African-Americans have a very unique, but sad ancestral history. For a lot of us, much of our cultural background is unknown. We have no idea what part of Africa we’re from or what tribe we originated from. All we know is that our skin is a certain shade of brown and we ended up in the United States. This shared history makes us all African-American.
I used to run straight into my great-grandpa’s picture room and stare at the grainy photos of his mother and grandmother. He would point at his mother and idolize her long hair. He’d say “You see those high cheekbones she has? You have them, too! That’s how you know we’re Blackfoot Native American!” He’d also go on and on about how my great-grandmother’s side had someone Swedish or Irish. Not once did I hear him talk about our African history with as much pride or sheer happiness. My great-grandfather on my mom’s side was able to “pass,” as they called it back then. He looked white enough, so he didn’t have as much trouble going to certain stores or bars as those who didn’t pass did. It is very apparent that some type of European ancestry crept into my family, but I’m not exactly positive how.
Over half of all of the African-American people I have met growing up identified as part Native American. In reality, only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry. This is the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent. The unfortunate truth for many African-Americans with European ancestry isn’t very pretty. While some African-Americans worship their alleged European ancestors, some of them are of mixed heritage due to the sexual abuse that took place during American slavery. This is why I don’t go out of my way to say “Hey, I’m part white! Yay!” It isn’t so glorious for me.
The term “African-American” is an umbrella term that encompasses several different types of black people with different genetic make-ups—including myself. My skin is a caramel shade of brown and I have hazel eyes, so some people assume I am mixed with black and white; however, my parents are both African-American.
I went on a date once and a guy asked me about my family history. I explained to him that both of my parents are African-American, but he looked taken aback and said, “I thought you were whiter than that”. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. I didn’t feel like giving him a history lesson or telling him “Okay, I’m sure I’m not fully black, there are white people and natives in my family history, but I don’t identify with that because I’m African-American”. That probably would have scared him off, so I’m pretty sure I just made up some story about my family history.
I always feel awkward when people feel the need to ask me if I’m “full black”. They always seem disappointed with whatever answer I choose to give. Even an ex-boyfriend of mine, who was of another race, made sure to emphasize that I was “part Native American” when I met his family because they wouldn’t accept me as just black. I’m not sure people understand how bad this makes members of the African American community feel. I understand that I do have European ancestry as well as African ancestry, but it is not a culture I identify with personally.
While out on an acting job, I was talking to other black actresses about the struggle to be in the industry. As I elaborated on the need for different black actresses of all shades and body types, a girl with a smug face stopped me mid-sentence and said “Well, it’s easy for people like you because you’re not too dark and you have curly hair and your eyes are green.” I was taken aback because I wanted all of us to come together as black females in the industry — however, I was ostracized because of slight differences.
I’m perfectly comfortable with how I look and how my family looks. I just want to African-American community to continue to love each other instead of continuing the “light skin” vs. “dark skin” debate. We are all African-American at the end of the day and share so much in common. I proudly embrace my black culture, maybe too much because I’ve had to justify so much over the years. I want both white and black people to understand that members of the African-American community do not have to fit into one mold. We’re different and come from different places in Africa and all over the world. Our culture is shared, but also unique. We are beautiful, strong, and filled with resistance. I am black enough, regardless of what anyone says.