Most black people know what the term "good hair" means. If you haven't encountered this phrase, you're lucky or live in a very homogenous community. Good hair is not typical black or African hair. It usually is some combination of fine, soft, shiny, long and naturally straight or wavey. I might be missing some elements, but you get the gist.
I'm sure there is a similar term amongst Asians and Latinos. Any group with tendency towards coarse hair will have at least a few, if not many, amongst them who yearn to have their hair look and feel different. Some would say those people want white hair, but that shows a lack of awareness of the hair of many Native Americans and Middle Eastern people.
I was raised by very, um, practical people. To them, hair covers your head, helps keep you warm in the winter, prevents sunburn in the summer and should either be short and out of the way or long and pulled back (again, out of the way). Having "good hair" meant nothing to them. My mom, who has very fine, bone-straight hair, thought keeping my big, bouncy curls functional was a challenge and a novelty. Solution: home haircuts for 11 years that only varied in how perfectly round they turned out. Result: for most of my elementary school years, strangers told me I was a very cute boy.
My dad, in the 70s, had a mid-length afro and carried a black power pick. Every time I'd get in his car, he'd turn to me and say, "What's going on here?" -- talking to my hair. Before I could protest, he'd attack me with the power pick, mercilessly torturing my tender head and turning my individual curls into a single, bouncy halo of dark brown fluff. In the summer it was hot. In the winter, I couldn't fit a hat over it. Year round, people thought I was a cute boy.
When I was about to enter junior high, I got my first professional cut. Of course, living in Minnesota in the '80s, I chose a Prince/Sheila E-style cut with long curly bangs and the sides and back cropped short. Parents: aghast. Me: happiest mixed kid on the block!
But the parents left their mark. To this day, I rarely do the things that would take advantage of how my genetic pool influenced my hair. I wear my loose curls in a ponytail more times than not. I am too aesthetically lazy to blow it out straight more than three times a year. I've had it an inch long twice in my life and only grown it out to the middle of my back once. It was hot and boring to comb. But I have to admit, no one ever thought I was a boy.
This weekend, I'm definitely black. Yes, I'm still mixed, but I'm really just black.
I haven't suddenly decided to accept my heritage (done), I'm not talking or dressing differently (unless you count a pair of gold sandals bought in frenzy of spring shopping) and I haven't gotten a tan.
I say I'm black this weekend because of how people are interacting with me. This happens sometimes - people treat me in a certain way and, call me paranoid, I can just tell that they have made some assumptions about me.
There are times when people think I'm Latina. I recognize these times by the slower speed at which people talk to me, the surprise when I don't have an accent, the questions about where my parents are from and were they born there (i.e. which one came over the border, young lady?). On those days, Latinos ask me for directions or try to sell me food in Spanish. Crazy as it sounds, I feel a little guilty on those days - like I'm a bad Mexican for forgetting my mother tongue and the struggles of my people.
Some days I'm so ambiguous, people don't think about what I am and just act like themselves. Sometimes, this means actin' a fool and saying things you wouldn't say in front of a person of color. I like to think of those as teachable moments, when there's time. I know when I'm having one of those days because, invariably, a taxi driver will talk to me about how the blacks can't be trusted and asks why am I going to Harlem. There's nothing quite like a high-speed, 60-block ride uptown arguing about race to get your heart rate up.
But this weekend, like times, I'm black. I'm getting the black folks eye contact and nod on the street, a shoe salesman felt a little too familiar and made jokey comments about white women and shoe shopping and I got followed in a department store. Nothing about me changes, and yet, everything about the way I'm treated changes.
Experiencing being treated like what I'm not is a little interesting, but it also feels like accidental passing, which I'm very against. "You're black" interactions are comfortable because it's what I think of myself as, but it's also a shame that, despite the Obama mantra of change and accepting, we really haven't and really aren't.
I have freckles. Mostly on my face and right leg. I don't think about them much except to put on sunblock so they don't mutate into something health threatening.
Sometimes people comment on the freckles. Friends who haven't seen me in a while always say "You have more freckles!" when we run into each other. I'm always surprised by this because I forget that they are there.
Yesterday, I saw a woman in the Apple store who looked Asian mixed with black and maybe white. She had freckles...A LOT of freckles. They were so shocking, I almost did a double take. Her freckles were, to put it mildly, noticeable. I just wanted to look, take them in, think about their affect on her looks. I couldn't look back because she'd caught my eye and smiled at me. I don't know why, did she think we are freckle sisters or does she forget she has them, too? I smiled back.
As I looked away, I wondered, do my freckles get the same reaction? No wonder people feel compelled to ask me what I am that makes me look this way. I think what they are saying is "What crazy combination of races did THAT?"
Sometimes mixed people look black. Sometimes they look Asian. And sometimes, they look like_________ (insert what you expect to see here).
Many of my mixed friends look like they could almost be anything, except Scandinavian. When we travel internationally, from Europe and North Africa to Australia and South America, people assume we're natives. If you speak the local language well, this can be a fun benefit. If not, it's very confusing for everyone. Sometimes this confusion happens in my own city.A couple of weeks ago, I was in an Indian neighborhood with my friend JB, who is one of those mixed people whose features favor the black in him, like Barack Obama. We stopped in a store full of books, statues and cooking implements from south Asia. The store was well-manned with several employees, all of whom were clearly, in my opinion, Indian and looked like they were working - dressed for the indoors, making eye contact with people as they came in, etc. Despite this, three separate people approached JB with questions about items for sale. Even in his hat, scarf and coat, they thought he was Indian and worked in the store.
A month previously, JB had been in Mexico. When being polite and holding a restaurant door open for his girlfriend and then some tourists, he was thanked in Spanish by the tourists. Of course, they thought he Mexican and was working. It's surprising, actually, that they didn't hand him their car keys and tell him to keep the car close!
I like to call this phenomenon the "International Person of Mystery." Remember this when you're out and about - that black guy might actually be half Korean and be able to understand you if you're talking about him, and that Latino girl might actually just be black and white and not speak a word of Spanish!
After my high school boyfriend and I broke up for the last time, he dated white girls. He is black.
One of my college boyfriends appears to be married to a white woman (don't you hate those tiny photos on Facebook that you're stuck with until you friend someone?!). He's also black.
My other primary college boyfriend married a woman who is half Cuban, half Spanish. As he, who is black, says, "In other words, a snobby, white Latina."
Several of the black men I've been with have teased me about being so fair, about having diverse interests ("That's the white in you" is a timeless favorite) and about having a parent who lives in Colorado (actually, that's the black parent; the white one lives in Idaho!).
And yet, most of these men either settled down with white women or have an ongoing preference for light-skinned black and mixed women. Which makes me say, "What is going on here?!"
Until recently, I wondered if I am a gateway girl. Like marijuana, am I the transition from the familiar and culturally acceptable to something a little whiter, a little edgier, a little more expensive seeming?
Now, I think it's something else. Maybe two somethings. First, it's not them, it's me! I'm the one who dates these dudes who think being mixed is a joke that they want in on. I'm the one who consistently dates private-school brothas who have very particular expectations around diction, presentation and fashion. While I might not appreciate my role in their eyes, I can't be mad when I'm a willing participant.
Second, it's possible that black men who aren't willing to date beyond the race may be less likely to date someone who looks like me. Maybe I don't go with their persona or maybe they assume a certain frivolity, lack of understanding of the hardships of being black or mixed uppedness (I know, not a word). Or, maybe, they think about having kids that could end up looking like members of a rainbow coalition! Whatever it is, I can live with it until they get to know me.
Lastly, for full disclosure, after dating that series of men who moved on to white and white Latina, I ended up temporarily marrying a white guy but that's a story for another day!
I know a lot of mixed people. Many of them are friends from Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York but many of them are in my immediate family.
Between my mom and dad and their siblings, I have two half brothers and nine first cousins. Really, that's not a lot and not a little. Almost normal. What's not standard issue is that, between the 12 of us, the only one who isn't mixed is my half brother from my mom.
This is one of those things that I've lived with for most of my life, so I don't think about it often, but, when it comes up, I realize how bizarre my family really is. It is especially stunning when you consider that, according to a recent Time article, in 1970 there were only half a million people living in the US who claimed mixed heritage. Between the two sides of my family, we have definitely done more than our share in helping to raise that number to 6.8 million in 2000!
But now, as I look at my friends, I feel like my family has passed the torch. A good friend, who is black and Creole, is marrying someone of Caribbean and Columbian decent. Another friend is Chinese and German, as is his sister. He recently partnered with a woman who is black and white and his sister now has two children with her husband, who is African American.
The next generation of mixed people is coming up, creating a new acceptance of different cultures and even more opportunities for people on the street to ask complete strangers, "What are you?"