I’m Black. There, I said it.
I know that’s not what a lot of people see when they look at me and I’ve never had a strong racial identity that I’ve shouted from the rooftops, so let me elaborate.
When I was a kid there were 2 valid choices for a non-immigrant with non-immigrant parents- Black and White. I’m not white. But Black people were rarely valid and the ones who were valid were historical icons dragged out once a year- not people.
As time went on, a third option came on the scene- a plucky/nerdy/tech savvy Asian. I wasn’t raised in Asian culture. One of my grandparents was Asian- or Pacific Islander, according to many- because like everyone else in my lineage we aren’t considered (insert location here) enough.
I remained Black.
The characters I could see myself in didn’t come until much later. On the playground I would be assigned the Black girl character- no matter how lame she (or her superpower) was. Curly hair- they didn’t care that I identified with the life and emotions and desires of another character more. There was a box for kids like me and if I didn’t want to be in it I couldn’t play with the white kids. They were all white kids willing to be my friend so I accepted my place within that structure.
Time went on and Black people were accepted as (non-evil, speaking) characters ONLY if they were in a position of power. They could be a judge or a police chief or a BAWSE (boss, but not a regular boss- only the bossest of bosses.) They could be the principal who has all the authority, but not the teacher with a character arc. They still couldn’t be people. An extra, a token black friend, or a top-of-the-class no-downside-having boss. Bonus validation points for the creators if the token black was female. (There was also ONE body and hair type for these girls, but that’s a whole other story too.)
I was raised on white culture, and in it. I was called “illegal alien” in second grade when “Mexicans” were shooting practice in the media. I was asked “Do you speak English?” at my first job. But I wasn’t raised in Mexican culture- even though one of my grandparents was Mexican. That wasn’t my world. I was never Mexican enough. So I stayed Black.
My parents, grandparents, and a few other adults did their best to tell me that I was enough, or that I could be enough, and that being a person in this country is enough. What I saw in the mirror and what I had available in the media told me differently every waking moment.
The first time I saw people who actually looked like me in the media was Hot Import Nights ads. ( I was 18 or 19 I think, and being a promotional model was one of the realistic avenues available to me.) Busty, ethnically ambiguous…ish Asian-looking women, scantily clad, leaning on imported cars slashed and sprinkled with LEDs. But they weren’t exactly characters or people. Just images. But they were the first indication in the media that I could be seen. By white people- who were the default and therefore the only people. White people were the only ones without a qualifier and the main qualifier for these women was “hot” or “sexy,” not “brown” or (insert country of some ancestral origin here.)
My grandmother was very into ancestry and our family tree and we were and are a true global melting pot. More European than African. Which makes me (probably- but that’s a whole other thing) more European than anything else. But I’m still Black. As much as we’d like to think that the one drop rule doesn’t apply anymore and that our default neighbors are woke enough to see that- that’s not the world I grew up in. Light skinned relatives who are younger than me have faced racism when they were “outed” as Black. My own kid in first grade was near tears when she asked why she has darker skin than her classmates.
I had a friend once say something racist and then, shocked, apologize. The apology was “I forgot you aren’t white.” (We aren’t friends anymore, though I have no ill will against her and hope that she’s learned better along with the rest of us.)
I had a boyfriend who was staring at underwear ads in Target once and when he saw the look on my face his defense was “What? As a white man, I’m attracted to white women.” The problem I had wasn’t that they were white or even “other women” but I was into modelling at the time and knew that they were 15-16 years old. He was an adult.
I’ve never seen a cop with a gun drawn and thought my life or any life was in danger. That’s the privilege of where I grew up. I have seen cops with guns drawn kind of a lot, but that’s another story altogether.
All my life I have been denied the privilege of being a colorless “fellow human.” So I’ve been Black. Not Black enough to say it out loud, so I said nothing. Instead, it went something like this:
“What are you?”
“Like what race are you? What’s your heritage?”
“No but like where are you from?”
“Literally this exact city.”
“But like where are your parents from?”
“Also this city or at least this state.”
“No but what ARE you?”
“I give up.”
“Can I have my change now please?”
If I’m ever faced with this question in the future, the answer will remain the same. I’m not about to start telling strangers I’m black. I’m okay with making them uncomfortable for asking. I prefer it. As long as I live in a world where people feel entitled to my identity, I will feel more comfortable shielding it from them.
I’d rather be a colorless fellow human, or something cool and exciting. I’d rather not know that the white businessmen in the room are ignoring me because I look like their kitchen staff. I’d rather not have lived with the racism I have lived with. I’d love to be able to make anything else be the first thing people see when they look at me. It’s not cultural or class for me, it’s skin color. I watched the same shows on the same suburban tract home carpets eating the same mac and cheese from the same box as the white kids who surrounded me. I was raised in white culture. I got the same sanitized lessons about the civil rights movement as they did, but I looked different while doing it, so I was seen differently and treated differently for no reason that I understood. They were taught that I was “them.” I was taught that they were “them.” They had an “us.” I did not.
I’d love for strangers to look at my achievements and my skills and even my faults and accept me for what actually makes me who I am. I don’t want people to see me as a cause but if looking at me humanizes Black lives for you- I’m okay with that. But I’m not the one who needs your help. I’m doing okay. I’m trying to see where I can be useful right now and I’m trying to keep myself sane while doing that and keeping my kids safe and fed.
Thank you to the white friends who wanted to play with me because they like me based on what we have in common and what we admire about each other. Thank you to my POC friends who really only came to me later in my life for giving me the space and the language to come to terms with things I never wanted to look deeper at as a POC myself. Thank you to everyone who helped me see my own ignorance and to everyone struggling right now to understand more and to do better. Without you I wouldn’t have any kind of voice in this world and I wouldn’t know myself at all.
I’m working on something that I was going to aim at writers, and still probably will, though a lot more people should be able to benefit, to allow regular people who are constantly othered, under-represented, and poorly represented to say something. Not just the leaders and the gifted who already have a voice and a platform, but the people who just… are. Small stories that make real people real, centered around the things that separate us. I’m still working it out, so stay tuned for more on that.
That’s all for now.