On the other side of the chromosome donation was my father. Dad was, and still is, a dark skinned man. If we were at a human Home Depot swatch machine, I’d place him somewhere between Wesley Snipes and Eddie Murphy. I was gifted his long eyelashes, brown eyes, and the lightest pigment he had to offer.
Going into public was a far different experience. I was treated like a prince. Everyone complimented my complexion and “good hair.” I was called light skinned and high yellow. No one questioned if I was his son.
I think people underestimate how perceptive children are. Or at least how perceptive I was as a child. I noticed the different interactions and the message was clear early on. I was different. Even though I was a physical manifestation of these two people, I was simultaneously both and neither of them.
I internalized these interactions in search of self-identity. This internal discussion was to determine to which side I had to pledge my allegiance. Luckily, a story progressing life experience was right around the corner.
My First Racist Experience
The title makes this sound like a child’s scrap book, and I wish that were the case. I would give any sum of money to see the scrap book of every person’s first racist experience. That probably says a bit too much about my dark side (no pun intended).
When I was in some version of a pre-k daycare enjoying my lunch, a White classmate of mine took it upon himself to inform me of the unequivocal truth that he had been taught at this early age. He said these words to me damn near verbatim:
“Black people are stupid and you’re black, so you’re stupid”
I remember standing up and shouting “I’m not Black!” While this sentence is true, it certainly isn’t a defense of half of my heritage. That was the moment that I made a decision that of the things I would end up in life, stupid would not be one of them. I think every child’s first racist experience is confusing. Mine also felt perplexing.
I was also white, how could he be racist against me?
Sadly, this is the point where many of multi-racial children decide that they will align with whichever of their races accepts them the most readily. If you are Black and White odds are you could go through your whole life referring to yourself as Black with little to no resistance. However, attempting to do the inverse is sure to raise some eyebrows if not suspicion.
As you grow older, others attempt to make the decision for you. They tell you which side you are. I have had people tell me to pick a side to my face. I was being accused of being Racheal Dozeal before she ever applied bronzer to her skin and weave to her hair. Are our views on ethnicity so myopic? If we mix blue and yellow we certainly don’t get more blue. How is it that we can accept the mixing of crayons easier than the mixing of people?
President Barrack Obama is termed as the first Black President of the United States, even though his White mother is the only reason he could become President. Think about that for a second.
Were it not for his American mother, President Barrack Obama would have been exactly what every birther believed him to be: a native African. Netflix released a new interview with him on January 12th of this year, and I learned he barely even knew his father! He directly credits his mother with shaping him into who he is today. Yet, despite her immeasurable effect on his life we call him black.
I Refuse to Choose
After that fateful interaction with my classmate I was resolute in my identity. I was, am, and will always be multi-racial, mixed, halfrican, or daywalker (I made that last one up but it’s by far my favorite). I refuse to term myself as Black only as that disrespects the woman who gave up on her dream to join the Army to raise a baby that the world struggled to understand. The woman who would catch people staring at me, and later my sisters as well, with her and blow them kisses. Shy or non-confrontational my mother is not.
I am equally proud of both sides that contributed to who I am. However, that was not always the case. Society has a way of showing which of your races they value more. It’s because of this that I used to reveille in my ambiguous looks. My own battles with owning both sides equally is a story for another day.
In America we seem to believe we are more open minded racially then we truly are. From my perch on the fence between worlds, I have viewed both sides patting themselves on the back for their advanced views and understanding while never removing the fence in the first place.
I often joke about a future where everyone looks like me in identical jump suits and fingerless gloves. How that will be the day that racism/racial conflict ends. I’m not so sure if I actually believe that or if I just want an excuse to rock a jumpsuit. Whatever the answer is I know one thing for sure, your perspective shapes your interactions with the world and therefore your existence.
I am not Black.
I am not White.
I am just Brandon, which ain’t half bad.
Ed: As my children are bi-racial — half-Caucasian, half-South Asian – this resonated with me, as it will help me understand potential struggles my children may face. I’ve dealt with some similar struggles related to a cultural divide, but Brandon has had to deal with in a more outward way. Thank you to Brandon for sharing this with us. Please share any thoughts or comments below.