I'm Neither Black Nor White: Why I Embrace the Latte
A woman who was born to a Black father and a white mother details how she grapples with her identity.
I was proudly wearing my Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt when I was stopped getting off the bus by an older white male. He was amazed that a teenager who looks like me even knew who Lynyrd Skynyrd was. Sorry mate, musical tastes aren’t defined by how brown I am.
I’m not Black. Neither am I white. However, for reasons that I suspect have a lot to do with my upbringing, my personal history and our society, being told I’m white doesn’t enrage me as much as being told I’m Black.
I was born to a Black father and a white mother, and I grew up squarely in the middle. With my “latte” skin, I was praised on one side for my lighter tone, and on the other for my sun-kissed complexion. I sometimes, as a child, wonder why I wasn’t just one color. But otherwise, I experienced racism like any child would: with incomprehension and dismay.
Skin Color and Culture Aren’t the Same Thing—Even Though People Think They Are
I spent my formative years fluctuating between two colors and two cultures. And then, without any real conscious decision on my part, I wound up very much on one side. As a Jamaican friend pointed out when I was in my early 20s, I’m “so white.” Everything that defined me—except my skin color—planted me firmly in the white camp.
To align with one culture or another, we have to understand them. Society would have us believe that “white culture” is mainstream culture. “Black culture,” on the other hand, is defined by subcultures predominantly adhered to by members of society with a certain melanin level.
As Justin Simien, director of the 2014 movie Dear White People, explained in an op-ed for CNN, Black culture “is what people assume about [B]lack people and how they should sound, live and act.” To be Black, one has to do this and like that, as if one’s skin had anything to do with matters of taste.
One’s skin is, of course, really what it comes down to, but this is not the only thing that defines “Blackness,” at least not in the sociological sense. Cultural Blackness has very little to do with how Black someone is, but our society’s obsession with differences would have us believe it is one and the same thing.
Am I Black or Not?
As a mixed-race woman, where I stand in this division of culture gets somewhat complicated. My genes are all tangled, and I could, technically, be said to be Black—or not.
From my art university background to my obsession with travel, from my love of classic rock to my very real addiction to cappuccinos, my Jamaican friend could not fathom anyone mistaking me for a Black woman. To her, everything about me screamed “white.”
And she might be right. In the years since her comment, my inability to be “Black,” inasmuch as what society would associate with Black culture, has only been exacerbated. Of course, I rebel against any idea that melanin levels influence one’s tastes and cultural associations. Our societal need to put people in neat, easily-understood little boxes isn’t going anywhere, leaving me stranded here, not white, but in the white box nonetheless.
How does one navigate the Black/white divisions our society’s normalized when one’s identity is both everything and nothing, Black and white? Every Black-bashing comment around me is accompanied by a look in my direction that makes me want to shrug, even as I laugh and get exasperated at the white clichés casually peppered all over the internet.
We can all (hopefully) agree that racism is bad, but what particularly annoys me isn’t racism as such. Every attempt by people to put me in a “category” makes my skin crawl. This would be understandable if being put in any category got the same reaction. Interestingly, it doesn’t.
I have come to realize that racism shocks me for all the “wrong” reasons. Raised by my white, European mother, everyday racism jars my sense of whiteness. A joke about “the Black people over there” when I sit next to a Black friend at the pub makes me look around and frown. “Are they talking about me?”
White people’s view of me clashes with how I see myself. This is something that becomes apparent every time I’m in the U.S. or when I meet Americans. Every single time, the question of “where are you from?” comes up and every single time, my answer is found to be wanting. “But what are your origins?” This question, interestingly, is never asked by Europeans—we seem to understand that you can be a Black and French, or of Asian descent and British. Telling them that I’m from my city never brings up follow-up questions.
For Mixed-Race People, Is Racial Identity a Choice?
Identity is a complicated concept, and self-identification has made headlines for a while now. Gender and sexual identity are one thing, but when it comes to race and culture, can you “choose” how you self-identify?
As someone who is truly on the fence, in racial terms, if I can claim whiteness, can I also switch and claim Blackness? Can I say the N-word? Can I—should I?—be annoyed at racism directed towards me, even if it is mainly because it makes me want to scream, “I’m not actually Black you idiot!”
Racism is unacceptable, both white and Black people will happily tell you. What I’ve come to see as “one-colored” people will then proceed to regurgitate whatever clichés they have about “the others,” safe in the knowledge they are squarely on one side of the argument, and no doubt about it.
Clichés color my own reactions too. Being called Black is associated with negative feelings. The angry, loud Black woman, but probably more importantly my father, a man I have not seen in 15 years. My relationship—or lack thereof—with my dad has absolutely nothing to do with his skin color, but associations are created whether they’re rational or not. Being called Black is calling me my father’s daughter, and that will not do.
I’m Happy as an Outsider
As neither Black nor white, I should not have to choose a camp—and most of the time, I don’t. I don’t spend any time whatsoever anymore wondering whether I’m one or the other.
And then someone makes a comment and I cringe.
Ultimately, I really am neither, a position that I relish. As an outsider, I enjoy being annoyed at every excuse for racism that brings up colonization and slavery, at every “victim posturing” and displacement of responsibility. This is almost as liberating as being able to climb on my high horse and look down at every self-centered comment, Eurocentric rewriting of history, complete lack of awareness of what it means to be “other” and tone-deaf defense of this or that privilege. “We went to the Bronx and OMG! I was the only white person there! So uncomfortable,” a fellow traveler recounted to me recently after a trip to New York. I have never laughed so hard.
And so, I roll my eyes left, right and center. I refuse to be called Black, but when I think about it, I don’t particularly want to be called white either. White people see me as Black, and Black people see me as white. Which would tend to mean I’m Black, while thinking of myself, mainly, as white. Or the reality is somewhat simpler: I am neither.