What happens when a mixed race child only has a white identity and then goes out into the world?
I have spent my entire life straddling many worlds culturally, socially and racially. I am a mixed race woman and I am in a family of transracial adoption. (Transracial adoption means adopting children of a different race).
My biological mother was a white woman from Dallas, Texas. My birth father was Afro-Latino from the Dominican Republic, which is a recent discovery. Before last year, I had never seen a photo of my birth father nor knew where he was from. I only knew he wasn’t white and Spanish was his first language.
I lived in a foster home for three years until I was adopted by a young white couple when I was six years old with my biological younger sister. We grew up in a small midwestern river town comprised primarily of white people. I did not know anyone who identified as Latino or mixed race growing up. I was hardly exposed to anything other than whiteness. My parents had no friends of color. The town was segregated into two categories: white and black. You had to fit into one of these boxes. Even if you didn’t “fit”, society would place you where they saw fit.
For instance, the two Asian families in my town were lumped into the white box as well as the Indian family. This had more to do with class than race. If your family had money and you were brown or black then you were accepted by white people and therefore placed into the white box.
I learned very quickly, it was better to be white than it was to be black. Most of the black people lived on the south side of town which was considered to be a poor, rundown, and more dangerous neighborhood than the rest of the town. The first time I met a person of color was in school. You could immediately see the divide. Especially, in my high school lunch room. There were two rows of folding tables at the very end of the room where most of the black students sat together. I did not belong on the south side so I sat with all of my white friends. I didn’t want to belong to something I did not know. I did not understand black culture. It seemed most of the white people in my town didn’t understand it either nor cared to.
I learned about black people from white people. Did you smell her nasty hair? It smells like bacon grease, Mason would say to our cliche about Candice, one of the black girls in our class. Everyone laughed, egging him on. I laughed too but I didn’t want to laugh. I wanted to hide. To shrink into a small, grey pebble that no one would notice on the floor. I thought, what about me? Is he making fun of me too for having different hair? My big, thick, curly hair didn’t look like his nor my white parents no matter how much I straightened it out to blend in. That was one of the first times I realized, I didn’t fully belong to this white community. It would not be the last.
I remember the first time I was jealous of my mom for her whiteness. We were sitting at the dinner table, I looked over at my dad who was looking at my mother with these eyes. Like he was piercing her soul with so much passion and love. It looked like magic. A magic I wanted. I wanted a boy to look at me that way. All the boys I wanted to date, looked like how my dad would have looked at that age. Then, all of a sudden, my stomach started cramping. My mind was racing. Thoughts. I was flooded with anxious thoughts.
Is that why I have never had a boyfriend, because I don’t look like my mom whose tall, blonde, green eyed and gorgeous? I mean, if my dad was attracted to her, how could he possibly ever think I was pretty too? He didn’t marry someone that looked like me. Is that why no one thinks I’m pretty? Maybe, I’m not pretty…
It was so many thoughts. Thoughts that haunted me everywhere I went. Thoughts that shaped how I viewed myself and much of the world around me in my formative years. Besides my sister, I had no one else that looked like me to find beauty in. Mentorship. Allies. Community. Everywhere I looked — whiteness. Even my best friend had blonde hair and blue eyes and every single boy in the entire school vied for her attention. For her love. But not for me. I craved to have that kind of attention. I did everything I could to be white but it never seemed enough. At least not enough to be asked out to prom.
Once, I asked a few of my close friends if they thought I was different than them. If they viewed me the way they viewed black people because the first time I was ever called a nigger, was by a white kid in elementary school. They said no. You aren’t like them. You’re one of us. Your parents are white so you’re white. I was so relieved, yet at the same time, shamefully confused. I desperately clung to these statements, wanting so badly to believe, I too, was viewed by society as a white woman. But my brownness never went away, no matter how hard I tried to deny it, someone always called it out.
I was riding the school bus home in eighth grade when all of a sudden, lets call her…Tasha came from behind and angrily punched me in the face six times. Prior to the punching, Tasha had been pulling my hair from the seat behind and calling me names. She did this often. I was always mortified and would brush it off or act like she wasn’t talking about me. It usually happened in the lunch room while I was waiting in line with my friends. No one ever stood up for me.
“Look at her actin’ like she better than us. She ain’t better,” Tasha would say. “You got nigger blood just like me. All you be doin’ is denyin’ , cuz you just an ugly oreo, thinkin’ you a cracker.”
On this particular day, I finally had enough. When she yanked my hair the third time, under my breath I said, bitch stop. It felt so good to stand up for myself. Well, that was until Tasha took it out on my face. I never fought back. I did not throw one punch nor screamed when she was popping my face. The white bus driver did not intervene. She literally sat there looking scared herself. My white guy friend sitting next to me did not move as I clung to him. The only person on the entire bus that came to my aide was my little sister who jumped on Tasha’s back to get her off of me so we could run off the bus to our parents law firm.
When my foot hit the sidewalk, I was in hysterical tears running straight into my fathers arms. I tried to explain what had happened. Not fully understanding the weight of the situation. All I knew, it was the first time I had ever been beaten up by someone simply for being brown. For being different. For not fitting into the box. I hurt.
I’ve heavily thought about that day, trying to understand why I allowed another person to hit me without defending myself. (If this would happen to me today, I would fight back.) I was an athlete. I was just as strong as Tasha. I could have held my own. So, why didn’t I?
From an early age, my father taught me to not fight back if someone was being mean to me. Instead, tell a teacher and tell him. He said he would take care of it for me. He taught me this because in elementary school, I was bullied by a white boy. I told my dad about what was happening. His gut advice was for me to punch the boy in the face.
However, my dad did not say that. Instead, he reached out to the local NAACP chapter for help. They advised him to teach me to never use physical violence. At that time, my dad was talking about me, a brown little girl defending herself against a white little boy. In the eyes of the NAACP and black America, using violence towards white people could get you lynched. Especially, in Missouri. But what if the people beating you up are black or brown like you? Is there a difference? My dad and the NAACP didn’t discuss that scenario. All I knew, I had to take the punches.