~ When you grow up in that (multi-ethnic) environment, you see the world differently. Being a mixed-race child, I didn’t always see color in people, I really didn’t. It was other people who made me see the color all the time. ~ Halle Berry
I was in elementary school the first time I was introduced to the idea of race. I can remember it distinctly because I honestly had never viewed other people as anything other than people. I was in school in the lunch line in between a group of little black girls and little white girls. We had just moved from Kentucky to Tennessee and I was new to the school. The group of black girls told me “I was too light to be black” and the group of white girls told me “I was too dark. I wasn’t white.” I was so confused that when I returned home I remember crying as I told my mother. I just wanted a group of friends and I couldn’t wrap my head around how what I looked like affected a friendship. Why didn’t I fit in? Yes my mother is white and my father is black, but I never saw color with them. It wasn’t something they taught me. It was a day I will never forget because ever since that day my race is the first thing that people of ANY race question.
The most prominent question in my life when someone meets me is “What are you?” “What are you?”, as if I’m some creature or different species that no one can comprehend. As if my defining characteristic is my race and not who I am. Normally when I’m in the mood to answer the question, I usually state I’m biracial, that I’m half black and half white. The follow-up question almost always is “Which parents white, your mom or your dad?” Now I can understand the “what are you ” question because our society defines people by the boxes they can place them in. If society can place you in a box than they feel as if they have a better understanding of who you are because then you can be tied to a stereotype. However, what I have never understood is why is there a need to know which parent happens to be white and which is black. The specification of which parent is black or white will not change the fact that I am a biracial child. It won’t affect the outcome of who I am as a person so why does it matter?
For me personally it’s more complicated than just labeling my mother white and my father black. My parents are my parents. Not black not white. Just my parents. They are the two people who taught me how to walk, ride a bike, read, laugh when something was funny, cry when I was hurt, and live my life on my own terms. They are the two people who worked their individual jobs to provide for my brother and I. They are the two people who nurtured and molded me as an individual. They taught me right from wrong. Taught me that my skin color was not my definition, but my character was. That my thoughts and opinions mattered. That my voice is powerful and it should be heard. That everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how you handle the after that matters. They taught me apologies can go a long way. That forgiveness is healing. They taught me that change only occurs with action and not to sit on the sidelines when an injustice is happening. And none of what they taught me came from a white or black perspective. It came from a HUMAN perspective. You treat others how you want to be treated. You treat others as if they are an extension of your family. That was the underlying message.
It was never about skin and because of that I see the world differently than most people. It’s never been white or black for me. I see in grey. I don’t make that distinction as acutely as others might. I simply wasn’t raised to. And that’s where I think it starts from. Your parents build the foundation on which you see the world. If all they ever teach you is to see color that is all you will ever know. Those little black and white girls in my elementary school weren’t born with those thoughts. It was learned. Maybe it was learned through their parents and maybe they learned through a similar experience like mine. Because let’s face it society makes it hard to ignore. However it came about for them, their words towards me changed the perception I had of myself. It made me feel less. It made me feel like something was wrong with me and when you are that young it’s hard to see past what others see you as. I was in the process of building my identity. I think that’s why my mother so fervently drilled into me that I was a biracial child. I was not black. I was not white. I was both. I came from both cultures and they were both beautiful in their own way. She wanted me to own both worlds. To accept where I came from as my truth. Something no one could take from me because they weren’t living it.
As a thirty year old biracial woman I look back on that conversation with my mother and I’m grateful for how she approached it. She empowered me to love myself for exactly who I was born to be. I know outwardly I’m considered black, even if a person can tell there’s something a little different about me, I’m still put under the black label none the less. I understand that. It’s not as if I’m ignorant to it, but it’s just that I don’t choose to identify as that. Now that isn’t because I don’t love my black heritage. I spent most of my time growing up learning about my black heritage. I know the black culture that I came from. I know where my dad’s side of the family comes from and their background. It doesn’t make me any less “black” if I choose to identify as biracial. And for those who say it does they’re ignorant in their own right. They have not lived my life so they have no room to comment. I identify as biracial on almost all occasions, because you see, telling a biracial person to choose a race is like telling them to pick a parent. If I only associate as black, in my mind, I’m choosing my father and ignoring my mother. That is something I simply will not do. My mother is the most kind-hearted and generous person I’ve ever met. She believes in karma. She believes that what you do to someone else comes back on you. She lives her life caring for others around her before she cares for herself. She is the epitome of a beautiful heart and spirit. And she’s white. Why would I denounce that part of her that I came from because I resemble something else?
Now that’s not to say because I identify as biracial that I don’t see the injustices or the institutionalized racism that happens in the black community. It’s very prevalent and it’s very real and to belittle the struggles that the black community goes through just because you don’t experience it is absolutely wrong. I may see in grey, but I know right from wrong. My moral compass is very accurate. But what I’m trying to say is I don’t generalize a whole race of white people for the injustices either. Is there a lot of naivety from members of the white community because of the privilege they have. Absolutely. Do I think all white people when handling certain scenarios come from a place of malice. No. They come from lack of understanding and knowledge. They don’t know the struggle. They’ve never had to. I can say this because I’ve experienced racism and I’ve watched as my mother struggled to understand my experience. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. She just couldn’t put her self in my place. My world is different from hers. But the most important thing is that she tried. She wanted to know. She opened the lines of communication to have that conversation with me. And that’s why I see in grey. I’ve experienced what it means to be black and I’ve also experienced when someone white really puts forth the effort to understand. To see your perspective. To stand by you even though they may not fully be able to comprehend it.
The world I live in is different than most people. Maybe not other biracial or multiracial people, but those who are solely one race or another. I live in limbo. I’m not always fully accepted by the black community and not fully accepted by the white community either. As some friends have jokenly told me I’m this beautiful little misfit. In all actuality they are completely right. I am a misfit. I live in between and while at times I can feel very isolated for the most part I feel liberated. I don’t live by other people’s standards of who I should be. I’m comfortable in my own skin because I’ve accepted both worlds I’ve come from. I don’t hold prejudice because I’ve seen the best of both worlds. That’s what I hold on to. The knowledge that there are some AMAZING individuals from both races that I come from. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. It’s breathtaking.
And while I’ve become accustomed to the question of “what are you?” I would like to ask those of you who pose the question to simply not. Think before you ask. I am not my race. Just as you would like the world to stop viewing you by your race, so would I. It simply doesn’t matter. It didn’t when I was younger and didn’t know better and it doesn’t now being an adult and aware. At least not to me. If you’re that curious it will eventually come up in conversation. I will talk about my background so you will know, but there’s no need for that to be the go to when you first meet someone who is biracial or multiracial. Also you have no right to be offended because I choose to identify as biracial and not black or white. This is not your identity we are talking about. It’s mine. If the idea of me identifying as biracial offends you than you might want to reflect inwardly. That says more about your way of thinking than it does about mine. Because what I find most often is that the other person is automatically jumping to the conclusion that I’m purposely denying one or the other of my heritage. That is in no way what I am doing or what some biracial or multiracial people are doing. In actuality we are ACCEPTING both heritages. Acknowledging that both are equally as important. You don’t have to agree with me. That’s fine. But you do have to respect my choice.
I am not you and you are not me. That’s what makes diversity so beautiful. I immerse myself in both worlds because I’ve found a firm standing ground to do so. I love my black culture just as much as I love my white. I came from two very amazing human beings. Two people who were able to see the beauty in each other even if they were of different races. And they made two children who have decided to look beyond the skin. To see more than color, but the person beneath. Don’t fault me for trying to change the rhetoric. I won’t apologize for it. What I can promise you is that I see it all. I experience it all and I do MY best to talk about it with anyone who will listen. People can’t learn and understand what’s wrong if you aren’t willing to speak up about it. As my parents once said. Change doesn’t happen by sitting on the sidelines….