I have never really looked like anyone. I have always been the question mark. The fact that almost everyone in my family is darker than me always made me the odd man out, especially as I grew up. I looked different, but that does not mean that I was spared prejudice or racism.
It started in kindergarten. Kids would ask me why my mom was black. I did not know what to say. To me my mom was my mom and my family was my family. I was never taught to be concerned with anything dealing with that. Unfortunately, that’s not true for every child. I was told that if my mom was black I was a ______ too. When I told the teacher she said if she did not hear it, she could not do anything about it. I am 28 and can not bring myself to type that word. It is still dirty to me. It still offends me. It still is tied to history that whether or not is included in textbooks can not be unwritten.
As I grew up, especially as a teenager, everyone assumed that I was my brother’s girlfriend. Yes, that was always weird. We look nothing alike so most people assumed that instead of just seeing a family. That is the part that has always been so hard. People never treated my brother like a question mark. The world saw/sees him as a black man. No one ever wondered or persisted with the question, “What are you?”
This question has been asked a few different ways, and no matter the packaging used, the heart in it is still the same. Here is the disturbing reality. Some people can not make decisions about others without a specific ethnicity or race to associate them with. It says that no one can be their own person. Some people can not ever get to know someone for who they are without having a pool of associations to draw from. If you are this you must like that or if you look like this, you do not belong here.
I was once in a situation where someone said my daughter had the most beautiful complexion. I thanked them. The person next to them, who had been brimming over to ask said, “Oh, what is HER ethnicity?” I can always tell when someone is dying to ask. I looked at her and directly asked, “Are you asking because you would like to know mine?” They quickly said, “No.” The conversation ended there.
I was reminded of these moments today when I walked into a restaurant in the middle of Oklahoma. This is an area where lynchings and other forms of murder were usual, unprosecuted crimes no more than 60 years ago. My husband notices it now too. It is not just seeing the looks on people’s faces change, there is a noticeable shift that radiates disgust in these kind of places. It reaches out to make sure you know you are not welcome.
This feeling is familiar. If you have ever dealt with prejudice because you were poor or because you were not like everyone else, you know it. This kind of racism and prejudice is not exclusive to white people. Most people associate racism with white Americans, and that in and of itself is prejudice and racist. It is not a disease that has seeped into this race alone. The truth is that you can find this kind of hatred in every race of people. The thing we really need to be concerned with is ending this heritage of hatred that has always been present in our country.
One of the most infuriating things anyone has ever said to me was, “You do not look or act black enough.” The way I look is a result of biology and the way God wove me together. Nothing about my light skin or “good” hair was my choosing. Even at church, people would say things to me about my hair and pretty skin not making me “better” than anyone else. I was just a child and did not understand this until I talked to my mom. I was crushed because I did not know what about me looking different made anyone feel the need to hurt me over it. As far as “acting black” is concerned, I do not know what that means. Where is list that says what someone must do to be considered black or white or Hispanic or Chinese enough to be “right” for their ethnic group?
I was born into a hard working family and was challenged from a young age to be ambitious in my achievements. I was taught to value the education afforded to me by those who bled and died for it. I was raised to be respectful and honest knowing that there were real and swift consequences on the other side of not behaving that way. Whenever I tell someone who my family is, they always say I came from good people. I was not raised to be “black enough.” I was raised to be a respectful person who made the world a better place and treated people the way I would want to be treated.
One of my favorite parts of my family is that it is a beautiful melting pot of different personalities and ethnicities, and NO ONE CARES. WE are a family because of love, not because we all look alike.
When will it end? Will there ever be a time when every person faces their prejudices, banishes them, and walks away from them instead of indoctrinating the coming generations with the same ideas? Will there ever be a day when people can be people and treated as such?
Today the feeling of someone being disgusted with my very presence was real to me again for the first time in a while. Here is the thing, after leaving the world I grew up in for the first time when we moved, it dawned on me that not a single person had posed this question to me. No one has cared or needed to know my race so much that they have asked. I have not gotten that feeling of knowing that they are waiting for the right moment to ask. Maybe that is why it was so real today. I had been so accustomed to that kind of thinking and those questions, I was blind to all the implications these ideas have always carried. Truthfully, I was used to it.
Until today, I had forgotten the hurt. I forgot to pray for those people so they would not raise up a generation who would look at my children like that in the days to come.
Some people say that we should not make a big deal out of these situations. Some people say it only causes problems. I am glad that when people said that to civil rights and women’s rights activists, they did not listen. If they had, my marriage would be illegal, I would never have had the opportunity for higher education, and I would never have been able to vote.
We have come a long way, and I have hope in the creator of the days to come that someday dreams like those envisioned by men like Dr. King will be fully realized. It starts with us realizing we are making the world what it is everyday. We have to own that responsibility and do what we can to eliminate hate and grow love while sowing peace.