When I was seven years old, my white uncle called me a worthless n-word in the middle of an argument. As I sobbed uncontrollably at my grandmother’s feet, I realized that racism can trump family. Being half- Black and half-white, I fall in between two identities. I realized then that even though I was half-white, I would never be fully accepted by some of my white family. But I would never be fully Black either.
I cannot discuss this without being ridiculed or treated like this was an exaggerated event that is out of the ordinary for me. I cannot talk about this experience with my Black friends because they do not think I share their oppressive experiences. At the same time, I cannot discuss this with my white friends and family because it makes them uncomfortable and they can never understand how dehumanizing it was.
My identity is constantly erased because of my fair skin and facial features. I lose my choice to identify as biracial because someone else decides that I am either only Black or only white, and must fit inside their stereotypes of what my two cultural backgrounds are. I lose the chance to share my experiences of being discriminated against for being Black because I am too fair-skinned.
People believe I am not nearly Black enough to have dealt with racial slurs, teasing and the nonconsensual hair petting that comes with being Black. I no longer get to perceive myself as Black because I do not fit a certain image of blackness.
I know that my experience is different than the majority of the Black community’s experiences. My light skin gives me privilege in spaces where my friends and other Black folks don’t get the same treatment. In high school my friends (all Black) and I went into a liquor store and the owner made them all remove their bags, but let me keep mine with me. I have had people compliment my curls while they call another Black person’s hair nappy and unkempt. I know that I benefit from the rampant colorism in our society.
The reality though is that even though I am fair-skinned, I am still treated as a Black person. I was one of four Black students at a private Presbyterian school and was paired with another Black girl in my grade for everything. Teachers didn’t know what to do when our barrettes didn’t match our uniforms or what to do when our hair violated the dress code. My mother received many phone calls asking how they should handle these situations, mostly asking if it was okay if they ‘fix’ our hair.
Growing up in an environment where I constantly had to question if my hair was appropriate or if my mom would be interrupted because my hair was a distraction made me feed into this notion that I needed straighter, manageable hair. It made me hate a part of myself that no one ever should.
But I still struggle with being “too this” and “not enough that.” I am immediately othered around my family. Early on, I learned that I was different when my cousins on one side said my hair was weird since my mom has long loose curls while my curls are much shorter and tighter and didn’t look “right.” I was reminded of my heritage when my other cousins told me that my sister and I were white girls my dad adopted because we’re too light to be related to any of them.
These assumptions about my experiences were perpetuated by my college peers. One of the very first things asked of me when I arrived at CalSo was whether or not I put that I was Black on my college applications. The person implied that I used my blackness only when it benefited me. I was appalled, hurt and annoyed because I am Black and I have the right to identify as such.
Another time, on Black Wednesday, someone made a comment emphasizing I lacked the physique that Black women have, then concluded it was because I do not have enough melanin in my skin. I never thought that as an adult I would still be dealing with comments that made me doubt my blackness. Yet, it is an issue I deal with almost daily. When people invalidate my blackness, I feel attacked, unwanted and disrespected. It makes me feel as though there is no one to turn to when I need to vent about the harsh realities of being Black.
I understood quickly that I was too this and too that, after relentlessly being teased for my blackness and for my whiteness. I was taught whatever I did was just an attempt to “prove” that I was more one race than the other. I learned that I was constantly seen as a half — a half of a person, identity and culture.
After a while I realized that no matter what I do or say, no one will ever truly respect my identity because they only view me as a half. And I realized I am one whole amazing person.
DeáJiané McNair is a junior studying political science at UC Berkeley.