I recall first identifying as Black during the Black Power movement when I was in the seventh grade. I was riding a Berkeley school bus full of other Black kids, fantasizing about living in one of the nice homes in the White neighborhoods we passed, when another Black girl invaded my personal space.
“I like your hair,” she said, fingering my tresses from behind. “You have good hair.”
I whipped my head around and politely thanked her for the compliment, but I was puzzled. I didn’t think my hair was all that “good” to warrant such a compliment. Its bushy texture and considerable length required a decent amount of effort to detangle and braid each morning. It wasn’t straight enough to wear “down,” nor would it properly stand up for an Afro (though I wore one anyway).
Other Black girls weren’t so kind. In the schoolyard, some called me nasty names and sucker-punched me in my back. They accused me of “acting White” and speaking “like a White girl” even though they knew nothing about me. I observed how Black girls hung out with other Black girls and Whites with Whites in the schoolyard, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways during recess. While I assumed that I didn’t fit in with the Whites, I wasn’t so sure the Black girls wanted me. Like the necessary act of breathing, however, I merged into the latter contingent.
To avoid future schoolyard fights, I took stock of prior taunts and made a few adjustments. I dumbed myself down by pretending not to know the answer to math equations when called upon by my teacher. I made an awkward attempt to “talk Black,” taking my cues from a dialect to which I’d been exposed by living in Black neighborhoods even though that dialect was not spoken in my home. Still, I wasn’t entirely sure that the Black girls liked me.
This form of “otherism” based in colorism was not my first encounter with being an outsider. Back in elementary school, I used to walk past a mysterious establishment enclosed by tall hedges and a gated fence. I often stopped to peer through the locked gate and admire the beautiful green lawn, which was a rarity in my neighborhood. One day, I noticed a sign: “Lawn Bowling, Whites Only.” While something panged inside my impressionable consciousness, it was quickly replaced by a recurring hope that someone would accidentally leave the gate open and provide me a better vantage point from which to admire the lawn and whatever else lay beyond. That hope faded with time.
A different experience left me with a sickly feeling that I was also too young to fully comprehend. One evening, my father took my younger sister and me up into the Oakland Hills where few well-to-do Blacks lived to admire the spectacularly lighted Mormon Tabernacle, but we did so from the sidewalk. When I asked to go inside, he gently stated, “They don’t allow Blacks.”
While the racial discrimination I experienced led me to internalize at a young age that my skin color was repugnant to folks with white skin, grooming me to feel inherently inferior, on the flip side, some in the Black community, particularly older adults entrenched in that old-school colorism mentality, found my difference “special.”
I was caught off-guard when a young Hispanic male stopped me on the street during my walk to school to inquire about my ethnicity. “Hey, are you Creole?”
I knew something about Creoles. My mother and grandmother fed us gumbo and jambalaya. My great aunts talked about “patois” and threw around foreign terms I did not comprehend.
“Do I look Creole?” I replied.
“Yeah. I know a few who live around here.”
At the time, I hadn’t understood that much earlier in the century, a Great Migration to California of Louisiana Creoles in search of better opportunities had taken place over decades and that large Creole enclaves settled in Oakland (my birth town) and other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. Nor had I understood that the unique ethnicity and fascinating culture of this mixed-race people originated in a disturbing legacy of colonialism, rape, and enslavement. As a child, I thought Creole simply meant a different way of cooking.
Another example of not squarely fitting into a race box occurred in my early twenties when I visited my hair salon to get a touch-up of my relaxer. A newly employed African American stylist greeted me, snapped a cape around my neck, and began to part my hair into sections. He paused and turned silent before asking, “How come your scalp is white?”
I was dumbfounded. I’d never thought about my scalp color and wasn’t sure how to answer. After explaining that it was unusual to see Black women with white scalps, the stylist then asked, “Are you mixed?”
I’d never considered myself as anything other than Black once I learned I was Black. While my frame of reference had been my father’s light brown skin and green eyes and my mother’s Creole family, many of whom could and did pass for White, I assumed anyone with non-white skin was Black. Back then, my definition of “mixed” was having one Black parent and one White parent. So I did not consider myself mixed.
Puzzled that my scalp color was a “thing,” I explained to the stylist that my mother and her family were light-skinned Blacks from Louisiana. Then, at the conclusion of my appointment, I hopped into my car and examined my scalp in the rearview mirror. Lo and behold, the stylist was correct. I subsequently surveyed other Black women’s scalps and saw a difference that I previously hadn’t appreciated.
At some point, I thought my apparently unique appearance meant I would be accepted in all circles. While many Blacks bestowed a curious privileged status upon me because of my light brown skin tone and less kinky hair texture, the presence of melanin in my skin dictated my regard as a second-class citizen among White circles. When I started a new class, the teacher assumed I was dumb. When I walked down the street, I was expected to move out of the path of White folks who deemed me invisible. When I entered a store, I was seen as a thief and not someone who’d saved her hard-earned money from summer jobs to spend on a new belt or album. I was underestimated, excluded, and devalued–a dynamic that has continued well into my adult life.
Race is a social construct originally developed for the commercialization of Black bodies in bondage. The historical admixture of sexual assault and oppression that characterized American colonialism left its imprint in the gene pool of vast numbers of African Americans. I represent the embodiment of our nation’s troubled history of carnage and ambition, a whitewashed past that many attempt to erase.
Recent genealogical research has revealed that nearly half of my genetic composition is European. Throughout my upbringing, I was referred to as Creole, high-yellow, redbone, light-skinned, exotic, African American, mixed, Black, and nigger. Racism and otherism remain embedded within the framework of my existence, which is why the true history of America’s founding should never be repressed. Change doesn’t come easy and must start with acknowledgement of truth.
Depending on the context, I now interchange my racial identity as Black or African American with “person of color.” In doing so, though, I’ve asked myself, Am I “selling out,” or am I not entitled to embrace all aspects of my lineage? While I did not choose my heritage, I choose to acknowledge it.