Clear as Black and White

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.

Choose One.

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. 

4 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Karen Turnbull
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing Roberta, yours is a beautiful story and I appreciate you sharing. Laura asked me if I knew you were black and of course I said no, and just said you were full of grace, love and beauty. End of subject.
    I’ve had my own story which is too long to share here and goes back generations. Someday perhaps over lunch or coffee. It’s interesting.
    It’s a story of love and atonement.
    Thank you for the gift of Yoga. It’s just what I’ve needed ❤️

  2. Avatar
    Gladys Upton
    | Reply

    You are Roberta. I never saw color. I believe we are all people and there should not be a difference how we see each other.
    Your right about teaching our children. They are the future and they need to not feel this barrier. Parents are the factor.. if you have racial bias you teach it.
    Only my thoughts.

  3. Avatar
    Becky Hoeck
    | Reply

    Beautiful, Roberta!! Thank you for sharing your story. I agree 100%.

  4. Avatar
    Linda Wilker
    | Reply

    When you were in my class, Roberta, I never saw color. I saw a beautiful and very intelligent young girl with many God given gifts. I lived through the Civil Rights Movement when JFK, RFK and MLK were assassinated. The Kennedys were very supportive of the movement. I went to JFK’s funeral in DC. I wanted to go to Martin Luther King’s as well, but it was too far away to drive. I had never flown anywhere so that was out of the question. At that time in the 60s I had never met an African American person nor even seen one on television until Malcolm X who started the term “Black is beautiful!” and Martin Luther King in his marches. There were no black people on any tv show or commercial. Then I remember the first show with a black woman. I remember celebrating the integration of black children into other schools and watched on the news as it unfolded. I was proud of my country then. So many firsts. It started small but today the people living in our country are too young to remember or notice how far we have come. There will always be bad people and good people in every race but for the most part people are awesome in this country. Sin is the condition of the human being, I’m afraid. Slavery still goes on in other countries. They will never change but our country did. I loved being in the military because I love diversity and saw it for the first time. God loves His creations and He wants us to love one another. To label all police or any group of people as bad is wrong. There may be one bad apple out of 100 and that’s one too many, but our biggest problem statistically with murder is in the inner cities where gangs run rampant and the killing is something like 500 deaths in the summer in Chicago. Little children are killed by stray bullets. Drugs are everywhere. These are the social situations that need to be addressed and have not been under the Obama Administration. Ben Carson has tried with starting trade schools, but I don’t think it has been enough. We’ve a long way to go but no other country has the diversity we have. I love my adopted grandchildren from Ethiopia. They are my heart’s delight and I am blessed. My sadness is that I’ve been separated from them all these years and only see them once a year and they didn’t come last summer. There are no easy answers to life’s problems, but we all suffer different ones. But I do believe that if people stopped talking about race all the time, it wouldn’t exist. In fact, Morgan Freeman, the movie actor has a quote about this. Martin Luther King says that he looks forward to the day when people are judged by their character and not the color of their skin. I think that is now actually. Good parenting is so important and that makes all the difference in the world. You’ve done an excellent job and have nothing to fear for your boys. Well, that’s my story, Roberta, and my opinion. Thank you for thinking of me. I love hearing from you and I’m honored. Love, Linda

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