Sometimes people ask me what it is like to have a parent who is white. This is like trying to say what it's like to have two arms or brown hair - it's what I've always known. Maybe a better question is what has it been like for my mother to have a non-white child, especially after she and my father split up. From what I've seen, she's pretty at ease with it: I had a homegrown afro until I was 12; she and my dad made sure I spent time with both sides of my family; and, to this day, she tells me I am smart and beautiful, without caveat or further explanation.
But, I know she struggled with how to make sure I had enough black role models. I guess she didn't want me to base my life on the people in our poor Minneapolis neighborhood - a motley crew of pimps, druggies, jobless and borderline blue collar.
One year, when I was still really young, as she scanned the greater world for ways to make sure her black daughter didn't grow up confused or a prostitute, she found Jack & Jill. If you haven't heard of it, Jack & Jill is "a family organization that provides cultural, social, civic and recreational activities that stimulate and expand the mind to enhance life." It is also billed as an African-American family organization. Not knowing the undercurrent of what she was getting into, my mom signed us up.
When people talk about how hard it might be to be a white parent of a black kid - like Brad and Angelina with little Zahara - they focus on things like how do you handle coarse hair, ashy skin or other kids teasing them for being different. They do not talk about what it would be like to be a young, white woman who comes from a wealthy family but was cut off because of marrying a black man and then, when trying to provide a black experience for her child is shunned by the black community. And maybe, depending on your own experience, you might not feel much pity for that woman. After all, it was her choice and living the life of a black person in America and the burdens that come with it isn't a choice.
What I can say is that my mother has only told me the story of taking me to Jack & Jill once, but it has stuck with me. When I picture my short, spunky, very white mom walking into this group and having them tell her that Jack & Jill is not for her or her daughter, even if she is HALF black, I just want to cry. Not for me. For my mother, who loved me so much she tried to join a black organization.
One day in junior high, while standing in the cafeteria line, a girl from my class opened the conversation by asking me, "Are you mulatto?"
"No!" I answered, with disdain and disgust, not knowing what she was talking about but not wanting to admit to being something weird.
End of conversation but not the end of me wondering: what in the heck is mulatto?!
It cracks me up to think about what she must have thought after that little chat. Either, oh, you're black. Or, oh, you're white. Or, oh, you're a mess!
Obviously, I now know what she meant, which is good because similar versions of that question come up at least once a quarter. But to me, asking someone if they're mulatto shows a level of ignorance equal to asking a white person if they're a honky or an Asian if they're a Jap. Originally, mulatto meant white mixed with some other stuff, including something Latin. Today, urbandictionary.com defines mulatto as a person with one black parent and one white and "they are usually very attractive because they are the perfect blend..." And then there's the myth of the tragic mulatto - a mixed person who is lost, mixed up and even suicidal because they hate the black in themselves.
I am none of these things. There's no Latino grandma in the closet, neither of my parents is just black or just white, and I am not lost. I'm mixed, but not mixed up.
So, if my little school friend were to ambush me with that same question today, while my tone would differ, my answer would be the same.
There have been certain events in my life that have made me realize that people really do think in black, white, Asian and Latino. One of those moments took place when I lived in Chicago - a diverse but rather segregated city.
I'm a public transportation girl. So, one day I'm riding the L. It's crowded, but I'm sitting, with people on both sides of me.
Out of the blue, the man next to me - middle-aged white guy in a business suit - says, "I'm sorry to be rude, but I have to ask - you're well dressed and are carrying a briefcase, so...why are your hands so dirty?"
I quickly looked down, wondering if I had been letting myself go. Nope, just the usual dark olive skin and moderately short but clean fingernails. To figure out what this complete stranger was talking about, I had to put myself in his shoes - see myself from the outside. Not to sound preachy, but this is something most white people have the luxury of never having to do.
Anyway, a second look made me realize that this gentleman had mistaken the pigment in my knuckles for dirt. My faith in humanity was restored by his embarrassment but, to this day, I'm still a little shocked that someone to have the nerve to ask a stranger why they are dirty.
Mixed people like all kinds of stuff. Mostly, we just like Barack Obama. That's our boy!
A good friend of mine from high school, let's call him James, is also mixed. We never talked about our mixed heritages when we were in high school so, based on his looks, I assumed he was some combo of black and white and I left it at that.
Several years after we graduated, James and I ran into each other at a party. When I asked him how it was going he said he was dealing with a lot at the moment. As a sensitive girl with a crush, I asked him what was going on. James tells me that all of his life, he had been told that his dad was a Puerto Rican guy from Chicago. Recently his father had turned up and admitted to being just a regular African-American dude (don't get mad, he really was from Chicago!). Overnight, James went from being half Irish, half Puerto Rican to being half black, half white. It rocked his world.
I told James he should have asked me - I could have told him that from the first day we met!
Recently, we were talking about this identity flip again. James told me that his dad was part of a generation of black men who decided that they could do better with ladies and life if they weren't black. But, they couldn't pass for white - so they picked something, anything but black, and tried to pass that off.
James is comfortable with who he really is. I hope his father, and other men like him, can be, too.
If you ever hear me complaining about the tribulations of being light complected, please stop me. Of course, it isn't all picnics and winning lottery tickets, but it could be worse.
Last year, Ebony ran a point/counter-point piece on which was more difficult, being a light-skinned person or someone with a dark complexion. I have to admit, I rolled my eyes at the complaints of the light-skinned woman: being judged, feeling left out, being excluded and being hit on, if I remember correctly.
These are not easy things to experience. I know the annoyance of having strangers ask "What are you?", but so does my friend who is black but happens to look half Indian. And yes, both white and black people tend to make snap judgements about me (we'll save those for another day), but it would be the same if I was extremely overweight or tall or rocked a mohawk.
No matter what your background, being confident in yourself, kind to others, composed under duress and able to laugh at silly stuff will get you through much of life. These skills, combined with being proud of all that you are, can be particularly useful when you're different from the people around you.
Besides, light-skinned people rarely are faced with profiling by police that can lead to anything from a random traffic stop to spending a lifetime in prison because all black people look alike to some non-blacks. I was going to go on about how we can catch a taxi in the middle of the night or don't get followed by security in department stores, but really, need I say more?!