Growing up, my race was never a discussion between me, my family, my friends or anyone else that I knew. My parents are black, my brother and sister are black and, to me and the rest of the people I was around, I was just black. End of discussion. No questions asked. And that’s just the way things were. Granted, I was called an Oreo and “white-acting” from time to time because I spoke proper English and liked reading – that (lack of) logic still baffles me – but I was still considered black.
But, a few years after leaving my hometown and moving to Atlanta, suddenly, I realized that not everybody in the world sees me as just black.
I can’t remember the first time that someone questioned my race, but I do remember the first time it really registered that I don’t look fully “black” to everybody. I was at a film shoot for a short film that my friends, including Chase Adair, were shooting and while chit-chatting with one of my cast mates, who I’d casually known for more than a year, he just straight up asked me, “Okay, so what are you mixed with?”
I was surprised by his question and yet really intrigued, and after a brief game of “take a wild guess,” I told him that “I’m just black.” But even while saying that, the seed was firmly planted in my mind that whatever the stereotypical look of black is, I don’t necessarily fit it.
Ever since then, I, from time to time, get asked the same question by random people that I meet. Or, they tell me that I look half-white or half-Latin or half-Middle Eastern. Either way, I’m only part-black at best. The other week, I got it three-fold when a trio of strangers all claimed that I look biracial or multiracial. One of them, the one who was actually multiracial, asked me what I’m mixed with. When I told him that I’m black, but have white and Native American ancestors, he told me that I was a fellow “mongrel” like him.
Now, I wasn’t offended by any of their questions nor was I even offended by the fact that one guy told me that I’m a mongrel. I honestly Daria shrugged at that one. But, in a way, it sealed the deal for me that a number of people look at me and see not only my black heritage; they see my white and Native American heritage as well.
And THAT is a completely foreign way of thinking, to me.
And like anyone facing the realization that a part of the world sees them in a completely different way than they themselves, I retreated to my familiar i.e. I mass texted a few of my black friends and family and told them all about it.
I got a lot of feedback from them as they all told me about their own instances of being questioned about their race because of their skin tone or their facial features or their hair.
And just when I thought my brain couldn’t be more mind fucked about my own race, my “little brother,” Jacolby Chatman, who has Native American and white ancestors like me, asked me, “Are we really fully black anyway? I know for a fact that I’m not,” he said, later adding, “I’m black, but I know I’m not completely black.”
And in the moment, I had to had to finally think about an answer to his question and ask myself am I fully black? Is my African heritage the only part of me that truly exists?
In 27 years of life, I’d never had to seriously think about that question and what the answer could mean. What would be so bad about acknowledging that I come from a diverse bloodline? Wouldn’t it be accurate to include those other heritages in my own description? Is it alright to do so even if I have no connection to my white and Native American heritage? Why does it even feel like I’m supposed to choose one or the other? What the fuck is the protocol for concretely defining ones race? And why the hell is the 1-drop rule such a motherfucker?!?
Suffice to say, I felt similar to how Lenny Kravitz probably felt the first time he had to bubble in a definitive label for his race in grade school.
Besides having to think about the actual labeling, I also thought about the fact that often times when black people make it known that they have a mixed heritage, other black people tend to either make fun of that fact or are either downright outraged that someone who is black would acknowledge another race in their bloodline.
Seriously, how many times have you seen someone side-eye or mock or just berate another black person for saying they have something like Indian in their family? Granted, I’m not saying that arbitrary value isn’t placed on the idea of having lighter-skinned races in one’s heritage or having hair texture that’s straighter than that of African people – because that definitely happens. But, it’s also clear that a lot of border patrolling occurs when it comes to guarding and preserving the dividing color lines between the races. And we as black people police our own race in an effort to maintain the idea of the 1-drop rule of race because, for many of us, the belief is that having any black in you makes you entirely black. Having any black in you makes you a nigga.
I understand why such patrolling and policing exists. Colonialism, slavery and genocide did a hell of a number on people of color. Not only did it result in the death of millions, but people of color were taught to believe that the lighter the skin, the better and more attractive the person is, whereas the darker the skin, the worse and less attractive the person is.
And from that “divide and conquer strategy,” we turned on each other, we judged each other, we killed each other instead of seeing that the real problem was the idea that anyone of any color or continent is better than any another person. But, sadly, we became caught in a socioeconomic entrapment that still affects our ideas of race and our system of class.
But the reality is that race is just a social construct. There is little to no scientific support of the idea of race. It really is just a man-made thing.
Oddly enough, while I continued to ruminate about my race, I got a visit from parents. And though my mother has traditionally been the parent who would police ideas of race in the family, when I told her about people questioning my race, she, surprisingly told me, “Most people aren’t of any pure race anymore. We’re all mixed in some way.”
Not only was I pleasantly surprised to hear my mom say something like that, but it was great to hear my mother, one of my creators, admit that we all come from a mixed heritage. And it’s true. With each passing generation, interracial dating and racially diverse families are becoming a norm. In this day and age, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone whose family doesn’t have people of multiple races and ethnicities.
And my extended family is no different. Besides having white and Native American ancestors on both sides of my family, I also have Barbadian ancestors, Filipino cousins, Latin cousins and other family members of various races that I probably don’t even know about.
I’m sure if you brought my ENTIRE family tree together, ancestors included, for one big family photo, I’m sure there would be a lot of black people, but there would also be range of other colors as well.
So, am I just a black or am I the sum total of my entire heritage?
The answer to that question will probably never be concrete because race is not a concrete thing; it’s just an idea. But I will say that I connect with being black and, like my “little brother” said, I acknowledge that I’m more than just black. I carry the heritage of all of my ancestors, and although I may not have a connection with all of those heritages, they are a part of me – and clearly it’s written all over my somewhat racially ambiguous face.