Last night I started watching the 1619 project, a series covering African American history in the United States. It made my soul hurt. Seeing the brutality African American people, my people, endured made me grieve and the fact that there are people in our country who want to deny that history and steal that reality made me angry.
Did you notice what I said? My people. My ancestors. My history. That is the truth, but not necessarily my reality. I was born to a black father and white mother but likely because of the history of African American rape by white men, I am fair skinned. I don’t “look black”. My father studied Islam so my name is pronounced using the Arabic pronunciation (Yahsmeen) so most people assume I’m Arabic. I can’t tell you the number of times I’m asked, “Where are you from?” and my answer, “I’m from Pullman, Washington” is met with, “No, what COUNTRY are you from?”
I’ve always struggled to define myself. When I was ten, I proudly told my father the new word I had discovered: “I’m mulatto!” I proudly said. “You’re black”, he replied. No discussion. But that wasn’t my reality. He may have grown up with the “one drop rule” that stated if you had one drop of black blood you were black, but I had not.
I was raised in a white college town where there was only one other black child in my elementary school. I had all the privileges of a university town with ample exposure to the arts and sports. When I was a sophomore in college, I qualified as a National Merit Scholar Semi-finalist but for African Americans – a lower standard. I refused to pursue it because there was no reason that I should be judged differently from my white counterparts.
Growing up my singular goal of having “white girl hair” resulted in a disastrous experiment with a lye-based chemical straightener which left burns on my scalp. My tight kinky hair resisted straightening until I began to go grey, my texture changed, and flat irons became common. Now my straight hair adds to the illusion that I “don’t look black”.
My attempts to see myself as African American were met with eye rolls. I have five half siblings who have a black mother. When I was out with them, they would be asked who I was. “She’s my sister,” they’d reply. Eye roll. In college I took a black studies course and the professor asked if there were any black feminists. I raised my hand. “And are black” he stated again. I kept my hand up. “You’re black?” he asked. I nodded. Eye roll.
I loved it when “bi-racial” became a term. Finally, I could call myself what I saw in myself: both races. When I tried to define myself as black, I thought I was a fraud. If I thought of defining myself as white, I felt like I was “passing”. I’m fortunate to live at a time where I can be both, but I grieve the lack of connection. I don’t feel accepted by the black community, and I live with a history that doesn’t allow me to consider myself part of the white community. I am white and I am black. And I am neither.