Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Black, Per Se: Why My Race Is a Choice



My brand of blackness is a choice. Every time I enter a room and engage with people in dialogues about race, I make the decision to inform them that I am bi-racial, because the alternative (passing) is something I've been told is an abhorrent and racist denial of my family. The narrative always goes bi-racial person has the opportunity to pass as white and, as sure as gravity, they always do. The reason being either an internalized hatred of their blackness, or a cowardly retreat into their whiteness in the face of violent racism.
The books I've read and the movies I've seen depict mixed people as running from the past and into the arms of whiteness. I didn't want to be like that, denying my family in what appeared to be such a shameful way. I wanted to acknowledge my black grandfather, who was a colonel in the military before it should have even been possible. The same feeling stands for my father who started a business in St. Louis, a town fraught with a history as well as contemporary issues with racism.
I loved and honored their accomplishments. But if I wanted to acknowledge them publicly, I would learn quickly that it wouldn't be without consequence.

I learned passing was not an option, but neither was "being" black. I had to claim black with every person I met. I had to take it back from those white people who saw my blue eyes and straight hair and slapped a white label on me and request it of the POC who did the same. I had to want it, earn it and prove it. This was the ritual with every person everyday regardless of their race.

So, my blackness is a choice. And some may posit that if it is a "choice" this means it isn't legitimate. I won't argue with that. I don't know how much of the black experience makes you black, and none of this post is meant to say my experience is the same as someone who is a visible Person of Color. To the contrary, I'd say our experiences are very different because of that dynamic of invisibility which affects both parties differently. I'd also say, though, that to alter my identity to white is not accurate.

So many black people are already reticent to allow those like me into their communities because I look like the people who have always belittled, raped and passed them on the way to inaccessible opportunities. So, although I want to be part of the black community, I am careful to be understanding when POC have trouble accepting my presence in their space.

For a while in high school, I quit correcting people because the constant push-back (from everyone, white or POC) and my rehearsed defense had become an exhausting battle, which I'd sometimes lose anyway. So I'd pass. Without any work or makeup or straightening products, white would close itself over me.

But whiteness felt like betrayal. It felt like a silent fight between myself and half of my family.
I found white people would confide their disillusionment with POC to me in a way that was glaringly like a ya-ya sisterhood of racism. They would say terrible things about the neighborhoods they grew up in being ruined by immigrants or how they wished a town would be gentrified because it was so sadly dilapidated. But it was the way they expected me to agree which startled me most. Their candor allowed me to see the squirming underbelly of their aging and unquestioned prejudice. Sometimes it was passed down from older mentors and other times it seemed an unfortunate consequence of thinly coded language they had absorbed from the media. Either way, theirs was not a safe space to occupy and I felt like I was always just a breath from facing the monolith that is color-blind racism.

Having silently and passively camped with the enemy solidified my guilt. It was as though my whiteness had eaten my brownness like an aggressive cancer overtakes healthy cells, and my complacence with it made me so tired I was unsure how I would have the energy to constantly "other" myself again. I had another choice: I could be exhausted from the constant barrage of infamous where-are-you really-from's or be completely drained of my black identity.

While deciding, I tried not to take in all of the messages I was reading in books or in other media. How did everyone feel about interracial relationships and their products (me)? Coming from those who are still so influential in society and my life, it was hard to ignore the negative opinions and the noise made me hate myself. How can you reconcile that you are simultaneously a product of the slave and the slaver?

Once, after my grandfather had passed, I sat pondering him as a black man and how proud our family was of his legacy. I had thought before about what effect his death had on my identity. Was I no longer really as black since he was gone? Was he the only one who really made any of my blackness so? But it was then that it dawned on me that, as much as I loved him as a proud black man, perhaps this conversely made him hate me for how white I was. My white grandmother told me once that black and white people were "just different", but in their dislike of me, both seemed quite the same.
All this did was make my body a cage, which I paced around in restlessly. I hated it for a long while; I still sometimes do, for its rail thin outline, and hair that refuses to curl into anything other than a brown halo of racially nondescript frizz. Most at fault were my blue eyes but all of it melded into a macabre chorus that became a cacophony, easily drowning out the sound of my choking blackness.

As with everyone else, I passively allowed my partners to decide who or what they thought I was. My white boyfriend claimed I may only be a quarter or 1/16th. Later, my black partner tried to convince me (and I think himself) that I really was black despite my features. So I employed yet another tactic, overcompensating. It looked similar to what Rachel Dolezal was doing during her tenure at the NAACP, but mostly I would refuse to wear sunscreen. It was a feeble attempt to darken my skin to a recognizable shade of brown. Sometimes I'd try coaxing my hair into its old curl pattern, the one I'd naturally had as a child. But my hair was as tired as I was and it would never settle into anything more than gentle waves, which Sephora would sometimes confusingly call "beach waves" (though, at this time, I had never been to a beach).

This is why I think I understand why Rachel did what she did. I understand what it is to want so badly for things to line up, for your identity and the communities you are accepted into to "match". I get it, I do. But Rachel has made my life more difficult by reminding POC that they can't trust white-folks. Watching people thank her has made me realize the sad necessity of  discussing this. I truly don't care about her motives nor her CV. As many other authors have written, white people can and do participate in social justice activism, including work which deals with race. Regardless of her motives, her actions have impacted me, and as a white-passing person of color, that is contrary to any work she may have done for the NAACP under the claim of furthering the cause of equality for People of Color. She has only confused the situation.

As someone who regularly sits on the fringes of inclusion with regards to race, I find it frustrating that a woman who reaped the benefits of white privilege couldn't seem to cope with the fact that maybe not everyone wanted her in every discussion. I once said whiteness is a gift, for which I received a lot of flak, but I still believe this to be true in America. Gifts are about who and what we value and nothing, in terms of racial oppression, is more valued than whiteness and those who have it. Rachel internalized this belief which is, in itself, yet another marker of her privilege. To feel as though she belongs in every space and must inject herself as a means of doing good clearly announces that she places her discomfort at not being included at a higher value of importance than the discomfort of people of color, the community she claimed to serve.

Thanks to her, my whole existence is once again a joke. And it's one people had almost gotten tired of laughing at. When will it die down again? I'm really not sure, #AskRachel ...