Do you think I’m black?

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

When I was in high school, black boys and white boys both called me names.  “Oreo” and “high yellow” came from the black boys, “grape ape” and “jolly green giant” came from white boys.  The message was clear:  I was too light-skinned and too big.  Even then, I understood the issue of size.  Real girls, attractive girls, girls the boys wanted, were small – petite and dainty and slim – not tall and broad-shouldered, with big hands.  Their disdain was clear and the message made sense.  I knew I was a girl, those boys defined what it meant to be a “real” girl – if they said I was too big, then I wasn’t a “real” girl.

The other message, that I wasn’t black enough, didn’t sink in because it didn’t make sense.  I was raised by white people, in a white family and in every way that I’m aware of, I identify as white.  Most white people rarely think about race, and I’m no different.  Even living in the South, I never deeply considered race because I didn’t have to.  It never occurred to me that people’s perceptions of me might be different than my own; that based on my racially ambiguous appearance, people might assume I wasn’t white.

For years, people have asked about my ethnicity, my “heritage”, as it were.  I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the question, and tried to answer vaguely or avoid answering altogether.  Once I started dancing salsa, and found myself dancing with dozens of men from black and brown countries, the question shifted to “where are you from?” which covered the “what race/linguistic group do you identify with?” question.  They wanted to know what country I hailed from, to discover if we had that in common.  I was asked that question by men from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Italy, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Eritrea, Somalia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic.  They all wondered if I came from their country.

I used to say “white people always assume I’m white, black/brown people always assume I’m mixed.” Now, I realize that’s a throwaway phrase – a casual way to separate and label interactions that were irritating and sometimes confusing.  The reality is more complex, and my toss-off answer doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

I can think of no better example than my fear of law enforcement.  No other white person I’ve spoken with fears the police the way I do – none of them describe having had the same type of interactions.  I’ve been bullied, harassed, and intimidated the handful of times I’ve interacted with law enforcement on my own. I had some “good” interactions when I and my upper-middle class white partner were living in an expensive home, in a white upper-middle class neighborhood. My racial ambiguity was eclipsed by evidence of money and whiteness, and I was treated respectfully.

My most unpleasant experiences have been through traffic stops. The few times I’ve been stopped, there have been reasons – a careless maneuver, or cell phone at my ear.  Only recently did it occur to me that I might be getting treated the way black people are usually treated – a confusing and terrifying thought.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but there’s a part of me that wants to go back in time and say “wait, are you treating me like this because you think I’m black?  I’m not black, I’m white! I know my appearance can be confusing, but I assure you, I’m white.  Please treat me like you’d treat a white person.”

And that’s where things fall apart.  I start to question whether I’m being treated as I expect to be treated  because I KNOW I’m white – don’t they?.  It is the most ‘in your face’ way to experience white privilege I can imagine – to think that, perhaps some people see me as black or mixed, and they’re not treating me as well as I should be treated because – hey, I’m WHITE!  What’s the solution?  Maybe I should ask?  “Hey – you were mean to me, don’t you know I’m white?” or “Ummm…why are you yelling at me for a traffic stop?  Don’t you know I’m white?”

As I’ve gotten older, the negative messages about my size have become irrelevant.  I’ve grown enough in my confidence and self-esteem to feel comfortable in my body – my tall, broad-shouldered, big-handed body.  But questions of how my skin color and the shape of my features affects people’s perception of me have only now started to surface.  Do people see me as black or white?  Am I being treated this way because of a mistake?  How do I deal with the embarrassment of asking that question – even if it’s only to myself?  Do I wanted to be treated differently?
No – I just want the privileges all the other white people get.

Privilege

Conversations with Life, #3

Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

It’s M again and today, I want to kill someone, or die.  No. Neither of those is true, but I’m consumed, eaten with rage at another round of mass murders, this time impacting people I know and care about.  All these mass gun murders deeply touch my soul, but this was in my home state, in my college community, and it punched me in the heart.

I consider myself a reasonable person, compassionate, and willing to see all sides of an issue, but I’m done.  I’m done trying to understand the perspective of people who seem to not care that guns are used daily to murder and terrorize hundreds and thousands of innocent people in this country.  I’m done with the bullying and threatening and open-carry intimidation when legislators and citizens try to get even minimal gun control laws on the books.

There is no reason here.  There is no attempt to meet in the middle, no attempt to understand suffering, or even agreement that sometimes, sometimes, an individual’s right to carry a weapon is trumped by another individual’s right to simply live.

How do I move forward so gorged with hatred and fear?  All I feel capable of doing is violence.

Dear M,

There is no reasoning with fear.  And there is no way to understand another person’s particular, personal terror.  There is also nothing that says you have to try.  It is your choice to try or not, and there are consequences either way. Your ability to move through this time may feel compromised and it is up to you to take the necessary steps to help yourself cope in a way that aligns with who you are.

You are not hatred. You are not rage or fear or abject, gibbering terror.  None of you are but many of you don’t remember that.  Many of you live in that profound, unconscious state of terror every day.  It is exhausting for every single one of you living on that planet, but that is the nature of the human condition, and your greatest individual challenge.

Remembering that you are NOT a being made of fear, cowering in a darkened cave is the hardest act and the greatest.

Always,

Life