I remember the day that my racial identity first came into question. I was seven years old, and I was late for school. My dad walked me to the door of my classroom where all of my classmates were already settling in. He watched me go inside and sit down before waving goodbye and disappearing from the doorway. The boy sitting next to me asked me who that was. I was confused because I thought it was obvious that he was my dad. When I told the boy this, he looked really confused, which made me really confused. The thing about it was, my dad is black and my skin is much lighter than his. This was the first of many moments where I felt I had to explain my appearance to others.
After that day I didn’t see much of my father and was raised by my mother, surrounded by her side of the family which is large and very white. I grew up in a predominately white area in Northern California where the color of one’s skin was a non-issue. I was never made to feel different, or less than, by my many cousins or my classmates when I was a kid. Most strangers I encountered assumed I was Hispanic, or even white because my skin color is so fair. There were countless times when native Spanish speakers would approach me and address me in Spanish assuming I could understand them. This happened so many times that I eventually learned enough of the language to tell someone that I did not speak the language. Not being dark enough to be recognized as black was considered an advantage as far as my dad was concerned. When my sister and I were young he told my mom that we were light enough to “pass,” which meant that most white people would probably assume we were also white. Growing up the way he did, in the era of blatant racism, it was important for him to feel that we could move through the world with more safety from prejudice than he did. Little did he know, not fitting into a clean category presents its own set of problems.
Most of these instances of confusion were pretty funny, like the time I was riding the BART train with some friends when I was 15 and the boy sitting across from me suddenly said, “Hey, are you Palestinian?” At that age I had a vague notion of where Palestine was and, at the time, it was beginning to be dangerous to be from that part of the world with the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But I was not in the mood to explain myself to a stranger so I said, “Sure.”
“Cool,” he replied. He turned up his boom box and bobbed his head to the music until the next stop where he exited the train.
My sister was sitting next to me and she asked why I lied to the guy.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Don’t you ever get sick of having to explain yourself to people?”
She thought about it for a minute and chuckled, “Yeah, I guess.”
Over the years I have been asked, “What are you?” so many times it’s exhausting. When I first started having to answer this question, I used to give long-winded answers about how my dad is black and my mom is white, but the reason I’m so light-skinned is because my great-grandmother on my dad’s side was as well. After a while, I started to say something along the lines of, “What am I? What do you mean? I am a human female with many interests, hobbies, and responsibilities. What else do you want to know?” But I always knew what they wanted to know. I did not care. I was not in the habit of demanding to know someone else’s racial identity, and I did not understand why it was so important that people knew mine. Eventually, I just began to reply, “I’m mixed,” and let the inquirer do with that information what they would.
It might seem like this aspect of my life took up a lot of my time and energy, but, truthfully, it was not until I moved from the comfortably liberal Bay Area of California to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that I really started to think about my ethnicity. The Deep South is much different than the West Coast as far as ideals and values. There is also a much larger black population in Baton Rouge than there was where I grew up. Since I moved here, I have had the experience of being recognized as mixed by black people, while white people rarely broach the subject with me at all. It has been an interesting experience being taken into the fold as one of “the tribe” so to speak by my black acquaintances and coworkers, when, previously, I was considered a confusing anomaly by most of the people around me. The days of my mixed-race status being a non-issue are gone now, with the constant media reports of police violence against the black community and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. I feel as though I have a responsibility to acknowledge my roots when so many people do not get to “pass” and are targeted for an aspect of themselves over which they have no control.
I recently started working at a new restaurant that opened up in my neighborhood. My coworkers are mostly young black men and women, many of whom consider me to be one of them, although my skin is much lighter. In the morning, we usually get there early and sit in the parking lot together, talking and drinking coffee, waiting for our boss to arrive. One morning, I was sitting with Alicia on a parking slab near the entrance when we were approached by a police officer. He casually walked over to us from the grocery store that shared the parking lot, and I felt myself tense up. I began to ask myself if I was doing something illegal, even though I knew for a fact that I was not. I saw Alicia’s back go straight as well, and I realized that I was living the black experience that I had always heard about from the safety of the hugely diverse Bay Area, but had never completely understood. The cop, who was white, introduced himself to us and shook our hands, asking if the food was any good and simply making small talk. Even though the exchange was perfectly pleasant, I still felt at any moment that the situation could take a turn for the worse. After he left the area, Alicia and I breathed a collective sigh of relief and laughed, agreeing, “That was weird!”
The same thing happened the next day when there were more of us waiting in the parking lot. This time, it was a different police officer who barely stepped foot out of the grocery store entryway and shouted, “Hey, y’all work over there?”
We all shouted back, “Yeah.”
“Okay, just making sure,” he said, and disappeared back inside.
I felt guilty that I might have been the only person in that parking lot who had not lived their entire life with suspicion of the police and their motives. Alicia told me she got nervous when any white person she did not know approached her like that.
Kenny said, “In this situation, you’re black. If you were alone out here, no one would look twice at you, but you’re out here with all of us. You’re black.” He laughed, and I laughed along, but he was right. Standing there next to my coworkers, I finally fit into a category: loitering while black. 2016, ladies and gentlemen. This is where we are.