I haven’t always been very racially aware. When I was a child Pokémon cards, cartoons, and school were of vastly greater importance to me. I was raised in a very diverse city with a strong Latino presence. I had friends of every race. Why would one’s skin color matter? It certainly didn’t to me.
That naivety ended abruptly in 5th grade. Two significant factors came to a head. I began attending an all-white conservative Church, and my African-American father died; which catalyzed my process of rejecting him to appease the pain he had caused me, the effects of which I’m still working to undo.
Until I started attending this Church, I really hadn’t been in many, if any, racially segregated spheres. So it was a bit of a culture shock when I met people who referred to me as a “little colored girl” and told me interracial marriage, which I am proudly the product of, is a sin. But I loved these white people! As a child I always sought to please and generally took everything an adult said as the infallible truth (that actually began changing around this time). These people looked just like my mother and were very kind to me with the exception of the occasional offhand, casually racist, remark. What was I supposed to think?
Unfortunately, my father passed away a year or so before I became a part of this Church. He was from a time that didn’t put a huge emphasis on declarations of love, hence I have no memories of hugging my father or receiving any sort of affection from him. I knew from a young age that he had really hoped for his first-born to be a son. While he was alive, I responded to this a challenge, I sought to make my father want me by being the smartest, the best athlete, and the strongest in my class. I even cut my hair short and wore boys’ clothes as soon as my parents stopped dressing me. But it was all to no avail. And when he died, the energy I had used to seek his love was redirected to feed resentment. Within two years of his death, I wanted nothing to do him.
Consequently, I began to mold myself and my values in opposition to his. He was divorced, so I vowed I would never do such a thing. He was estranged from his family, so I tried to build bonds with mine. He was an angry and occasionally abusive man, so I fought to control my stronger emotions. He was a Brantley, so I wanted to take my mother’s maiden name. Most of all, he was Black, so I wouldn’t be.
Sadly, these two events, my father’s death and my attendance at an all-white Church coincided with fateful timing. I deeply resented my father and all his traits. I aspired to be nothing like him. At the same time, I was embraced by this old-fashioned, and thus, perhaps forgivably, slightly racist Caucasian Church. This had disastrous effects upon my psyche.
Obviously, my rejection of my Black side and desperate clinging to my White side manifested itself in myriad ways. If someone ever referred to me as black, I immediately and vehemently informed them of my specific racial makeup, “I’m 5/8 white, I’m Mixed not Black”! I refused to listen to any music associated with the darker race, like hip hop or rap, for fear of people stereotyping me with “those other Black people”. I regularly made fun of gospel music, and I proudly told anyone who asked that I didn’t know a single Beyoncé song. Moreover, I routinely called African-Americans “ghetto”, as that was one of the worst insults imaginable to my mind.
Furthermore, I was attracted to boys from every ethnicity except African. I told my Caucasian best friend that if she had children with the fair-haired and fair-skinned guy she liked, they would have the perfect children: blond hair, blue eyes, and lily white skin. I worshipped at the altar of Eurocentric beauty ideals. I hated my curly hair and was embarrassed when my skin tanned to a deep coffee hue in the summer. When my peers told me “I talked white” I smiled at their ‘compliment’ and was proud. I fantasized about marrying a white guy and having children with lighter skin than me and eventually purging the despised Black out of my line. I hated, and was deeply ashamed of, my African-American heritage.
I cannot recall an exact moment when I first started on my journey to self-acceptance; a path upon which I still find myself treading. But if I had to pinpoint a time, it would be when I discovered Jennifer Beals (my story is yet another example of the importance of representation in media). When I found out that this brilliant, talented, enlightened actress was biracial like myself, it was like a lightbulb went off. Someone of African-American and Caucasian ancestry could succeed AND embrace their full identity! I never doubted my potential to achieve great things, but I always envisioned myself doing so in spite of my black half.
While I had prided myself for years on my expansive knowledge in comparison with my age, this discovery demonstrated to me that I was unforgivably ignorant in an area so key to who I am. And so, like I do, I studied. My eyes were opened to how the media subliminally affects our perception of what is and is not attractive. I found out how pivotal hair is to how one is viewed. I discovered how the War on Drugs had impacted Black men and how that in turn impacted the African-American family unit. I saw the unfair focus on European history in school, which fosters the current negative ideas about Africa. I learned of the prevalence of casual racism. I stumbled upon the fact that the KKK, and other similar organizations, are still in operation. I was astounded by schools, colleges, and organizations that fought integration, even to their detriment, and sometimes even into the 21st century. I realized where some of my self-hatred had originated. I began to research famous mixed people and their stories spoke to me.
I learned about Solange Knowles and her proud embracing of her natural hair. (I learned what the term “natural hair” meant for that matter!) I learned about Melissa-Harris Perry, a biracial intellectual who writes about race between teaching classes at top-notch Universities, and how she has repeatedly led national dialogues about tough racial issues. I learned of Alicia Keys’ and Mariah Carey’s heritage; they are both huge cultural icons who don’t try to hide their roots. I learned of best-selling author Heidi Durrow’s experiences growing up half Danish while being raised by her African-American grandmother in Oregon. And I learned of Barack Obama’s inspiring story as an American of diverse roots who climbed the political ranks to become the first man of color to lead the free world.
I discovered the pivotal fact that in the conversation about Black and White relations, which all too often seems racially dichotomous, there is a word for me: Mulatto. And I know some people are offended by that term, but it meant so much to me to discover there was a word that described my unique ancestry. Millions of people are mixed, or blended, or biracial; but I, I am Mulatto.
Most of all, I came to see that I was a member of this vast, diverse, and truly beautiful community. One that has contributed immeasurably to society. One that has been on the right side of history and the wrong side. One that has struggled and overcome. One that I am immensely proud to be a part of.