All of my life I’ve heard variations of the following:
“Belinda, you’re such an OREO.”
“Belinda, you’re not black. You’re the whitest person I know.”
“Mrs. Martin, you’re different. You’re not like real black people.”
“Belinda, don’t even try to act black. It just doesn’t work for you.”
“Uh oh. B’s getting angry. Her black is coming out.”
“Gosh, Belinda. You’re smart. You’re successful. You speak well. You’re. So. White.”
…and you know what I do almost every time I hear these things? I laugh. I laugh because what I want to say and the way that I want to say it would only further the stereotype that when black people, specifically black women, get angry, they “go off.”
I have this dialogue with my students more than once each school year and we discuss the implications of a society in which a minority who is intelligent, educated, successful, and speaks proper, unaccented English is attributed a credit to the white race and in many cases considered a traitor to their own. I’ve read countless essays written by minorities about this very same idea, and yet, I never feel any better about my identity. My whole life, people have told me who I am and so when the tragedies of the last few years (specifically the last few months) began to unfold, I didn’t know where I belonged. I didn’t know what to feel.
Having been called white for as long as I can remember by friends, family, teachers, and even strangers, when matters of white privilege came across my radar, I began to wonder, “Do I have white privilege?” I’ve been wrestling with this question for quite some time now. Every morning when I wake up and hear the news of another life lost, I wonder if I am viewing the situation as a black person or as a privileged white person. Every time I listen to a presidential candidate, I have to ask myself what lens I am viewing them through. Every time I meet someone new, I wonder how they view me. Do they see me as a black person or as a white person who happens to have black skin? Every time someone asks my opinion as a black person, I wonder why my opinion can’t be based solely on the fact that I am human.
Logically, I shouldn’t be battling with these questions. My family is from Liberia—a country founded by slaves freed from America. My ethnicity is African-American, and yet when I listen to Macklemore’s “White Privilege,” I identify more with his perspective than the one he is advocating for. Have I allowed society’s definitions of what it means to be white to affect me that much? I didn’t think I had.
I married a white man, who on many different occasions has been described as “blacker than I will ever be” due to his ability to adapt his vernacular, his impeccable dance moves, and his sense of street smarts. When we began to date, however, he didn’t notice the side-glances and looks of disgust received from strangers. He didn’t feel the tension in churches, restaurants, and malls. Perhaps, this was because he just didn’t care, but a part of it could be due to the fact that he just never had to be aware of these things.
He’d never been pulled over in the middle of the night for driving recklessly as I had—although, I was remaining perfectly inside of my lane. He’d never walked into an interview and been told that the interviewer was expecting a white person based on what they’d heard about him, after reading his resume and list of accomplishments—as I had. He’d never been told that choosing to date someone of the white race as a minority is considered “stealing one of the few good ones left”—again, as I had.
So often people question Loman and me about when we will have children. If we choose to do so, it will be in our own time, on our own accord. However, we also have to prepare ourselves for the kinds of comments, criticisms, and discrimination that our child will face. It won’t be enough that they are a product of a loving, two-parent household. It is almost inevitable that at some point in our child[ren]’s life, people will question them, make fun of them, and even look down on them for who their parents are. The color of their skin will likely dictate a large part of their identity.
When I read the article linked to this post and listened to the First Lady’s speech from last night, I found myself in a place where I’m still confused about my identity. I’ve never really identified as a Democrat or a Republican and I’m beginning to realize that this is probably rooted in the fact that I don’t really identify as black or white. I am human. I’ve experienced all of the situations cited by the author of this article, and yet I’m still confused because I feel that as an educated, successful, African American member of society, there are times when I, too, exhibit what our society has coined “white privilege.” I don’t see it as an issue of black or white, however. It’s simply a matter of privilege. Anytime someone has access to resources, support systems, or connections that another group does not, there is a risk for exhibiting privilege.
So, as I sit here typing and weeping, I just want to understand why being human isn’t enough. I want to understand why color must be attributed to so many situations. I do not feign ignorance. I see the headlines. I understand the statistics. I am not naïve. I have felt the effects of racial discrimination. However, I wonder what our world would be like if we removed the labels of race and simply treated one another as human beings—each worthy of love and respect.