Ever since I was a kid I classified myself as black, even though I was generally socialized in a white world, because my skin was is unmistakably brown. I figure, race in this country (99 times out of 100) comes down to what you look like. The snap decisions that people make are the ones that usually end up affecting you, and those are made before they know you – they’re made when they see you. I’m relatively light-skinned, I suppose (though I never was good at judging), but no one would assume that I was white.
So I figured that was how the categories fell. I might actually be mixed, but my exterior is unambiguously non-(pure)white.
This is why I don’t have a problem with other mixed people claiming one race for ‘practical’ purposes.
We know that we are mixed. We know our racial background, for the most part anyway, but the issues of race in this country are inextricably tied to the visual. Sitting behind the computer screen, I could write a blog which never discussed my race, and possibly pass for white. I could conduct business strictly over the phone and [as I’ve been told I sound just like my mom, who is white] possibly pass for white. And passing is all that matters.
Because the whole race thing is nothing more than about perception. This is why white people have historically been so angry when they find they’ve been fooled by folks who were passing. It shines a bright light on the fact that black people are people and in their humanity are otherwise indistinguishable from whites.
This does not mean that I necessarily become what you perceive me to be. However, your perception of me will highlight traits and circumstances that reinforce your perception. That’s what prejudice is all about. It’s how prejudice can grow into racism.
And so I grew up showing people pieces of who I was, but not everything, because I could tell it wouldn’t have mattered. The seemingly incongruent pieces would fall away unnoticed, or effectively shut down the relationship altogether.
I still remember going to Vacation Bible School with my next-door neighbor. Greater Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church. (You guess the majority ethnic group represented.) So there we are, in our class, doing some kind of craft. I guess I was about 10 yrs old, and there was a boy that was kinda cute sitting one chair down from me. We had flirted a couple nights already, and this was shaping up to be a full-fledged 10-yr-old summer crush. My mom came to pick my sister and I up, and when she came in the craft room to get me, the boy said – “That’s your mom?”
I said, “Yeah”. And I got up to leave with her.
The rest of VBS this boy wouldn’t speak to me. At all. And though it means absolutely nothing, he was actually lighter that I am.
Before he know who my mom was, I was passing. Once he knew otherwise, I was nothing.
I think that’s how it works either way, when you’re dealing with racist people. My sister gets it more from white people because she can pass for a white girl with a good tan. She says that being in the Midwest is difficult because it is much more frequent for people to completely flip on her when they find out she’s mixed.
I get it. So when Barack says he’s black – when commentators, pundits, journalists call him black – I get it. If you’re walking down the street in Anytown, USA and people see you, they will automatically assign a race to you, prior to getting close enough to start a conversation. Generally, you’re either black or white. As the numbers for other racial minorities in America increase, the chances for a more-than-binary system increase. But more often, those that don’t fit into the binary are just given a blanket ‘foreigner’ designation, and are dealt with that way.
So it’s not about denying one side or the other. I know who I am. My friends get to see me. But if you’re not interested in my story, I’ll know how to deal with you – because I’ve been doing it all my life.