“You don’t act black.”
These are words that have been said to me more times than I can count. Most often, it comes from a well-meaning white person who, upon discovering my race, explains to me why they are surprised to learn I am biracial. I don’t act black. It’s not their fault they assumed I was white. Or Latina. Or Jewish. Or whatever. I should have just acted black.
White people don’t have exclusive rights to this phrase, though. I have also heard it (much less frequently) from blacks. Usually in these cases it is said in a teasing manner. Not once has a black person actually mistaken me for white. No black person has ever been shocked to learn of my race. I can only speculate to why that is, but I think the absence of white privilege is certainly part of it.
When I hear these words from white people it is always offensive. I would hope the reason is obvious, but just in case it’s not, let me explain. Telling someone they don’t act black is a cover up. What these people are really saying is, “I think black people act this way, talk like this, dress in these clothes, and so on.” These people are so stuck in the belief that there is only one way to “be black,” that they have difficulty accepting it any other way.
The truth is, it stings to hear this about myself, no matter who is saying it. While hearing it from whites is easier to brush off as plain old racism, I can’t help but doubt myself when I hear this from blacks, no matter if they were just being playful. The truth is, sometimes I worry that I missed out on something during all of my years in a white world. Is there some fundamental component to being a person of color that I somehow missed out on it? I feel somewhat embarrassed and guilty that so many parts of my life- the music I like, the neighborhood I live in, most of my friends- are white.
When a black person tells me I don’t act black, I worry that they may be speaking the truth. I don’t know what it means to be black. I know what it means to be biracial. I know that people will see my brown skin and be racist toward me, or they won’t see my brown skin and will let me in on their own racist thoughts. I know black people will tell me I have “good hair” and white people will ask if they can touch it. I know when I am shopping with a white friend I will be left alone, and when I do the same with a black friend I will be followed. I know people, for their own comfort, expect me to identify with just one race when that feels anything but comfortable to me. How could I possibly claim to be white when I experience racism, and how could I claim to be black when I benefit from white privilege?
My dad, my black parent, goes in and out of my life. His story is sad and complicated, but the end result is that he is absent most of the time. Recently, though, we were back in touch with each other when I learned that he hates rap music. He told me he wears cowboy boots. His favorite band of all time is Pink Floyd. Aside from the pleasure that came just from knowing these things, I felt validated. My dad is unmistakably black and here he was sharing his interests, none of them typically associated with being black. It made me wonder if anyone has ever told him he doesn’t act black? Could it be that not acting black is just in my genes and not necessarily due to my over exposure of whiteness?
I’ve often been hesitant to share my experiences of being biracial. Too often I have heard people use the “difficulty” of being biracial as an excuse for why we should only procreate within our own race. I have heard the assumptions that our lives must be hard, that we don’t fit in anywhere, and what an awful thing it is to bring a mixed race child into this world. I used to really internalize these messages, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but notice there seem to be more and more people like me. It occurred to me that it’s not about me (or anyone else) being biracial, it’s about people needing to let go of whatever ideas they have on what it means to be one race or another. I’m hopeful that as people get more and more comfortable embracing their multi-racial identities, eventually the world will have to catch up.