I came into work this morning with mixed feelings about my race.
I came into work this morning with mixed feelings about my race.
February is the one time of year I don’t like being black.
“Why?” you ask with a furrowed brow and a tone of concern.
Why? I ask myself as the conversations on the radio, in church, and even in my home start to bother me like an itch that’s too far to reach.
I guess it’s not so much the month of February that I dislike, rather it’s what happens during this designated time to talk about my race when I find myself at a loss for words.
“Black is beautiful,” they tell me, the people to whom I’m supposed to belong.
But I am not that sort of black person. My blackness is a shade of color inherited from my African father who was raised in New York City by African parents, a foster care system and eventually himself.
My blackness displayed itself in my college years when the president of the Black Student Union approached me at a football game and extended a hand of welcome. I sat in a row of white girls wondering why this black man had singled me out.
Raised in a white culture, I was desensitized to race in a most conventional way for my upbringing. Never referred to as black, my parents called my siblings and I brown. And whether to protect us from the stigma that comes with being black, or to remind us that we were indeed half white, I don’t really know.
Black to me as a child looked like teen pregnancy, friends without fathers, gang fights outside my home, gold teeth and chains. Black sounded like loud music, gun shots and a dialect — better known as ebonics — that my mother told me not to speak. And finally, black was a people I learned I didn’t really want to be like.
Apart from this somewhat dreaded month of the year I do value my blackness. Without the politics, and painful ramifications of being black, it truly is beautiful.
Black is skin that never burns in the summer sun, a hair texture like no others. Black is commonality with other ethnicities and questions of interest sparking conversations of far off countries, cultures, and languages. Black is an African heritage of which I am proud, a lineage that reaches back to my grandmother’s home in a land of a thousand hills.
So if I love my blackness, why is it that every year in February I want to hide in a hole? Perhaps because I feel ill-prepared to speak on behalf of my people. Because it only reminds me of how different I am from them. Because the conversations tend to only focus on the issues of black people as if we are powerless and should be pittied.
This blog once existed to explore my racial identity and to remind my readers to be more aware of life as a black person. But because I am biracial, I find myself being the one who is unaware.
Two years ago I stood outside a neighborhood pool, watching the little blond kids I babysit go in before me. “You have to pay $20,” the old woman at the counter barked.
I told her I was instructed by their mother to use her pass. She argued aggressively, determined to make me pay. I stood there, bewildered at her stubbornness. Meanwhile families passed by without even scanning their passes.
At a loss for what to do, I phoned the mother who was as shocked as I was. She explained they should allow me to use her pass and get through without a problem. The old woman glared at me when I hung up, so I tore my eyes away to search for a twenty dollar bill.
“That place is known for being racist,” someone told me later. “That’s why it was exclusive to begin with.”
I’m often unaware of my own skin color, more confused at how people respond to me than I am able to attribute it to race. Even compliments go over my head. When I was a kid I went to visit a nursing home with my white friend and her family. A black nurse spotted me in the group of white kids. “You are so beautiful,” she told me. And I received the compliment without realizing why.
I cannot deny that my skin color is a blessing in many circumstances. It’s like a right to passage in any ethnic group. I’m an instant sister, daughter, or granddaughter simply because I too am a minority.
But my ignorance does not blind me to the struggle of black people. With sadness I remember standing in a Georgia Cracker Barrel with my Dad. We waited patiently to be seated and as other white families coming after us were seated first, we eventually left without service.
And so, I teeter back and forth, irritated by the insensitivity of the majority culture, but also intolerant of my own ethnic group and their response of anger and hate. So please excuse me when I shut down during a conversation on race or when I back away from the people who victimize blacks. But this is my black hi(story) and it should be known.
I like to walk through the city on my lunch. Yeah I’m sort of a loner sometimes.
It’s only lonely if I consider what other people think of my lonely self. But usually I enjoy the silence and let my thoughts take off to interesting places.
I was thinking today about the diversity in my city. Not just racially, but the sheer contrast of different types of people. My inner cinematographer wanted to capture it on film and play it to some hip hop music with a person rapping about the differences in humanity.
Oh, if I’d only studied film.
In art school they teach you that one of the key elements of design is contrast. If art is beautiful, and design produces art, then contrast is beautiful . . . even in humanity. Design is a combination of lines, shapes, colors, textures, repetition, and . . . yes, contrast.
Contrast is my favorite element of design, because it appears in variations.
Today I saw the concept of contrast from a sociological aspect. Humans contrasted with humans. This indeed is diversity. And this is good.
So, I sometimes struggle with understanding why diversity is good. More ingredients make the soup taste better right? But sometimes those ingredients just don’t go together.
I would say the root of a lot of societal issues comes from diverse people groups cohabiting. There’s a reason Toads and Tortoises swim in different seas. Of course there’s the truth that all people are inherently bad, and from a Christian perspective, need saving. But how do you explain the comfort that comes from like-mindedness?
I use to write about diversifying friend groups. I pushed for more variety, saying people should mix with other ethnicities, in other words stop hanging out with people who resemble you. Then I began to see how hard this really is. I realized that I myself didn’t feel comfortable around certain people. I started to wonder if people of the same ethnicity, background, and language, should just stay together.
Different is never comfortable.
But wherein lies the beauty of contrast when all the same birds flock together?
I think it helps me, as an artist (who feels emotions to the tenth degree and struggles to maintain even the simplest feelings) to see diversity as human contrast. There is a beauty in this, especially when no one is domineering the other, when both are valued and equal.
I was in the library only ten minutes before he found me. He was a complete stranger playing the part of a typical African man.
There is something admirable about African men, but sometimes their abrasiveness is befuddling.
“Hello, can I ask you a question?” he said, pulling me out of a late afternoon daze.
He leaned over me, resting his hand on the chair beside me. His mouth spread into a wide grin revealing a collection of teeth so white they could have been in a Colgate commercial. His curious eyes, rich and dark, begged the question before I consented.
“Sure,” I said, too tired from a day’s work to feel threatened by this dark-skinned man.
“Are you from Ethiopia?”
“No, are you?” I asked.
I was surprised at my own question. Probably because I don’t usually flip it around that way. More often, I play stupid and pretend I don’t in fact resemble an Ethiopian woman.
“Yes,” he nodded still smiling with those perfectly straight teeth and his bright eyes telling me I reminded him of his home country.
“Addis,” he said, barely audible.
“Addis Ababa?” I reiterated. For some reason I wanted him to know I was familiar with his country, that I knew the capital and furthermore, with a small portion of my monthly income, I sponsored a six-year-old boy from this part of the world.
“Yes,” he assured me. “Addis Ababa.”
“How long you been in US?” I asked, letting my English grammar drop a little. It’s a regular occurrence when I talk with internationals. For some reason I mirror their vocabulary in attempts to find common ground. I know, it’s weird.
“When will you return?”
He asked if I was a student. I told him I was studying for my Masters. He was pursuing a PhD in economics.
I let my eyes drift back to my computer screen. Still, he stood there looming over me as I waited for the mouse on my screen to stop spinning and log me in already. Slow internet.
“My father is from Rwanda,” I noted, casually, as his searching eyes continued to stare.
“Rwandans look Ethiopian,” he said.
I would disagree. Rwandans look Burundian even sometimes Somali. Rwandans have dark skin and tightly curled hair. Hmm, well maybe not all of them. And their accent. Well, their accent is much different.
But I didn’t say this. No, I nodded politely and began to wonder why this man approached me from across the library to ask if I was from his country.
“I don’t usually meet Ethiopians in Indianapolis,” I told him.
“Yes, mostly you will find Eritreans,” he agreed.
So we conversed for a brief moment in the quiet of a university library over my commonly mistaken ethnicity. But I decided not to be annoyed, and instead to accept this reality and make the most of it. We exchanged names and he left me to stare at my reflection in the glass monitor and wonder what it’s like to be white.
Man at Starbucks: Are you from Eritrea?
Man: Are you sure?
Me: Yes I’m from here.
Man: But you look like you’re from Eritrea.
Me: No I’m not. My father is from East Africa.
Me: sigh . . . Maybe I should have just said yes.
I recently discovered that my extended family survived the Rwandan genocide. We assumed they were all massacred in the brutal killing of 1994, but it seems that a surprising 60% of them are still alive.
A few weeks ago my father connected with a Rwandan man who was in Indianapolis for a conference. The man took it upon himself to find my father’s long lost family, and find them he did.
My father was brought to America at a young age by his mother and father along with his two brothers. They were all the family he knew. But with this recent discovery, we learned there are more of his family in Rwanda and even in Belgium. You can imagine my shock to realize I’d been living in England for five months back in 2015, so close to our family yet without realizing it. This revealing knowledge has made me want to return to Europe all the more and meet these cousins I have, even great aunts and uncles that all speak French. This is somehow confirming my life long interest in French language and Africa as a whole. I can’t help but wonder if God has a plan for my life that involves international development.
I hope so.
I sat on my bed last night munching pretzels and chocolate chips staring blankly at a photo of my great aunt who resembles my Grandmother. My Dad had posted it on our icloud family sharing. Her sons look like my father and their children, I suppose my third cousins, look somewhat like me. Couleur Metisse is what the French call it. Light colored skin. Not black, not white, but a confusing mixture of both. Oh how I long to meet these unknown family members and discover what life is like for them in Belgium. I suppose I should brush up on my French.
I began writing this blog last summer, with intentions to explore my racial identity. But recently I’ve put my ethnic background on hold and shied away from narrating my black hi(story).
The post that brought this blog to a halt was one I wrote about the dilemma of being too white and not enough black. But I couldn’t post it, because my experience seemed to be stretching the truth, and it attacked both sides of my race in a counterproductive way.
I considered writing about the difficulties of dating as a biracial woman. But my experience was limited. How could I give insight on interracial romance, when I’m not married and only had a serious boyfriend for a few months?
Some days I sat down to write, and was frustrated by the black community in America. I was discouraged that our percentages are so low in the means of success, but so high in the way of failure. I wanted to write about abstinence, which seems non-existent even among black Christians. But the feedback I received on an article I published a year ago proved the topic of sex to be a much more difficult issue to tackle.
So, I’ve published nothing in the last few months, simply because I didn’t know what to write.
Have I stopped writing about race because I’m ashamed of my racial background? Would it be easier if I was one race or the other?
Not ashamed, just misunderstood.
Not discontent, just disgruntled.
Maybe this is why I welcome the fact that people mistake me for another race. Maybe I enjoy being taken for a Mexican or an Indian. Maybe it’s easier not to inherit the assumptions that come with being mixed race.
A year ago I graduated college and finished a class called Conversations On Race. I left the class feeling more of a need to embrace my biracial identity than before. It sparked my efforts to write about race in America from day to day. But somewhere between then and now, I’ve begun to realize that I don’t know what I want to accomplish by writing about race.
So where is this blog going? Have I given up on exploring my racial identity?
I think I’ve decided to concern myself with other things.
I’m a career women now, driven to attend grad school in the fall. I’m writing a novel, which actually depicts the life of a biracial, female journalist. Perhaps this is where all my energy to write has gone.
I may start posting excerpt from my novel to get some general feedback. It’s a new and exciting project, but oh so difficult. Writing a 600 word blog post is fun. Writing a 60,000 word story with conflict, resolution, and fictional dialogue is much harder. But, nonetheless, I think it’s time to take a new direction.
I flatten my hair before I go to work. While the straightener is heating up I look at myself in the mirror, knowing I didn’t want to become like this: A woman who gains confidence from the approval of others. But I have, and that’s why I woke up an hour early to flick on the bathroom light and fill the hall with the smell of burning hair.
I feel most confident when I wear a dress and smooth down my hair. Why? Because that is how professional women are often portrayed.
I remember reading a chapter from the novel Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman seeking a career in the American corporate world, goes for a job interview with her Afro hair. The interviewers read her resume and ask questions but she doesn’t get hired. Afterwards her friend tells her that she needs to straighten her hair so she will look more professional for the next interview. And when she does, she gets the job. Although this book is fictional, it is not far from reality.
Is my untamed curly hair the most professional appearance in the office?
Something tells me no.
I don’t think in my agency, where the staff are the nicest people I know, would I be looked down on if and when I wear my natural hair, which I do sometimes. It’s just that I don’t feel put together when all my curls are pointing different directions and the frizz just might bear its teeth if I step outside.
Now that I’m out of school and part of society’s working class, I’m very conscious of my skin color and my hair. In my senior year of college I began to see how much of a minority blacks are, and how most people in power are not black.
In my cubicle at work there is a poster of all the state representatives. Eight out of the 100 are black. Four of them are women. I’m not sure what to think of this new-found knowledge. I’m just now becoming aware of how few of us are out there.
After pondering all this, I turn off the straighter and see a girl in the mirror. She isn’t black anymore, she could pass for a Latino, an Indian, or a black person who is almost white. Do I like this girl, who hides her natural hair and lightens her face with make-up?
When you’re both black and white it’s tempting to choose one side and hide the other in your closet ’till the day is over.
I spent New Year’s eve in a Congolese church, singing about God’s faithfulness and dancing to the beat of the African drum, alongside a people with whom I share a history.
My father is Rwandan, born in the neighboring country Burundi, but he grew up in Congo, a country once known as Zaire. While he lived in Africa, Congo Kinshasa was home to my father and though he was not Congolese, he spoke Lingala, Swahili, and French.
Lingala is what I heard the night of New Year’s eve from a host of African Christians praising God in their own tongue and in their own form of worship, through dance and song. I danced too, awkwardly I suppose, but freely and without hesitation. I listened to the French songs and sang to the best of my limited French ability. They also sang songs in Swahili jumping and waving their hands, so I mimicked the phrases and thought about this language my Grandparents spoke, two African individuals of my own bloodline whom I never really got to know.
The service was wonderfully long and continued through the night until the New Year came. “You are from Ethiopia?” the Pastor asked, putting me on the spot in front of the whole congregation. “No” I replied naturally. “Well, they say the most beautiful women come from Ethiopia. You must have some African heritage in you.” I didn’t know whether I should be offended or flattered, nor did I know quite how to respond.
People ask me if I am Ethiopian all the time, especially if they are from India, East Africa, or sometimes the Middle East. “I am from America, but my father is from Africa,” I explained later when the women approached me and asked again. They said no more, but accepted me as a sister, a cousin, a daughter. And I felt as if I was part of some special club using the origin of my Father as a token of membership.
For some reason, though I’m not sure why, I am drawn to African people, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe because I seek an identity, or maybe because I am biracial and constantly searching for a people group to call my own. But most of the time I think it’s because they always accept my big curly hair. 🙂
Happy New Year. Bonne Année.