“What are you?” The words that have haunted me since the 6th grade.
I am privileged to have attended a culturally diverse public elementary school in Detroit called the Foreign Language Immersion Cultural Studies School, or F.L.I.C.S for short. The school was comprised of three foreign language programs, Spanish, French and Japanese. Our teachers were from around the world. From kindergarten to fifth grade I learned fluency in Spanish alongside elementary academia. My peers were mostly black but at that age the color of our skin was never a topic of conversation. The entire class was a joyful, innocent group of friends. Some of us even traveled to Venezuela for our fifth grade class trip. We spent 2 weeks in our teacher’s home town meeting our pen pals and exploring the country. Our youth was precious.
At that time there was no middle school to graduate to which meant whatever part of Detroit you lived in decided what school you would go to next. Unfortunately for me, after my father passed away when I was in fourth grade, my mother moved the family to Grosse Pointe. My older brother who was 13 at the time was attending a private school in the area. My younger brother, who was 4, was just starting at FLICS. My mother insisted on keeping us in Detroit public schools. For me this meant starting all over.
On the first day of my fresh start I did the dreaded walk through the cafeteria to find a seat for lunch. Recognizing girls from my class I approached their table and asked if anyone was sitting in the open seat. They all stopped talking, looked at me for the longest three seconds of my pre-pubescent life, then one of them said “what are you?”
Confused, I bravely responded, “A girl.”
“No, what are you?”, she said louder as if I didn’t hear her the first time. The entire table laughed under their breaths.
“What?” I said.
“Are you black?”
“Oh yea, and white”, I said.
I should have never added the last part. I was still standing and hadn’t been invited to sit. Could these girls really have never seen a chubby mixed girl like me?
At the time I was sporting a natural fro. I don’t remember how my mom convinced me to cut my dark brown curly hair so short, maybe I fell asleep with gum in my mouth or something. I was plump, one of the fat kids that learned early on food is comfort. I grew up in Detroit. Half of my family is black. So, of course, I was black. Right?
Part of my struggle as a mixed kid was exacerbated by my father’s death. When he died, from my seven year old perspective, his family went away with him. There was turmoil between my mom and members of his family, but for the most part, from what I understood, we, the children, were still loved. We just never saw them as often any more and didn’t get to enjoy their love and life as we did when my father was alive. It wasn’t until someone died did we see that side of the family. My adolescence needed so much more, but that was all I had to shape me.
Needless to say, I never finished the 6th grade. I was constantly bullied for my lighter skin and weight. And regularly made fun of for having a white mom and a dead black dad. I was so depressed that before the end of the year I couldn’t even pull myself out of bed. There was nothing more my mom could do to get me to go to school, she had enough on her plate. It was time to start over, again.
I transitioned to Grosse Pointe Public Schools. The middle school I attended was only three blocks from our house. On the first day of 7th grade, I quickly figured out I was the only light-skinned black girl in my grade. Except this time I was the only light-skinned black girl in a predominately white school. There were 5 other black kids in my grade but we weren’t drawn to each other. I felt completely out of place, again.
Thankfully no one ever asked me that dreaded question I got on the first day of 6th grade. No one really asked me anything. I didn’t look like them, I wasn’t thin, I didn’t wear expensive clothes, I didn’t have straight hair, I wasn’t white. So getting to know me wasn’t important. I was too different. Luckily I found a group of girls that I will forever be grateful for. They were all white but they embraced me for everything I was on the inside. We were a party of 4 and completely inseparable and they never questioned the color of my skin. They liked my messy hair more than I did.
Then high school came and puberty started, clicks happen, hormones were out of control and I lost my party of 4. I lost myself too. I was liked in several different groups from the pot smokers, to the preps and the goths but I was never really part of anything like the party of 4 or even my elementary school class. Blending into high school groups meant overlooking outlandish racism and picking and choosing when to “be black” or “be white”.
It wasn’t easy growing up in the 90s as a mixed kid. My complexion has always been difficult for people to comprehend. Even as an adult I was categorized by my appearance. If I straightened my hair, I looked more white. More people would respond to me at work or in social situations. If I let my hair be natural, I looked more “bizarre”, and was approached like a child or overlooked completely. I’ve been asked in a professional setting to put my hair back because it was too wild. Thank you Mr. white man.
Within the last decade and a half mixed kids have become part of the norm but the racism and indifference that is paired with being bi-racial hasn’t. Yet, there are more of us around now to challenge the status quo. It still seems rare to find ourselves in clusters though. We are sprinkled here and there in communities of every level of class. Sparks of relief and happiness ignite in my heart when I see mixed families or other people who look like me. Having been a rarity most my life, I empower the power of my complexion by proudly wearing it and welcoming the differences it defies.
Rosie is a 6 year old girl that lives around the block. She looks older than she is. She’s my kind of chubby. She has the best giggle that pairs perfectly with her smile and darling dimples. She has an older brother named Warren, he is her number one protector and instigator. They both look like me! I am drawn to Rosie’s wild curly untamed hair. It is an imitation of my own. She rocks it with so much more confidence than I ever did, and I don’t even think she knows it.
Her mother is a white single parent. She’s also a teacher. She commutes Rosie and Warren out of the city to a school in her teaching district. Their school friends stay at school and family seems few and far between. I’ve openly confessed my awe for her daughter. I asked how she manages Rosie’s hair. (Something I wish a mixed person would have given my mother tips on years ago.) I give candid advice and warmly share my own testimony like a kid in a candy shop, “pick me pick me, I want to help”.
Whenever I see Rosie I make it a point to acknowledge her and ask her how she is doing. I get a 6 year old’s answer of course, a nodding of the head, shrug of the shoulders, or a random funny story. Our families share friends in the neighborhood so they have become part of the The Pod Squad. She comes knocking on my door weekly to ask if she can play. My kids are half her age, but of course I say yes. I know she isn’t here for them, I welcome her regardless.
I hope to offer her an authentic space. A place where, one day, she may want to ask me questions about being bi-racial or how to manage naturally curly hair. Being vulnerable with her has been healing and motivating as a woman and parent. I wonder if I had someone who looked like me growing up would it have been easier to nurture my own identity? I hope I offer Rosie the comfort to be herself and embrace her different. And I hope to show my children the beauty of embracing that difference in this big mixed world.