I’m mixed. Half black half white…you can probably see that. The thing is I was raised by a white woman in the Twin Cities suburbs. I did spend time with my dad and siblings as well as other extended black relatives. I also know I don’t have many stereotypically black behaviors. So sometimes how I “show up” feels weird.
I’m in northern Minnesota. Oh, yah! It’s always fun to see the reaction of someone who doesn’t expect those words and that accent to come out of a person who looks like me. Given I was born and raised here I’m good at fitting in, in most situations with white-appearing people. Sometimes it gets weird though… I’ve just joined the local mom’s club, yay! My bestie pointed out that I’m the only black mom in the group. My response? “Story of my life.” I’m not scared or surprised or upset. I know the demographics of where I live. And I love it here! I’m not concerned about how many “of us” there are here because I just don’t see it like that. I’m ME. I don’t look at myself as a “black person”. I see myself as a “person with a tan or darker skin”. For me, it’s not an identity claim. It’s a feature. The same way you’d see a set of twins and notice their differences. It’s not my defining feature.
There are weird moments though. Nothing wild… Conversations about hair texture or when comparing parenting methodologies with friends. I’m a work in progress just like everyone else. I don’t typically feel awkward unless I know the person I’m meeting has never interacted with a darker person. Or if a friend accidentally says something insensitive without realizing it.
I have 4c hair that’s pretty porous. Shine is not a natural phenomenon. My eldest son is my mini-me. My twins however “came out white” as I jokingly say. They both have soft non-porous blonde curly hair. I still end up using a lot of my “black” hair care products on them. Particularly the Kinky Curly Knot Today leave-in… it’s life-changing! Everyone with unruly tangles should use it! I’ve learned though in this area with so many straight-haired humans that they don’t understand how to work with curls and they are fascinated with blonde curls. I’m constantly fielding comments about my daughter’s beautiful curls. They are stunning and she’s a gorgeous child, no arguments from me there. But it does make me realize though that curls on black women and men are viewed as nappy, unruly, and less attractive. No one ever comments on my mini-me’s curly hair saying how beautiful his curls are. Whereas if you see a blonde woman with the expected stick-straight hair there will be comments about how beautiful her hair is. Put the same curls of my tan son on a white blue-eyed child and all of a sudden they are stunning. I get that it’s unexpected and therefore intriguing but, this is funny to me because I’ve always been a tad self-conscious about my curls because I thought they were undesirable. Having my twins gave me a newfound appreciation for my curls because “they get it from their mama”. The only major difference between my daughter’s curls and my own is the coloration.
Parenting conversations can get weird between any two people, but between races can be even more uncomfortable. I didn’t know that there are even stereotypes for parenting styles. I’ve had a few conversations with different race parents and I was surprised to find out I have a lot more in common with darker-skinned parents than I thought. It’s not uncommon to have been spanked or treated harshly by your own parents if you are black. Many parents of a darker complexion HAD to be harsher with their children. The stakes were and still are higher. A white child/adult making a mistake is much different than a black child/adult making the same mistake. The punishment is often harsher. Whereas it’s also not uncommon to have been treated very delicately if you’re white. Which can often lead to a sense of entitlement. Many white people and children I know assume they deserve better than what they’ve got. Knowing how much perspective changes the way you show up in the world has a huge impact on what happens in your life.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Historically black mothers used to use switches/beating/spankings with their children with the idea that they would toughen their kids and prevent them from being “broken” by the white man. It seems crazy to me. The idea of hurting my child so they are better prepared to be hurt by someone else…kinda makes me think that the black adults doing the beatings were already broken and just didn’t know it. That treating your own child like that was a form of brokenness.
Raising black children is hard. Specifically black boys. People don’t need to teach their whiter children that racism could negatively affect them. They don’t need to train their children on how to respond to and treat authority figures. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. I recently heard this podcast episode where the guest said we need to stop “should-ing” on ourselves. We have to accept things as they are. We can always advocate for change but we still need to be prepared for the reality we live in. So long story short I’m a bit sterner with my kids than the average. I do it not only because I value propriety but also because I’m afraid. Considering my twins are white-passing they won’t face the same struggles as my mini-me. In fact, they may have to fight to claim their “blackness” as people may not believe them. …Or who knows with the number of blended families out there maybe they will be believed.
I’m not too strict or at least I didn’t think I was. Until I started talking with some of my friends. I won’t tolerate a lack of manners or a show of disrespect for any reason. Other parents may not value that as highly as I do. I’ve also noticed that how the situation is approached is much different. I tend to have a harsher initial response than your average white parent (I’m working on this). They tend to approach things with a softer tone and are less adamant about behavioral corrections. There are too many people who chalk up bad behaviors to a child’s age/stage without ever trying to correct the behavior. I refuse to raise rude children.
People unknowingly say weird things to me because my behavior fits in with so many typically white stereotypes that they feel more comfortable saying things to me that maybe they wouldn’t say otherwise. Which is totally fine with me. They are usually pretty innocent. I don’t think you can have a good educational conversation if no one is ever willing to be vulnerable and feel stupid or put their foot in their mouth. My husband and I were out with one of our couple friends and the husband mentioned he’s always felt lucky because his wife made him look rich. That comment actually hit me pretty hard. He didn’t elaborate but I knew what it meant. …Regardless of his income level, she made him look rich because she was tall, slender, and blonde. The “ideal” woman. At the moment it was a hard thing for me to hear. The emotions I felt were just as unexpected as the comment itself. I’m short, still trying to get my pre-twin body back, and oh yea…I’m black. So according to his assessment of what makes a man look rich, I could never do that for my husband. I think that’s what made it hurt so much to hear. That what I was born with was lesser than somehow. Even though I do my best to break stereotypes of black/mixed women. I work hard to project worthiness… that’s a whole other issue. But no matter what I do that underlying perception of lesser value still exists… even in the minds of progressive white men who are otherwise lovely conversationalists. There have also been less reactive comments people have made toward me. One time a man swore he saw me the night before in an alley. I don’t do alleys… or night walking alone downtown so… that conversation was super weird and uncomfortable. There’s also this weird phenomenon where people have told me I look like [ insert mixed/black actress name] on a show they watch. On the occasion I’ve googled the actress or the person has insisted on finding a photo and sharing it with me I find that I look nothing like the actress in question. Half the time even their skin tone is a different shade. That tends to only happen with men though. Which is also curious. I wonder if those men are attracted to those exotic-looking actresses and are looking for an excuse to say hello. They are always extremely kind. I end up responding with an awkward “Oh, that’s nice.” or “Oh funny!” Last one. Someone once said abstractly to my daughter “My look at those pretty blonde curls! I wonder where she got those from…” I just smiled and said, “From me of course!” I am aware of the fact that while I don’t feel like I straddle two worlds many people view me as if I do. For this reason, I kind of do straddle them. I try to stay open and non-reactive. The easiest way to do that is to remember that most people aren’t walking around trying to make offensive comments to your face.
The flip side of the external reality is my internal dialogue. That is much more nuanced. While I’m not offended easily, I am very conscious of myself. Maybe even a bit self-conscious. OK, let’s face it a lot self-conscious. Given my name and appearance, I stand out in this predominantly white area. So I go to great efforts where first impressions are concerned. Yes, I’m a woman and we tend to be fairly critical of ourselves, but there’s also the fact that I am the only black person in many circumstances. I’m very aware of myself in those situations. While it doesn’t surprise me when people say I’m the first black person they’ve ever spoken with or spent regular time with, those moments do feel riddled with pressure. When I’m in those situations I feel like I represent black people as a whole. As if I’m the “black ambassador” sent to initiate a relationship. While that’s not true and I shouldn’t have to bear that burden. I still end up bearing it because I care. If I can leave someone with a positive perspective why wouldn’t I? I also don’t want people to meet me and think “Geez are all black people so [insert negative discriptor]?!” It basically feels like I’m always in an interview. It also gets a little awkward when people who’ve only met my husband then they meet me. At times I’ve seen the surprise on their faces. They weren’t expecting me.
I am also pretty prepared for insensitive comments and racial slurs because on occasion they happen. Although I’m not going to write off an entire person based on one comment. Funny story. I clearly remember one day when I was driving home with my windows down in downtown Fargo and someone in an ever-stereotypical pickup said “Hi n****r!” The way he said it sounded like he was Mr. Rogers. And also legitimately happy to see me. It was weird. I remember it because it was weird, but it didn’t upset me. Fast forward to that evening when my husband and I went to a wedding reception. Someone congratulated me on being pregnant again. At that point, I was two years post-partum from my twin birth and still carrying around a mummy tummy that I was very self-conscious about. I handled it well at the moment and gave a boisterous yet nonchalant “Nope, not pregnant! This is what happens when you have a small torso and birth twins”. Sigh. I went home that night feeling unattractive and defeated. I cried. So it’s funny to me that the racial slur carried no weight because I expected that, but the comment regarding my body which felt like a personal dig was really hard to hear.
So in honor of black history month, this is my little contribution. Me sharing a bit of my story maybe it helps you understand something you hadn’t before, but maybe not. If I can hope for anything I hope that lighter-skinned humans try their best to be inclusive and aware of stereotypes and those who are darker-skinned humans consider nonreactive responses whenever possible. We are all on this planet together and we are becoming more of a smelting pot every day. Kindness, inclusivity, and love are the best way forward.
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