This is a guest post for swpd by Brenda, who writes of herself, "I'm a half black, half white young woman trying to discover what it means to be both and neither. After 19 years, I still haven't figured it out."
I’m black. My skin is what I have self-described as "caramel," my eyes are green, and my hair is curly (although these past few years I‘ve been straightening my curls, adding to people's puzzlement). Yet I have been asked countless times by white people, “What are you?”
When asked to a white person, this question is met with confusion. But for me, it’s an inquiry about my race. No one had to tell me, even as a child, that “What are you?” meant “What race are you?” I just knew. My answer used to be, “I’m mixed,” which would raise other questions about what I was mixed with and how much of it. “Mixed” was never a good enough answer.
So, during a racial epiphany in my teens I realized: I’m black. I never thought of it as a choice, to choose to be either white or black, despite being mixed with both. I knew that “mixed” wasn’t working for me, and I just felt black. I thought that once I started fully considering myself black, and telling people who asked that I was black, this whole “What are you?” problem would be solved forever. However, that simply raised another, more offensive question:
And the occasional, “You don’t LOOK black…”
Perhaps it's because I don’t have that stereotypical “black girl attitude.” Maybe it’s because I don’t wear Jordans and say the N-word. Or maybe it’s because I have light skin. Whether it be a combination of every reason or just one, the message is clear: I’m not allowed to be black without a white person's permission.
This message is further exemplified in an episode of the tv comedy “Scrubs,” in the beginning conversation of what would be an entire episode about the subject:
Dr. Cox: That laughing had better not be aimed in my direction, bro.
Turk: "Bro?" Dude, bros don't even use "bro." You're not as hip as you think you are.
Dr. Cox: And you are?
Turk: I'm black. God knew my people would go through some struggles, so He gave us a lifetime supply of cool to compensate. Just like He knew white people would be rhythmically challenged, so He gave y'all this dance.
(Turk does a cheesy dance.)
Dr. Cox: You're black? Because last I checked, you had a nerdy, white best friend, you enjoy Neil Diamond and you damn sure act like a black guy, and these, my friend, are all characteristics of white guys. Please understand, I'm a big supporter of the NAACP, and if you don't know that stands for, it is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And quite frankly, I always thought they should change the "Colored People" to "African Americans" but then, of course, it wouldn't be the NAACP. It would be the N-Quad-A, or NAAAA, and I know this probably sounds like a digression, but it actually leads me back to my original point. Do I think you're black? NAAAAAAHH!
So maybe it’s not a matter of skin color that Turk (Donald Faison), a black man, has his blackness refuted by Dr. Cox, a white man. Maybe it's instead because he acts “white.” At any rate, while the show is fictional, the real life comparisons are not. I feel under constant pressure to prove myself to white people, to prove that I’m black. I study slavery, racial and social issues, problems in countries in Africa, all the things that (I assume) white people look for when determining if someone without typical black characteristics can receive their “Black” stamp of approval.
Unfortunately, this white racist way of thinking carries over into the black community, and I find myself not being taken seriously when I tell other black people how I feel. I’ve been laughed at and I've received the same confused expressions that I get from white people. This may be because of the reasons I've already listed, but also for another: calling myself black and being treated as a black person are very different things. Very few times have I been blatantly discriminated against because of my perceived skin color, and I’m sure I’ve gotten away with things for the exact same reason. It’s possible some black people don’t see light-skinned people as having the same struggles and social disadvantages that they themselves have. I know my skin color is envied in this country, where dark skin often isn’t considered beautiful. And because of this light skin and the treatment from whites and some blacks alike, I feel robbed of the true “black” experience. I have the feeling I could be white with no problem from most white people; it’s the being black part I have to prove to their satisfaction.
Still, all this effort seems futile. In grade school, my brothers and I, who all have the same white mother and black father, were marked as different races in the school's information system. My brothers were labeled black, but I was labeled white. While it’s true both my brothers have darker skin than me and appear to white eyes as African American, the three of us were glanced at through these same white eyes and labeled differently. It happened in an instant, with one click of a mouse; it happened without a thought. Only my mother's outrage changed what the school considered me. With their permission, after my mother stated her case, I was allowed to be black.
I’m wondering if this problem is uniquely my own. I like to believe that it’s not. I know without a doubt that never has a white person accepted that I’m black when I tell them. I know that it always requires explaining, and that it’s always slightly awkward thereafter, as every time I’m asked and misunderstood, it’s another wedge between me and any white person I try to befriend. I know it’s still a personal struggle to understand what being black means to me, and how my blackness, or lack thereof, affects the white people I discuss it with. Every quizzical expression and stiffness of the words, “Oh… I get it,” while they lie through their teeth, is encouragement, or perhaps forced motivation, to keep proving myself to them, and to myself.
With this article, I hope to find insight into the question that has plagued me since childhood.
“What are you?”