I grew up in a small military town in Arizona, near the border of Mexico. Because of the military, and because the border was only 45 minutes away, our little town was a melting pot of cultures. I think I was about eight years old when I began to notice differences in skin color and culture.
My best friend Jennifer had a white mom and a white dad. My friend Janet had an Asian mom and a white dad. My next door neighbor was Latino and so was the neighbor next to him. The man across the street was black. In our neighborhood, almost every skin color and every culture was represented.
Color Didn’t Matter Until the Day It Did.
When I began to notice the variety of color in the families in my neighborhood, I was only able to find one family that had a black dad and a white mom. That was my family. My dad, a black man born and raised in Kentucky, was in the Army. My mom, a white woman born and raised in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), was the first in her family to come to America. My parents met in Germany. They were married in 1972 in Washington D.C., one of the few places where interracial marriage was legal at that time.
In our family, no one really spoke about color. My mom never referred to herself as “white” and my dad never referred to himself as “black.” My mom and dad were just my mom and dad. Color didn’t matter, until the day it did.
In the third grade, I took my first standardized test. I remember feeling confident as I printed the letters of my name into the small, rectangular blocks. Fitting each letter perfectly into each space, I felt proud of my work. I remember filling in the tiny bubbles that matched the information about me. When I came to the line that said race, I stopped. There were two bubbles that fit me. Black was one of them. White was the other. Both were a fit, but the directions said “Choose One.”
I stared at those two little bubbles for a long time. I read the directions over and over again. Choose one. I went back and forth between the two. I didn’t know how to choose only one. I was black. And I was white. I was both black and white equally.
I raised my hand and the teacher came to my desk. “I don’t know what to put here,” I told her. My nice teacher, who I adored and who also happened to be white, looked at me and said, “If you have any black in your blood, you are black.” So I colored in the bubble, nicely and neatly, next to black. I remember feeling uneasy, but I didn’t say anything about how I felt. I didn’t even bring it up to my mom or dad when I went home that day.
What Are You?
As I got older and transitioned to middle school, I began to notice the division in color more. I noticed there were more black boys and girls in my middle school than there had been in my elementary schools. I also noticed that a lot of kids grouped themselves together based on their skin color. It felt strange to me seeing this division, and I felt that uneasy feeling return.
In middle school, I wasn’t quite sure where I fit. The white, Asian and Latino kids accepted me easily. The black boys were nice to me, but the black girls were not. “What are you?” they would ask me, as though I were a thing more than a person. When I would answer them, they were shocked. “No way!” they would say.
By the time I was in high school, most people knew that I had a black dad and a white mom. It felt good not to be asked the “What are you question,” anymore. I had a four year break from that question and from the uneasy feeling it brought up for me. When I went to college, the question and feeling started all over again. I never quite understood the need for people to classify me as being black or white. Quite honestly, I still don’t understand it.
I am beginning to realize that my inability to understand shows the privilege I have had in my life. Aside from the uneasy feeling I would get when people asked “What are you?” I have not, to the best of my knowledge ever been treated unfairly because of the color of my skin. I consider it a privilege that I do not know what it feels like to be threatened, intimidated, or bullied because of the blackness in me. I consider it appalling that for too many black Americans, this isn’t the case.
We Need to Do Better.
At any moment, because of their blackness, a person can be severely beaten, threatened, humiliated, or treated like a criminal. This is wrong, and it needs to stop. Many black people do not live their lives feeling safe, secure, or protected by our constitutional rights. Instead, they are policed by the people who are supposed to protect them. They are guilty first then need to prove their innocence. I don’t know why this happens. I don’t know how this happens. But I do know that we need to do better.
What does it mean to do better? For starters, more of us can choose to stand peacefully in solidarity with black Americans. We can peacefully stand up and say #blacklivesmatter. We can make choices in our own homes, with our own children, and with our own neighbors that show we believe all lives matter.
I am choosing to educate myself so that I have more understanding. I am choosing to listen and have empathy for those who are struggling. I am choosing to teach my children that being color blind isn’t enough. We need to recognize, accept and stand with people of color to help them gain the same privilege that comes to us.
I believe change can happen, and I know it can happen peacefully.