When I was transitioning from teacher to administrator, I took a year long position in a wealthy suburban district at a pay-cut because they were going to give me leadership opportunities, and mentoring. But it turned out it also meant working with an all White staff — the kind of friendly oblivious racists I’ve encountered plenty over the years — who gave my unusual look the benefit of the doubt. For example when I entered the staff lounge on Rosh Hashanah, one of my new colleagues commented loudly in curious amazement that she was surprised to see me today. (Yes…I get “Jewish” a lot). I responded that: “I don’t observe Rosh Hashanah because I’m not Jewish…I’m part Black”. Followed by stone silence and everyone getting deeply interested in their yogurt, or sandwich before the murmur of small talk resumed.
For me, what race I feel like I am is as challenging as how others perceive me. As I get older, I feel more Black. I can tell because in that situation, contrary to my calm tone, I was angry – angry because being Black means always having your race noticed by White people, it means not having the invisible privilege of walking into new situations without someone checking off a mental note about you. And I was scared. Historically, many light-skinned folks chose to “pass” in order to overcome the real economic barriers of being Black. I needed this particular job and strong letters of recommendation to move up. In other words, if I chose to stake my ground and have a courageous conversation with this community, I was running the risk of being perceived as militant, unprofessional, or by some of the worse bigots as “uppity.” It truly was a relief when I got my administrative job at an Urban school district, I felt freer to be more Black…the collective understanding about the past and a shared resilience was comforting. This is not a put down of White people (don’t worry White besties), its just an acknowledgment that there’s this shared element missing.
What is most important to me now is that the (intentional and unintentional) psychological intimidation didn’t completely wear me down or break my love of myself…it didn’t condition me to accept being a victim.
A wondering: I know there’s other people with one Black parent and one White parent who have decided how they want to publicly identify, but did they or do they go through periods of feeling more-one-race or another? Stay tuned for further exploration, and answers in up coming blogs. In the meantime check out this list of well known half Black people: