As a biracial Black woman with one white parent and one Black parent, who would also typically be referred to as “light skin,” my earliest experiences with my racial identity were confusing, to say the least. I grew up only knowing my white extended family and living in a mostly white neighborhood. For as long as I could remember, family members, friends, and even strangers would make comments like, “oh, you’re so much lighter than your brother” or in the summer, “wow, you’re so dark.” These comments probably seemed harmless and insignificant to these individuals. But for me, these subtle slights, known as microaggressions, made me feel like an “other,” and I internalized these messages, repeating them over and over again. I felt constantly picked apart for my Blackness, if not for my complexion then because of my wide African nose that I got from my dad or my “crazy,” “frizzy” curls. I understood early on that in the world, lighter skin, straighter hair, and Eurocentric features were better and good. That was the default that people liked and accepted. But as a young mixed-race kid, what was hard to reconcile was that with others, especially those who looked more like me, perhaps it was more acceptable to have darker skin and curly hair instead. How was I supposed to navigate both of these worlds? I felt forced to choose.
We’ll circle back to my identity crisis, but I want to first acknowledge that light skin privilege is a real thing, and I have it. As a lighter skinned Black person, I’m less likely to face discrimination in my everyday life than darker skinned Black folks. I’m less likely to be incarcerated, more likely to experience higher levels of educational attainment, more likely to be perceived as intelligent in a job interview, more likely to have a higher lifetime earning potential, more likely to receive access to quality medical care—the list goes on. Colorism (a form of discrimination based on preference toward and privilege for BIPOC people with lighter skin) is extremely damaging to darker skinned people. It’s also uniquely insidious because of the rifts and division it can create within families and communities. One of my favorite shows, Black-ish, devoted an episode to this very topic, titled “Black Like Us,” where they explored the way darker skinned members of the same family experienced the world in comparison to their lighter skinned family members. It’s an incredible episode, tackling a complex topic in a way I’d never seen before on TV.
While acknowledging the numerous ways in which I’ve benefitted from my light skin privilege, there is a duality that exists for me in the unseen (and rarely understood) identity crisis that I alluded to previously. Feelings of illegitimacy, like I’m a fraud or an imposter, because I’m a few shades lighter than my brother and many shades lighter than my dad; because I didn’t grow up surrounded by my Black family members, Black influences, or in a Black neighborhood; because there was nobody to teach me to love my curly hair instead of fighting against it with heat and chemicals; because nobody talked to me about race when I was younger, and when I heard it discussed, it was not in a way that gave me an understanding of who I was; because I only ever heard Blackness discussed in the context of racism, and that made me feel afraid and ashamed to embrace a huge part of my identity for a very long time (hello, internalized racism).
One of the most common questions people of multiracial backgrounds are asked upon meeting someone new is, “What are you?” When people asked me “what I was” (on an aside, please don’t ever ask people “what” they are), I always said I was half Black and half white—I am Zimbabwean, German, and Norwegian. I didn’t know exactly “what” I was beyond that, but I knew what I wasn’t. I knew I wasn’t white in the “right” way because even when I referred to myself as half white or mentioned my European ethnicity, people would look at me funny. But I never felt fully Black either. I didn’t know what that meant in my mind, to be “fully Black,” aside from, maybe, having two Black parents.
I have a distinct childhood memory from around age 8 or 9. It was summer, and I was sitting with my brother and our two family friends, whose parents were also interracial like ours. We were all even toastier shades of brown than usual, in the way that happens to melanated folks after a summer outdoors. I was the lightest of the four of us, which I’d always been, but on this particular day, that was bad. They all sat on one side of my childhood bedroom and I sat on the other side. I wasn’t allowed to join them on their side. They taunted me because I wasn’t Black like them. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but I couldn’t hold back my tears. There were a lot of things I didn’t understand back then, including a missing community and sense of belonging I didn’t know I was looking for. What I did know is that I hated the feeling of always being questioned and having to prove or defend my identity. I hated feeling like I didn’t fit anywhere. I was too white for the Black kids. I was too Black for the white kids. I didn’t belong.
Many years and many situations after that incident, I was starting my career, and the company I worked for had an Employee Resource Group for its Black employees and allies. I noticed they were recruiting participants for a reverse mentorship program, where employees would be matched with senior executives and act as their mentors. It sounded like a cool program and concept, but I was hesitant to apply. Looking at the promotional materials and the images of Black faces, in all different shades, the resounding thought in my mind was, “I’m not Black enough for this.” I didn’t apply. Months later, I ended up working on a project with one of the executives who led the mentorship program. He was also biracial like me. We were riding in a cab to the airport, having a conversation about race and biracial identity, and I told him how I hadn’t applied to the mentorship program because I was “only” half Black. He stopped me immediately and said something that hasn’t left me since: “You’re not half of anything. You are fully Black, you are fully white—no one can take that from you. You are a whole person.”
That conversation sparked the onset of a new mindset for me around race and my identity. It changed the way I thought about myself, led me down a long path of research and soul searching, and was the beginning of the end of the identity crisis that had plagued me for years. Something I understand now—that I didn’t fully understand or accept when I was growing up—was that as a Black person, people will always see me first for my race. When I walk down the street, they will see me without knowing anything about me, and whether consciously or unconsciously, in their mind, they will categorize me: “Black.” While I refuse to be half of anything, I know that I don’t experience the world the way white women do, and that is a fact. I am Black, and Black identities can never be fully separated from the constructs of race that we are viewed through, regardless of how we view ourselves. But while it may not always be visible, my life, experiences, and worldview have been shaped by a blending of cultures and identities, and that blending is what’s made me who I am. I am a biracial Black woman, and I love being Black. Even though sometimes I still feel that I don’t “fit” anywhere, it doesn’t bother me like it did when I was a kid. I don’t have anything to prove.