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.