I was in third grade.
I had a schoolgirl crush on a little boy in my class and in true elementary school fashion, news spread rather quickly to him. I was at the skating rink with a group of friends because that’s how we celebrated our birthdays then, and his friend skated up to me, looked me in the eye, and offhandedly spoke the words, “Insert name here doesn’t like you because you’re black.”
As he said those words so nonchalantly, the words pierced through my heart like a needle. In my third grade brain, the words rattled around my head as I thought, “I’m black? What does that mean? There’s different skin colors? Why is that bad? What’s wrong with ME!?” As a young girl born to an African-American father and Filipina-Caucasian mother, I was never taught to think twice about the color of someone’s skin.
As soon as I got back from the party, I ran upstairs to my mom,who I distinctly remember was doing laundry, cried in her arms and told her what happened. She, of course, knew that this moment would come sooner or later. She explained to me that not everyone was open-minded like me, and there would be times when people wouldn’t appreciate my brilliance because of their inability to see past my exterior. This is the first time I realized that as a woman of color, there would be times where I would be overlooked, unappreciated, and misunderstood.
This is something that still follows me wherever I go. Etched into my skin are feelings of difference, inferiority, otherness. I see others forming opinions about what ethnic group I could possible be a part of, and some even ponder aloud as they ask me ‘where I’m from.’ When I walk into a room I can feel other’s perceptions projected onto me, as I speak clearly and eloquently, the questions pour in about where I grew up. I pull out words from assorted pages in the dictionary in everyday conversation not because I want to change my dialect to fit society’s version of what it means to be educated, but because I am a nerd. I do not talk ‘white’ and I do not defy ‘talking black.’ Since when do people talk like colors? One cannot speak as a color, but only as a human being looking to connect to others through one of the most powerful forms of communication.
Embedded in all of our consciouses is fear. Fear can bring people together in times of turmoil, but it can also segregate and tear nations apart. Our brains are wired to categorize at first glance because it is safe. Going back to our primal instinct of survival, we quickly group and categorize people because it is easy to make associations in new and unfamiliar contexts. We see this in our current political campaign and in daily news, as our television screens are filled with words of inferiority surrounding entire groups of people, which is disguised by our country’s desire to promote free speech.
My whole life I’ve struggled to find a sense of ‘me.‘ A part of my history, which is so rich with overcoming adversity and staying steadfast in the face of hatred, walked out many years ago, trailing behind my father’s footsteps. As many will comment on my light skin, I drown in a sea of ‘half of your family wasn’t out there with my family in the fields,’ juxtaposed with the unruly texture of my hair, which is a physical marker of my blackness. I feel stuck at a crossroads where no one race claims me, and yet I have no home, no history to declare as mine.
While friends would talk about the greens their mothers made for Thanksgiving, I could only talk about the casseroles my mom made(which I love, by the way). While others talk about issues that plague the African-American community, I find myself asking if I’m even allowed to comment because I’ve heard whisperings of me not being ‘black enough.’ Being of mixed race certainly comes with a multitude of privileges, which I check on a daily basis, but at the end of the day, my bloodlines are still intertwined with those who stood in the face of adversity and have stood on the front lines of societal progress despite fear. I’m slowly learning that my experience as a woman of color is not the same as the woman standing next to me. Standing between us are differences of socioeconomic status, levels of education, familial structures, hobbies and achievements, geographic upbringings, and the daily experiences that come along with being a human.
I’m learning that standing next to these women, in the shadows of incredible women of color who led lives of passion, persistence, and strength, inspires me to speak up and use my voice, even if there is no seat for me at the table. I am learning that while for some people I may not be enough of one or the other, my history is rich on all sides, creating a compilation of experiences that allow me to view the world from multiple angles. I’m learning that despite the color of my skin, there are still little girls who look up to me because of my background and experience.
I ask that you think twice before you let words of me vs. you leave your mouth. Many are still trying to navigate what it means and what it looks like to feel unapologetically comfortable in their own skin, especially when there are no real roots of culture at home. Some of us are trying to maneuver the world and understand where our place is and how we fit in a system of moving parts. I ask that you be gentle and understanding in your daily interactions, as some of us have to fight a battle externally, but internally as well. I ask that you work towards not putting people in boxes and let them define themselves. I ask that you welcome a discourse with those who look differently than you because we all have beating hearts and stories to share. Those are the very things that make us human and we have to remember that while our experiences may be different, our hearts beat just the same.