By Lyssa Lou
There is no question that we are living in a time of social and judicial upheaval. All over this nation people of color are feeling the strain of an unjust system and racial tensions the likes of which we’ve ever felt. It is a fight and commitment that will require more than some of us are willing to give. For biracial people embarking on this journey, part of this commitment is choosing a side. This has been something that I have struggled with throughout life. How do you pick a side when you’re too much of one thing, but not enough of the other? It’s like living in limbo; and let me tell you, when shit starts to hit the fan, limbo isn’t where you want to be. In the movement for Black lives, there is no time for silence or indifference. So the question remains, will you embrace your blackness or cling to the middle ground? It’s a difficult choice, but a choice that had to be made. Admittedly, I tried to walk the line of objectivity for as long as I could; but, the day came when I knew I had to finally choose. I can now say with conviction now–I chose my blackness.
I have thought long and hard about how to address my feelings on this subject. Choosing to definitively pick between your blackness and your other is one of the hardest battles one may face in their struggle to establish their racial identity. When you don’t really belong anywhere, how do you decide where you belong? Once you’ve picked a side, are you prepared to deal with the fact that you won’t be accepted by everyone within that group? These questions left me stumped for a long time and continue to test my resolve daily. Having your identity questioned and challenged, more often than not, can undoubtedly take its toll, but I would like to believe that I’ve just mastered the ability to shrug off misguided assumptions and focus on the bigger picture. Nevertheless, after 28 years of trying to figure it out, I still do not know how to articulate to myself, let alone to the world, how I’ve managed to find my place in this movement but these are some of the thoughts that I wrestled and continue to wrestle with on my journey:
Your Black Is Beautiful
My mother is a beautiful black woman. Her skin is a rich, dark chocolate tone. I grew up envying her skin. My dad is white. I grew up envying his skin. Neither of my parents made me feel this way. They both worked hard to ensure that I loved myself and my background. I knew I was beautiful, and when I learned what colorism was, I learned that my skin color was the source of some people’s envy. I also knew I didn’t feel that way. Growing up, I was always the in-between. I hated it. Being that I wasn’t the typical fair skinned, green-eyed mixed kid, my mother would always tell me in jest that if she wanted a black child, she would have had sex with a black man. I always knew she was joking; and as I got older, I learned that it was just one of the many ways my mom was trying to help me with my struggle to find my racial identity. Yet even though she would tell her joke and we would laugh, the older I got, the more I found myself thinking, “And, I’m still not black enough.” It wasn’t their skin tone that I envied, just the fact that it was more definitive than my own. There was no question that I wasn’t white, but it was always a question of whether or not I was black. I don’t think it was until I was a freshman in high school that I realized the power that lies in melanin. I was in class, biology, maybe and I learned that unlike white people, people of color have the ability to reproduce children with a variety of skin tones. Right then it all made sense to me. There was more to black skin than light and dark; there was a vast spectrum! I know it sounds foolish and I feel somewhat stupid that it took me so long to realize it, but sometimes when you’re learning to love yourself all it takes is that one small piece to make it click. Yeah, I may not be an ebony goddess like my mother but my black skin is beautiful in all of its caramel glory. People will tell you that you’re too light, too dark, too this or too that, but you have to know that that melanin in your skin holds power. It has birthed nations of all colors. So, whether brown skinned, red in tone, rich in onyx; whatever shade it is, remember your black is beautiful.
You’re black; whether they believe it or not.
“Well you’re light skinned, so you don’t know.”
“Well, your dad is white and you live in the suburbs; it’s not the same.”
“You’re mixed, so you don’t count.”
Those will always be my two most hated statements of all time. These are phrases I’ve heard far too often in my 28 years of life; uttered by friends, family and strangers alike, black and white. Fake black. Not real. Artificial. It wasn’t long after hearing such statements for the first time, did I become numb to the sting of embarrassment I felt in these moments of being reminded of how “unblack” I was.
For many of the white people I grew up around, my mixed race and light skin allowed them to disassociate me from all the things they saw negative about black people. They wanted all the things good about me to be attributed to my whiteness. It fit their logic as to why I was the exception and not the rule. On the other hand, the black people in my life knew I was black. But was I black enough? Their darkness and my lightness made us unequal. In their eyes, I’d never really understand what it meant to be black because I just wasn’t black enough. I wasn’t black like them. Both of these points of view really affected how I viewed my own blackness. I began questioning the legitimacy of my own experiences. Were my life experiences as a black woman not real enough because my mom is black and my dad is white?
But here’s the kicker, I AM BLACK. When I look in the mirror, I see a black woman. When I walk outside, the world doesn’t see my black mother or my white father. It doesn’t see the suburbs I grew up in. When I walk outside, the world sees a black woman. I may not be dark skinned, but I’m damn sure not white and the world will remind you of that every chance that it gets. But even if I could pass, it still wouldn’t change the fact that African blood runs through my veins. It is a part of who I am. I embrace it and am proud of it and once I decided that, it didn’t matter who accepted it or not. I accept it.
You have a privilege. Accept it.
When Jesse Williams and Colin Kaepernick used their platforms to shed light on the issues of injustice plaguing communities of color, commentary and criticism swirled around the obvious elephant in the room – their skin tone. “Black men have been talking about this stuff for years, but now y’all want to listen because some light skin dude is talking about it.” I wholeheartedly understand this criticism because it is dripping in truth. Racial injustice and disparity are not new issues and they definitely aren’t new conversations. I can even understand how one may be afraid that having a spokesperson for a cause be a person that may not be able to fully embody everything that cause is about can potentially be problematic, but it doesn’t have to be. Being light skin isn’t a colorblinding halo of protection the way some would like to think it to be, but yes–there is no question that having lighter skin comes with privilege. History has proven that granting privilege to some while denying it to others based on skin color is a vital component of the formula used to keep communities of color divided. This does not have to be the case; however, in order to use our privileges to the advantage of the cause, one major thing has to happen: accept that the privilege exists. This requires accepting the very thing that makes you an outsider and acknowledging that it has given you an advantage. That kind of undermines the idea of a legitimate black experience, doesn’t it? That’s why the idea of having privilege as a can be such a difficult thing to accept, but once you do you can use it to take advantage of opportunities that further the cause that may never had been available to you without it. You have to learn that your blackness allows you to be a member of the movement, your whiteness allows you to be an ally and together they allow you to be a force.
Owning one does not mean disowning the other(s).
This is by far the most important lesson that I am learning on this journey and definitely the one that I struggled and continue to struggle with the most. I have never been ashamed of the fact that I am mixed; it is quite the opposite really. I have always been proud of the heritage on both sides of my family and love that I grew up in a freethinking household with mixed cultures and perspectives. However, the more I got involved in conversations with black activists and community organizers, the more I felt as if I had to denounce that other half of myself in order to play a legitimate role in the movement. That feeling is what kept me walking the tightrope of objectivity for so long. What I didn’t understand at the time was that just because I owned my blackness, didn’t mean that I was denigrating the other parts of myself or even leaving them behind. I just realized the truth:
White people don’t need any more spokespeople but the fight against oppression always does.
More importantly, it doesn’t take any particular kind of person to be a voice. That realization changed my entire perspective. This was bigger than just a choice between identifying between black and white, it was and will always be about choosing between right and wrong; silence and speaking out. I finally understood that by owning who I was and am, I wasn’t silencing a part of myself, but finally giving a voice to the part that had been drowning in the confusion of trying to find where it fit in. I still struggle and catch myself “playing devil’s advocate” or trying to remain objective in some situations just to save my white half the embarrassment or shame. It’s a process and one that I can say that I haven’t mastered yet, but I’m definitely on my way.