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Category: Racism

Acting Black

Acting Black

“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.

We Still Need Black Lives Matter

We Still Need Black Lives Matter

His name was Darren Goforth. He was a deputy in Harris County, Texas, beloved by his family and community, and he was horrendously gunned down by a stranger as he pumped gas into his patrol car. Sit with that for a moment, if you will. While he engaged in a completely mundane and routine act, an act that is routine for most of us, he was executed. There was no time for him to defend himself, and no time to call for help. His death, without question, was tragic and terrifying. I can’t begin to fathom how the people who loved him can go on; their anguish must be so overwhelming.

Less than 24 hours after Deputy Goforth was killed, a man who is believed to be responsible for the murder was taken into police custody. I can imagine that this news, at least temporarily, provides some sort of relief to his loved ones. I imagine there must be some sense of justice for them, and perhaps it is somewhat helpful to have somewhere to focus their anger. What we know about this suspect is that he has a criminal history. And we know that he is black.

I want to be able to say that the races of these two men is inconsequential. I want to say with certainty that Goforth’s profession and whiteness had nothing to do with why the suspect chose him. And that may prove to be true. Yet already, the Harris County sheriff is speculating that the Black Lives Matter movement is somehow responsible. Already, social media is exploding with outrage, with so many people believing this murder happened because blacks have been picking on police officers. I want to be very clear, we should, indeed, be outraged over this murder. But it is only one thing in a long list of things that we should be outraged over.

I have seen the ridiculous comments making the rounds: Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group; this is all Obama’s fault; Notice how no white people are rioting? These comments, although certainly outrage-inducing, are easy to dismiss in their absurdity. What I have a more difficult time dismissing, though, is the large group of people who seem completely incapable of seeing any legitimacy to the claims of people who say they are suffering at the hands of the police.

I know that sometimes people will admit that there are “some bad cops” on every police force. Semantics aside, of course, that statement is true. And of course, it is also true that police officers have incredibly difficult jobs. They frequently deal with people who are putting their worst behavior on display, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that they have to put themselves in entirely dangerous situations. It is also true, though, that our gratitude for their service has been replaced by blind hero worship. We have placed their profession in such high esteem, it is no wonder many of us willingly excuse any and all behavior committed at their hands.

Regardless of why an individual decided to kill Deputy Goforth, I am saddened by his death. And I am saddened by the deaths of Oscar Grant, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and the countless other black individuals who were unarmed, but still ended up dead because of the actions of a police officer. I know it is possible that some people, perhaps even the murderer himself,  may think Goforth’s death was deserved, believing it to be some sort of comeuppance. Frankly, that belief is despicable. Equally despicable, though, is not becoming angry or even questioning when an officer takes the life of an individual under questionable circumstances.

I am not personally involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I believe in its necessity. I also believe in the necessity of some type of law enforcement body. I don’t believe these two things have to be separate, and I am hopeful that someday there are enough people listening and acting so that real changes come about. For right now, though, we still live in a time when some parents have to tell their children that their skin color is a threat; their blackness automatically arouses suspicion. They have to teach their children how to grow up and not get killed.  If that fact is not upsetting to you, if you deny that it is a reality, then you very clearly make the case for why we need Black Lives Matter. Sit with that for a moment, if you will.

Dealing With Deniers

Dealing With Deniers

The other day I shared a story about a time when I, instead of being on the receiving end of racism, was surprised to find myself being the perpetrator. I shared that story because I really believe we all have stories like that, and being honest about them is the only way to move beyond racism.

But what about those people who deny that they ever exhibit any racist behavior? You know the type. They are the first to tell you they have black friends. They are the first to get angry with you because you had to go and make it about race. They are the first to tell you how race doesn’t matter and OH MY GOSH CAN WE PLEASE STOP TALKING ABOUT RACE?!?!?

Here is something I have learned about these racism deniers: They don’t care about ending racism. I suppose that sounds glaringly obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me for a long time. See, a lot of these deniers will debate with you about racism. They will get emotional and worked up and it appears that they do care because why else would they spend the time and energy? One day, while finding myself in an argument with someone over the unfairness of not being able to display their white pride, it hit me. Racism deniers certainly do care, but what they care about is being right and justified in their positions.

Once I had this realization, it completely changed the way I talk to people about racism. In short, I don’t talk to the deniers about it anymore. Sure, I will tell them when they have said or done something racist, or I may silently unfriend them on Facebook.  This is harder to do when the offender is a family member or close friend, but even in those situations I have learned to say my piece and move on. I don’t want to invest any time in arguing with people who don’t really want to listen or bring about change.

It’s pretty easy to tell if I am dealing with a denier because these are things they won’t say once they’ve been called out:

  • I’m so sorry that was offensive. I didn’t realize it.
  • Oh, gee, that’s embarrassing. I’m sorry I said it that way.
  • Oh, I hadn’t even considered that. Thanks for making me aware of it.
  • You’re right. I see how it sounded like that, but that wasn’t my intention. Here’s a better way for me to say it…

When I get responses like that, I know I am dealing with someone who actually cares, not about being right, but about being empathic. Maybe they will never consider themselves an ally in the fight against racism; maybe they will never be brave enough to call out someone else’s racist behavior. But they will listen, and listening matters so much. It’s one of the hundreds of simple ways to help bring about change.

Owning It

Owning It

There’s this thing that happens when you make people aware of their own racism. They don’t like it. They get really defensive and angry and try to accuse you of turning things into an issue. A racial issue.  I’m not sure when being called out on racism became more offensive than the racism itself, but I’ve been witness to deplorable behavior from people, whom I thought knew better, when their racist comments were pointed out to them.

Recently, after another atrocity involving the loss of a black life (who can remember which one, there are so many to keep up with), one of the ministers at my church posted these words to her Facebook page:

“white people, listen up. it’s time for us to allow ourselves to be called out, called back into authentic and compassionate relationships, and to be the revolution. lives are at stake, and we cannot wait any longer.”

Allow ourselves to be called out. It really is as simple as that. How else can we bring about change without making room for acceptance of our mistakes?

Like every person, I have at one time or another, had racist thoughts or exhibited racist behavior. It’s hard not to in our society.  I try to correct myself when it happens and I have learned not to be defensive, but to instead apologize. I wish it weren’t so, but I feel like I have to be consistently mindful of this. Even still, I mess up sometimes. Here’s a story, albeit an embarrassing one, that proves it:

One night, many years ago, I had spent an evening out with friends, arriving home well after midnight. I came into my apartment, leashed up my dog, and went back outside to walk her. I had taken no more than fifteen steps from my door when I saw a man coming in my direction. A black man. I stopped in my tracks to see where he was going and he kept coming in my direction. I don’t know what the look on my face was, but I frantically started calling my dog back, certain that this man was coming to…what? I don’t know. Inflict some type of harm on me. Just as I was about to turn to go back inside, I got a look at the man’s face and his face was showing fear, too. Here we were, both afraid of each other. He put his key in the lock of the car parked right in front of my apartment and I then realized what a terrible mistake I had made. This man did not mean me harm. This man, I soon learned, was getting in his car to go work an overnight shift at the local grocery store.  I awkwardly apologized to him. I introduced myself, as did he. He told me he saw that I was afraid so he was trying to get to his car quickly, certain I saw some danger behind him. I did not tell him, “Oh, you see, I get really afraid when I see a black man walking in my direction.” I’m sure I did not have to.

This incident has never left me, and I have never stopped feeling guilty about it. What part did I play in teaching him that by the eyes of the world, he is not to be trusted?  If he were to tally up all the times he had experienced racism in his life, where would his encounter with me be on the list?

I like to tell myself that I would have reacted the same way if he had been a white man. And maybe that is true. Or maybe I would let a white man get much closer before allowing the panic to set in. It’s impossible to know. I do know that I have to let this experience be a part of my own story, shameful as it may be. It is important for me to remember, and to feel the embarrassment every time I recall it. I know that in order to help bring an end to racism, I have to accept the ways I have contributed to it. Uncomfortable as it may be, there really is no other way.

How I Learned I Wasn’t White

How I Learned I Wasn’t White

When I was two years old, my parents divorced. It was an ugly divorce, and it wasn’t too long until my dad decided he really couldn’t do the dad thing at all, disappearing from our lives almost completely. Growing up, I did not have very many memories of him, but I had a vague recollection of what he looked like.

I don’t know the first time it happened, but at some point, another child asked me why my skin was dark and my mother’s was light. Until being asked this, I don’t think I was even aware of the differences in our skin color. I certainly did not pay attention to it. I didn’t know why we looked so different and I said as much. This question did not stop coming up, though,  so one day I asked  my mom about it. She told me, simply,  it was because my dad was black. At that moment something clicked. I knew my dad had dark skin, I just didn’t know it was called “black.” And my skin was brown because of his…it all made perfect sense.

The next time it happened I was in second grade. One day, after school, one of my classmates asked me the question that I had become so used to. This time, I was ready, and proudly told her, “Because my dad is black.” No sooner had the words left my mouth than I realized I had made a horrible mistake. I feel certain I could have told her I had a lunchbox full of shit sandwiches and she could not have been more revolted. “Your dad is black and your mom is white?!?!” I don’t know what happened after this. I don’t know if she went and told everyone else. I don’t know if she fainted from the shock of it all. I just know that I was horrified at what I had done. Why didn’t my mom tell me this was such a bad thing?

My skin color was a problem that I didn’t know how to fix, but I knew I could never tell anyone else about my dad and his blackness.  (Fortunately for me that same classmate ended up moving, making it easier for me to keep my secret.) With the awareness that my dad would never show up at school or be in my home, I just decided he wasn’t my dad anymore. That part was easy. Explaining my racial identity was not.

My mom’s boyfriend at the time was a white guy with dark wavy hair and dark brown eyes. Would it be possible to convince people we looked enough alike to be related? I obsessed over pictures of him and pictures of us together, making careful note of our similarities. To be extra safe, though, I began pestering my mom about our lineage.  She shared with me that she thought maybe we had some Native American blood somewhere in our family line. Even better. I could definitely work with this.

As a child, I did not know that I was doing what so many biracial individuals have done throughout history. I did not know that “passing” was a real thing. I didn’t know the “one drop of black blood makes you black” rule. I did not know that my being light skinned would give me far more privileges and advantages than those with darker skin. I did not know that had that second-grade classmate expressed anything other than disgust and horror, my entire childhood would have been different.

By the time I got to middle school something had changed. It was a revelation. For the first time in my life, I was not among a sea of white faces. There were even kids in my school that looked like me, and those kids didn’t seem to have any problem owning their black parents. Everything I knew had been flipped upside down. I could just be a mixed girl and that was OK?  I couldn’t believe it, but in what was probably my most courageous move at the time, I stopped pretending to be somebody else’s child.

Owning my identity changed my life. There was something so powerful in that self-acceptance, even though it did mean I was willingly making myself a target of racism. What I had not realized, however, was that for years I had made myself my own target, believing the worst about myself and my skin color.

I think of the years of my life that I spent denying my race and it shames and embarrasses me, although logically I understand that I was just a child trying to figure out a way to protect myself. I never told my mom what I was doing; I was trying to keep her ignorant of the fact that my skin color made me unlovable. Now, as a mother, it pains me to think my daughter could be made to feel so unworthy. I know because of the community that we live in, and more so because of how she looks, she will probably never be judged on her skin color. I do wonder, though, what other things in this world might break her? What parts of herself will she try to hide from the world just because someone made her believe she should? Someday I will share my story with her. In the meantime, I will continue to love her entirely, hopeful that she will always feel safe enough to just be who she is.