What is the ethnic background of your parents?
Both of my parents identify as African American or Black though they both have multiracial parents or grandparents. My father is from the West Indies and both of his parents are biracial (black and white). My mother is African American and is from the South. Her father had a dark complexion and her mother had a very light complexion. She was adopted, but believes she was biracial as well (black and white). When people ask me what race I am I say black/African American, or occasionally, African American and West Indian, so that they won’t try to pick a fight with me about how I can’t be “all black” or “full black” and must be “mixed with something, somewhere.”
What type of colorism have you had to face and how did you deal with it?
I experienced prejudice for being “light skinned” as a child growing up in the South. I went to a variety of private schools, and experienced being the only African American student in a setting with all Caucasian students and being the very lightest complexioned student in an all Black school. In the setting with all Black students, I was accused of “being too white” or “acting white” doubly because my parents are both professionals and expected us to be very well spoken, as they are. I got accused of being stuck up. The fact that I looked white came to be an expected punch line of jokes. “You don’t understand this or that, because you’re white.” Not only do I have very fair skin and light colored hair, I also have blue eyes, so I stood out. Sometimes I felt like girls resented me because of these features. They went out of their way to make me feel different, pointing out that I couldn’t dance, or didn’t know the lyrics to certain songs, because I was a “white girl.” This was around the time the movie Save the Last Dance came out and I remember being compared to the star (who was played by Julia Stiles), a stereotypical white girl who couldn’t dance, on more than a few occasions. The dancing thing scarred me and stuck with me for several years. I refused to dance in public for a long time after I was told that I couldn’t dance. Thankfully I recovered from this by high school. I felt pressured to conform to how my black peers spoke, acted, the types of music they listened to, the kinds of clothes they wore, the hairstyles they chose, to fit in and prove my blackness in a kind of unconscious way. Sometimes I remember being confused about what my race was altogether. I remember really not believing that my father was black because he looked so white when I was very young. All of this was in middle and elementary school. By high school, I had come to appreciate my unique look more.
What do you think of the terms mixed, biracial, or mulatto?
I can’t count how many times growing up in the South, I’ve had strangers come up to me and blurt out “what you mixed with?” Or, even more unnervingly, “What you is?” I’ve been asked both for as long as I can remember. Usually by black people. My responses to this have generally depended on the mood I was in, or just how rudely the question came off. It’s human nature I guess to want to know, but does that then give someone the right to ask? Particularly when it’s someone who doesn’t know me at all and who will probably never see me again? I’m not sure it is. Mixed is the most common term I’ve had thrown at me. When I’ve responded to this question, that I’m black and I’m not mixed with anything, I’ve had several strangers, both black and white argue with me adamantly that I have to be mixed. That’s why I have blue eyes they’d say, or how else could I be so white? This has happened to me on many occasions ( I know it’s shocking to believe people could be so rude) and it’s the most insulting and infuriating way for these conversations to turn. You’re really going to fight me on this? I start to think. You’re really going to sit here and argue with me about what my race is? Mine? The skin I’ve been walking around in for more than two decades? ARE YOU SERIOUS? When people have tried to argue with me I normally fight back for a while and then walk away. No use trying to educate an entire ignorant sect of the population. No point in getting myself all worked up. I’m not in middle school anymore. I can take it. I know who I am and I don’t have to defend that to anyone anymore. The word mulatto isn’t one I’ve ever really heard in normal speech. It reminds me of slavery times for some reason and the slaves who were products of their masters preying on their female slaves. Biracial is not an offensive term to me (and neither is mixed for that matter) I just don’t feel like it applies to me. My parents are both black. They have identified as black for their entire lives and raised me to identify myself in the same way. Just thinking about having to defend that makes my skin prickle. I shouldn’t have to. To anyone. But because of my light skin, eyes and hair, lots of people I’ve encountered have felt compelled to force me to defend that identity. It’s really not a fair thing to make me and my other light skinned fellows do, but then, no one ever said life would be.
What do you have to say to people that think if you look White that you are not Black?
What a hurtful thing for someone to say. I would say to them that they’re ignorant. That black people come in all shades and it’s one of the most beautiful aspects of being a black person. When I was little, 4 or 5, I asked my mom what I should tell people when they ask me why I’m so light. She said I should tell them, I’m just coffee with a lot of cream. I wouldn’t say either of these today, but I’m sure I told people that when I was 5. I remember it so vividly. And what an accurate visualization it is, particularly for a little girl. Today I would say that whether someone is black or white is not determined just by what they look like. It should not also be limited by society’s narrow view of what black looks like and what white looks like. Race and identity has to do with parentage, culture, genetics and ancestry. I would also tell them that when it comes down to it, race really shouldn’t matter that much anyway. It rankles me how much emphasis is placed on skin color in society. We’re all people. We all deserve the same respect, justice and mercy as any other God-created individual on this earth. Period. Moving to NY has given me an even greater perspective on this. My skin here blends in much more than it did in Alabama and Mississippi. In my two years here, I haven’t had nearly as many people ask what I’m mixed with as I would have back home. Maybe people here are just more polite and decide to mind their own business. Maybe because there’s so much more variety in skin colors here, I don’t stick out as much, so fewer people feel compelled to ask. Here people do ask me where I’m from, and that’s common since so many people in New York are from such far reaching corners of the earth. Ive suspected that sometimes when people ask me this though, what they really want to say is “What are you??? Black? White? Mixed?” But they hold it in, and drop the subject when I reply, “Oh, I’m from the Alabama,” and sometimes, “No, not all girls from the Alabama look like me.”