I was sitting on the couch watching TV with my friend Antwon, in the apartment that he shared with his twin brother Nelson. When I first met them I could hardly tell them apart, with their matching bald heads and immaculate facial hair. Now, I couldn’t imagine mistaking one for the other. It wasn’t just their faces that I had come to know, it was their personalities as well. Antwon is more relaxed, Nelson more driven. Nelson tends to hold court and lecture, while Antwon knows how to hang out, and make room for other people.
When Nelson came home we could hear him kick off his shoes just inside the door, murmur a hello, and head into the kitchen. He’d probably ignore us for a while, but that was okay, we’d known each other for eight years by then. “We’re family,” Nelson liked to say, “We don’t stand on ceremony.” Every time he said that my heart grew a little. We were black gay poetry geeks. I’d waited a long time to feel this kind of family.
Later, Nelson poked his head into the living room, about to say something, but when he saw me sitting next to his brother he blurted out, “Oh my God you’re so white.”
He was talking to me. I picked up the remote control and hurled it at him. I would have hit him in the head if he hadn’t ducked. Antwon’s head snapped around; his eyes bulged at me. He stood up off the couch and both he and Nelson stared at me from either side of the room, as if I had lost my mind. My skin color varies from bronze, to milky tea, depending on the time of year. My father is black, and my mother is white. I look like my father. I’ve got his full nose, his lips, and his afro, so no matter how pale I get in the winter, I’ve never been mistaken for white.
We had become family. If there is ever a point in time when it’s appropriate to be shocked by someone’s skin tone, we were way past that. So, I was sure that Nelson’s comment was meant to hurt my feelings. It felt like he was talking about more than my skin tone. He had ripped the scab off of an old wound that refused to heal. Because what I heard when Nelson said, “You’re so white,” was, you’re not really black, meaning, you’re not one of us. Which is the very same thing that I heard from my white friends growing up. We love you, but you’re not one of us.
Biracial people often experience racism in a different context than people who grow up with two black parents or, with extended black family and community. We often live in places where our white parent feels comfortable, which isolates us from black friends and community. Biracial people often become subjected to racism that our parents don’t see, or recognize.
I grew up with friends who said, “My parents like you as my friend, but they would never let me date a black guy/girl.” They might say something about black people being stupid, or ugly, or criminals, and then turn to me and say, “I don’t mean you, you’re different.”
And, even if I’d felt safe enough to talk to my parents about the blatant and subtle daily humiliations that I faced, I didn’t have the language to do so. I didn’t know enough yet to understand that this persistent belittling slowly chips away at one’s self-esteem. No one taught me to speak of such things.
For some of us there is no respite from the racism, even at home. I have a mother who said, “I should turn you over and use your hair as a mop,” a grandmother who insisted, “You don’t want to go to that school, that’s the black school.” For some of us, there is no soft place to land.
My father is the oldest of ten children. I have a big extended family of aunts and uncles, who could have taught me a thing or two about living in my own skin. But I didn’t grow up with them. I grew up with my white mother, her white husband, and their children. My presence in the family often had to be explained to people who assumed that I was the babysitter or the maid. “This is my daughter,” or “Oh her? It’s okay, she’s my sister.” I was one of two black girls in my high school.
Strangers, friends, and loved ones reminded me regularly, often in disparaging ways, that I was different. As a child I was called a wild animal, a gorilla. It was a regular occurrence for white people, of all ages, to touch my hair, and then express shock that it didn’t feel like steel wool. At school, I was picked first for sports, but was never expected to excel in the classroom.
When I moved away from home and went to college, I thought that this would be my chance to make friends with other black kids. And it was. I went to college in New York City; the student population was more diverse than I could have imagined when I was in high school. It felt like I had stepped into a different universe. The girls in my West African Dance class liked my hair. They liked my hair. And nobody seemed embarrassed by the size of my butt.
I met Nelson in a Post Colonial Literature class and became friends with him and his brother Antwon. They talked about boys, and I talked about girls. We all talked about poetry, and nobody assumed that I was not smart. I hoped I had finally found my soft place to land.
But then something else happened. I found out that I was “light-skinned.” Of course, I knew that my skin was lighter than Nelson’s, lighter than my father’s. Still, I thought I was black. People had been telling me so for years.
I learned then, that since I was light-skinned, I was probably uppity. I probably thought I was better than some people. I also learned that a light-skinned girl like me couldn’t possibly understand the real black experience.
We championed each other’s writing. We spent hours talking about books, we cried and laughed, danced, and cooked together, and it was wonderful. Back then, I was so grateful to have such smart fabulous friends, who thought I was smart and fabulous too. I didn’t want to lose them, so I didn’t tell them how hurt I was by those assumptions.
Nelson and Antwon were a part of my life at a time when I was developing a sense of who I was, and cultivating a consciousness about sexuality, about race, and about gender. Although I still love them, I don’t hang out with them very much anymore. Still, I can’t help but look for them. On the subway, in the West Village, in a small Moroccan restaurant, tucked behind a flower shop. A familiar tilt of the head, or a freshly groomed goatee, will accelerate my heart. They are a part of who I have become, and I miss them.
Now, when I meet people, I’m more discerning. When black people ask me, “What are you mixed with?” the first time we meet, we’re not likely to become friends. When white people ask where I’m from and then persist, “I mean, where are you really from? What’s your heritage?” we are also not likely to become friends. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a start at weeding out people who need to insert someone into a category, before they can have a conversation with them, people who see me as a representative of something exotic or different rather than as an individual.
It’s possible that the refrain you’re not one of us, will never disappear from my psyche. I hope that in time it will fade into something that shaped my past, but does not define my every day, or my future. It seems like both too much and not enough to ask for.
For now, I’m still in search of a soft place to land.
Gila K. Berryman received her MFA from New York University and is finishing her first novel.