“Why did God paint me brown?” I don’t personally remember asking my aunt this question at the age of four, but I like to reflect on this story when she tells it as it was just the beginning of my basic understanding of race and self-awareness. As a child of a white mother and a black father, my journey to find my racial identity was complex. I felt pressured to “choose a side” and struggled to fit the stereotypes of both of my races. I internalized my world and I tried to become what people believed I should be, leading me to feel out of place for most of my childhood.
It was important to my mother that she raise me in a multicultural environment. I am grateful that I attended a school system that celebrated cultural diversity and that I had friends from all over the world. However, being raised by a single mother in a white household and having no relationship with my father or his side of the family definitely affected my ability to develop a healthy self-concept. As a child, I envied my mother’s skin and wished that I was born white. If someone referred to me as black, I would boldly insist that I was “only half.” I fantasized about purging the black out of me by marrying a white man so that I could have children with lighter skin than I had. I realize now that my resentment towards my black side was a result of having an absentee father, the effects that I am still working to undo today. But that’s a story for another time…
As a child, I envied my mother’s skin and wished that I was born white.
By the age of seven, my classmates began to assume that I was adopted because my “skin was brown” while my mother’s “skin was white.” Their constant speculating caused me to believe that my mother was not actually my biological mother. Consequently, I began to resent her and became defiant – refusing to comply with her directions. In order to help me cope with my anger and confusion, she arranged for me to start therapy.
My mother fostered my identity autonomy and tried her best to assist me with handling the challenges I experienced, while trying to instill the concept of self-love in me. However, I do think she could have helped me develop a sense of pride in my African heritage by empowering me with more knowledge and understanding of my background. In all fairness, she was a single mother who was shouldering a load that is typically carried by two, so I give her credit for fulfilling all of my other emotional and physical needs. I admire my mother’s inner strength and perseverance; I think she did a damn good job raising me on her own and shaping me into the woman that I am today.
Despite receiving therapy at a young age, I continued to battle with racial identity for the remainder of my childhood. In fact, I did everything I could do to appear “whiter” up until I began high school. I yearned to have long, sleek straight hair. By the mere age of eleven, I finally persuaded my mother to allow me to chemically relax my hair in order to have the straight hair that I always dreamed of. To my disappointment, my hair did not magically stay straight – as soon as a tad bit of moisture made contact with my hair, the curls reappeared. In addition to that letdown, the chemicals caused severe breakage that limited me to wearing my hair in a ponytail for two and a half consecutive years (by the way, this was way before weaves were a trend, otherwise this would have been my saving grace). Not only was my self-esteem damaged, but now my hair was damaged – not a good combination for any middle schooler.
Although my mother would tell me that my brown skin and naturally curly hair was
something to be proud of and that the grass isn’t always greener on the other, whiter, side, I remained critical of my appearance and uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt that my mother was biased because I knew her love for me was unconditional – that I was beautiful in her eyes. She could have told me a million and one times that I was perfect just the way God made me. The truth was, I did not like the way God made me. Even meditating on Michael Jackson’s lyrics, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white,” couldn’t keep me from defining myself by my hair and skin color.
Over time, I learned to become a chameleon in order to adapt to the pressures that I faced. Depending on the day, the moment, or whom I was conversing with, I would change how I identified myself to others. I tried to fit the stereotypes of each race, but of course, I always came up short. Most times, I was labeled “too white” and “not black enough.” I identified and connected more with my white peers, so I was often referred to as an “Oreo.” I definitely felt more pressure from my black peers to “choose” one side, while my white peers were more accepting of me by allowing me to be myself. I was also targeted by my darker-skinned female classmates for having “nice hair” and light skin if the boys showed interest in me. Like any child, I was just trying to figure out where I fit into this world. I desperately wished to be accepted and for others to recognize me for who I was as a person rather than for which side I chose to identify with.
Growing up I didn’t have the luxury of fitting into a nice, little box labeled “Two or More Races.” That box wasn’t even an option for me when I was a child, so it was agonizing for me to select one race on a standardized test or application. Having both of my races acknowledged equally was important to me. Too often, I would opt for “Other” because neither one of the two individual boxes defined precisely who I was. Referring to myself as “other” caused me to feel even more unworthy and out of place in this world.
I have a light brown pigment, though my features do tell a different story. Since people are particularly intrigued by my ambiguously ethnic look, I have spent the majority of my life answering the same ridiculous questions: “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” After growing tired of playing the same song on repeat, I decided to start the guessing game with folks. This resulted in complete strangers asking to feel my hair in order to round up more clues.
The multitude of responses from people regarding my ethnic background is astonishing. I have heard everything from Indian, Mexican, Italian, Native-American, Dominican, Middle Eastern, and Hawaiian. However, the most outrageous response of all time has to be “a tan white girl” when a contestant on my game show ran out of guesses. That was certainly the first and only time I’ve heard that one, so I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Once people would discover that I was black and white, they would somehow manage to find it arguable. When I was fifteen years old, someone had the audacity to ask me, “Are you sure?” when he became aware of my racial makeup. The fact that people would question the validity of my background only prolonged my journey to find my identity.
I had an epiphany shortly after turning eighteen years old; I realized that I would never be able to conform to others’ expectations of me. I realized that nobody can act like a certain color, so I decided to just stick with acting like a human. Thus, about a week prior to graduating from high school, I finally made the decision to claim my birthright to live as a proud member of both races. For the first time in my life, my racial identity was solely in my hands. I no longer cared how others viewed or identified me; I could finally exhale. To choose one race over the other was to acknowledge only half of me. I believe that is why I experienced such confusion and emotional turmoil as a child. No young person should feel the burden of choosing between two parents. Despite my father having absolutely no role in my upbringing, I was still a part of him, whether I liked it or not. After coming to terms with my father’s choice to miss out on my entire childhood, I decided that it was time for me to dig deeper into my cultural roots on my own, and college was the perfect place for me to begin the process of unpacking my blackness.
Today, I am a Thirty-Something who self-identifies as a biracial woman. I have chosen to commit to this descriptor because it reflects my life experience. I still refuse to reduce myself to only one race or to select only one box. I am married to a black man and together we share two beautiful children, who identify themselves as black. Our son was born with blonde hair and a very fair complexion, while our daughter resembles me as a child. Even though our children could pass for biracial, I am grateful that they don’t have to experience the pressure of choosing a side or wrestle with which box to check on standardized tests or on applications. Often times, I find myself living vicariously through my children – they are so fortunate to be growing up in a two-parent household where their father is present every day, praise God!
I am proud to be a combination of two races. I take pride in my African culture as well as being a member of the African-American community. Although the process of self-acceptance was difficult, I wouldn’t trade being biracial for a moment. It has truly caused me to become a more resilient, open-minded, and empathetic person. I have always had an instant connection with other biracial individuals, but my ethnicity enables me to make deeper connections with those from other cultural or religious backgrounds as well.
For the first time in my life, my racial identity was solely in my hands.
It wasn’t until about three years ago that I finally began to embrace my curly hair. I preferred to wear my hair straight through most of my life as it was easier for me to manage; however, I now appreciate my natural hair more than ever. My hair is more than just hair; it represents self-realization and all that I have overcome. I even have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to “Curly Hair Problems” and “Mixed Girl Problems” that provide me with some relatable humor. Rather than hearing on a daily basis that dehumanizing question, “What are you?” I hear “I love your curly hair!” I can’t tell you how much more gratifying it is to hear this! If only people knew how much this hair (and soul) has been through.