I will always feel a little strange calling myself a black girl.
Whenever I am at a party or somewhere where there are new people to meet, the question that every mixed girl gets asked at least once a week, every week, for all of her life comes up.
“What are you?”
This question doesn’t offend me like it offends others of mixed race. I don’t necessarily see it as ignorant, like others do. The person doing the asking most likely thinks that I am interesting looking and I usually take it as a compliment of sorts.
What is irritating about the question is that I never know quite how to answer it. It always causes anxiety. I stammer my way through what I hope is a passable response, finish with a nervous smile and then immediately ask them where they got their shoes to distract them so that I don’t have to talk about it anymore.
This tactic works almost every time… but every once in a while someone calls my bluff and asks me to explain.
And how can I? It’s very difficult to explain it to a stranger when no one ever really explained it to me.
Here is what I know.
My mother and father met and married in the military.
My mother is white and beautiful and mostly German.
My father. Well. This is where it gets tricky.
My father was born in Costa Rica and lived there until he was about twelve years old.
A quick Wikipedia history lesson:
In Costa Rica, way back in the day, there were railroads and ports to build and Jamaicans came to Costa Rica to work. Some never left the province of Limón, where the port was, and that province still has a large population of Afro-Caribbean people to this day. This is where my father is from.
THIS is a mouthful in itself. By now, this person who wanted to know the answer to this extremely personal question in the first place has made an excuse to find another partygoer to talk to.
It is, however, only the beginning.
In addition to being an Afro-Costa Rican, my father was also nonexistent while I was growing up and was, therefore, unable to tell me exactly what an Afro-Costa Rican was.
My mother went on to single-handedly raise my younger brother and me with a grace and dignity that I someday hope to possess a tenth of. My childhood was filled with love and laughter and I rarely wanted for anything… except maybe an answer as to why we didn’t look the same as everyone else in our family.
I was older than what seems possible when I realized it for the first time. This is because no one in my family ever really mentioned the fact that our skin color didn’t match theirs. It wasn’t a forbidden topic… it just didn’t matter to them. They just loved me. I could obviously see the physical difference but since there was never any real importance to it I didn’t have to think about it.
The revelation happened right around the time I started middle school. That magical time when children are the cruelest.
I went to a predominately white private school at the time.
My hair has always been a little kinky and unmanageable.
Some innocently ignorant child made a hurtful observation and, just like that, the veil was lifted.
I was a little black girl in a sea of white with no clue about how I had come to be there.
With my father gone, I had no frame of reference. There was no going back to the lovely bubble I had grown up in. My mother couldn’t give me answers, though she would have loved to have been able to do anything to ease my discomfort.
I decided that I had to figure out how to be black all by myself.
I can catalogue this perilous quest through a series of three stages:
Stage One was Denial, wherein I tried to ignore and hide the fact that I was any different at all.
This is probably when I had the toughest time of it.
I begged my mom to straighten my hair. I got horrible blonde highlights.
I cried a lot because no matter what I did I always seemed to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of my private school buddies. At that age being different is not necessarily considered a good thing and I was as different as I could be.
Stage Two was Assimilation.
I transferred to a public school and, look! People like me!
After the glow of newness wore off, however, I quickly discovered that this wasn’t going to make things any easier. My high school was still predominantly white and tensions sometimes ran high between black and white students.
Now I was in No Man’s Land. Light-skinned and awkward and too black to be white and too white to be black.
I had grown up with white friends and in a white family… this is what I knew. I wasn’t purposefully trying to be white… I was just being myself.
Wrong. I was “posing” or trying to “pass.”
I was horrified at the allegations and immediately attempted to rectify the situation. I wore my hair in braids. I changed the way I dressed. I changed the music that I listened to. My mother, after trying to reach me on my cell phone, came home from work one day and asked me why the greeting for my voicemail inbox sounded like a rap video.
I raged against her. I told her that she would never understand. I told her that she was ignorant and that there was nothing wrong with the way I spoke.
She looked at me, sighed, and said: “Of course there is nothing wrong with the way that you speak if that was the way that YOU actually spoke. It’s not. I’m upset with you only because you are trying so hard to be someone different than who you really are.”
I took the braids out of my hair.
Stage Three pretty much brings us up to date. It doesn’t really have a name. I’m still working on it.
In Stage Three, multiple boyfriends tell me that they are apprehensive about their family meeting me because some of their relatives may not approve.
In Stage Three, I give tight-lipped smiles to dozens of acquaintances who make ignorant or blatantly racist remarks and assume that it’s all right because I’m not “REALLY black.”
In Stage Three, I wear my hair naturally for the first time. The guy that I’m seeing at the time doesn’t like it. I eventually chuck the guy and keep the hairstyle.
In Stage Three, the black students in my department in college organize a gala as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am not invited to participate. It stings.
In Stage Three, I go looking for answers and contact my father for the first time in over twenty years. After one conversation I immediately wish that I hadn’t. My mother hugs me very tightly and we drink a bottle and a half of wine.
When I wake up that next morning the answer fights its way through my hangover-induced fog and it hits me. THE answer. The thing that I have been pursuing tirelessly and relentlessly ever since that little girl in homeroom told me that my hair looked like sheep’s wool.
It looks a little something like this:
My mother taught me to be a good person and how to love and respect other people. She paid for years of ballet classes and sat through every recital, concert and school play that I’ve ever had. She endured the constant shifts and changes that my tumultuous adolescence threw at her because she knew that she couldn’t give me what I was looking for. She had to trust in the fact that she had given me the tools to figure out who I was on my own and knew that I would find it myself someday.
I still haven’t completely figured it out yet, friends… and I’m not sure that I ever will.
There is one thing that I know for sure, though. There is one thing in my life that I have never doubted for even a second.
I am my mother’s daughter…and I was steeped and grown in unconditional love.
That’s really all I need.