I woke up this morning to a text from my fiancée. It was a link to an article titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” written by John Vercher for Cognoscenti. I felt a pang of recognition; you see, I’d written an essay by the same title over a year ago. I’d shopped it around to various outlets, but didn’t receive any responses. I wasn’t surprised by the lack of interest; it is (necessarily) long, and I doubt there’s much of a market for first-person essays about biracial people who identify as black but present as white.
A few weeks ago, I was on Twitter and saw a tweet from Ijeoma Oluo linking to her interview of Rachel Dolezal. (In case you’re unfamiliar, Dolezal gained notoriety in 2015 for claiming to be black – even going so far as to lead the Spokane chapter of the NAACP – despite not having any black ancestry.) Among the replies to that tweet were people jokingly submitting “alternate titles” to the article, so I figured I’d give it a try:
I was taken aback when I saw the title of Vercher’s article this morning, and more so when I read his piece and discovered that it focuses on the same Oluo interview. And you can imagine my chagrin when I took a look at Vercher’s Twitter account and saw that, yes, he had retweeted a link to Oluo’s piece.
I’m dancing around the point here, so allow me to be blunt: I think it’s possible Mr. Vercher saw my reply and used it as the title for his piece. Of course, it could be a coincidence, or it could be that an editor (and not Vercher himself) wrote the title. Besides, if it isn’t a coincidence, I can’t prove it anyway; even if I could, that’s not really what bothers me. What bothers me is that, to me, the title hints at an internal struggle between the author’s self-identity as a black man, which – in theory, at least – stands in contrast to his perceived racial identity in society writ large. But Vercher presents as black; he is light-skinned, to be sure, but he certainly would never be confused for a white man.
To be fair, Vercher does discuss his children and how, to the average observer, his youngest son looks “really, really white.” He then goes on to wonder (albeit briefly) how his sons, who are “raised to be proud of their blackness,” will demonstrate that pride as adults. But there is a vast difference between wondering how your son will interact with the world as the son of a biracial man who presents as white and actually living that experience, especially when someone like Rachel Dolezal comes along and suddenly makes it acceptable to question whether someone who doesn’t “look” black is telling the truth about their heritage. That story cannot – and should not – be reduced to two paragraphs in a larger story. It deserves its own discussion.
With that in mind, I would like to share my experience.
I am the son of a nigger.
That statement is harsh, but it’s important that you read it. It’s important that you internalize it, understand it, try to feel the full weight of it. And it’s important that you recognize that the current state of race relations in this country has forced me to accept this title as a condition of my birth.
I would love for my father to be identified by any other of his defining characteristics: a brother; a son; an educator; a good cook; a friend. Any of those descriptors would fall woefully short of encapsulating everything my father is, but they would be enough for him. But the fact remains that to some people, he will never be anything more than a nigger. To a few of the kids from my mostly-white high school who used to taunt me with the slur, my father is a nigger. To the police, who have stopped him for no other reason than because he’s a black man driving a Cadillac with tinted windows, he is a nigger. To my mother’s stepfather, a man I used to play backyard baseball with as a child, my father is a nigger. Therefore, as his only remaining child, to some, I am the son of a nigger.
You’ll notice that I do not apply this label to myself; I don’t have to. Through some fluke of genetics, I do not have the same skin tone or “black” features as my father. But because I’ve heard it all before, allow me to forestall some of the questions you may wish to ask. Yes, I am his biological child. I am not adopted. I am not Puerto Rican, Italian, or Jewish. My mother was not “messing around with the milkman,” as more than one person has been so kind to suggest. And for as long as I’ve been able to consider my racial status, the way I look and how I self-identify have been in direct contrast to one another.
Nobody ever believes me when I tell them I’m biracial – I’ve taken to carrying a picture of my parents on my phone so I can show people when they ask. (Even now, I felt compelled to show a picture of me and my father at the top of this article.) Depending on the race of the person to whom I’m speaking, the response is usually the same. White people typically refuse to take me at my word; in their minds, it borders on inconceivable that I could be anything but one of them. The conversation that ensues is usually an exhausting back-and-forth where I insist that yes, I am biracial, and no, I have no idea why I look like I do. I have yet to find the appropriate combination of words that allows me to simultaneously define and defend who I am.
Black people are typically less reticent to believe me (after all, only a fool would lay claim to a lifetime of injustice if they weren’t obligated to do so); rather than fully accepting me, however, most black people look for some reason to justify my appearance. Usually, that justification is drawn from my father’s skin tone: “Oh, he’s not that dark.” “He looks more Caribbean.” My father looks more like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis than Sonny Liston, but all three were called niggers by whites, just like my father. All three were threatened with violence simply because they looked different, much like my father, who had rocks thrown at him in Boston during the busing uproar in the ‘70s.
To some white people, my father has always been and always will be a nigger. To all black people, my father is black. But when they see me, the child he helped create, suddenly he isn’t black enough. Suddenly, he’s one of the “Black Republicans” from the Key & Peele sketch. That attitude is most similar to the one I get from a lot of black people when I tell them I’m biracial. It’s dismissive, but with an undertone of jealousy: I have a choice, and they don’t, and most would likely say that their life would be a hell of a lot easier if they looked like me.
I will readily admit that I have it easier than the average black person in America, though there are drawbacks. For one, I can’t freely identify with members of my particular group. If I see a white person on the street, I don’t assume they’re biracial- I assume they’re white, much like everybody else does with me. For another, like every other black person in this country, I constantly have to endure racial slurs; unlike most black people, though, I have to hear them indirectly. Because of the way I look, I’m in the (presumably) privileged position of being able to detect racism among people who might otherwise never display their true colors if a “real” black person were in the room.
There are benefits to this, mind you; I’ve come to think of myself as a spy in the racial cold war that is currently being waged within our borders. Still, it can be a solitary and isolating existence. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been talking to someone for 15 or 20 minutes, thinking all the while that they’re an interesting, decent person, only to hear them casually drop the word “nigger” into the conversation. It’s almost always the type of person who would never say anything like that if a black person were in the room, but because I look the way I do, I become an unwitting recipient of their racist bile. And when I point this out to some of my black friends, the response tends to be dismissive: “Welcome to our world.” There’s a tone of condescension, as though what I have to deal with on a regular basis is a watered-down version of the black experience; Diet Black, if you will.
But even though we as a society have deemed overt racism unacceptable, covert racism has and will continue to persist: Where there are differences between groups, there will always be those who are intolerant of those differences. People have evolved to become more skillful at hiding their intolerance, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And as a biracial man who identifies as black but presents as white, I will always be caught in the crossfire.
Being caught between the two halves of my background has taught me a valuable lesson: with my skin, I can hide in plain sight, flitting back and forth between racial identities as it suits me. But it is to my eternal shame that more often than not, I choose not to trumpet my racial identity, either because I’m fearful for my safety or because it’s sometimes simply not worth the endless discussion and/or implicit suspicion that comes with such a pronouncement. Internally, I identify as black, but I don’t have enough faith in our society that I can do it wherever and whenever I please. I have heard too many stories about the price of being black, and my instinct for self-preservation outweighs my sense of pride in my heritage. It saddens me that those two concepts are at odds with one another. And I suppose the option of selective acceptance of my race means that I’m not black in the way that I believe myself to be.
I do not have the same worries as those of, say, Jordan Edwards, or Laquan McDonald, or Michael Brown, or Oscar Grant, or Freddie Gray, but those are the stories you already know. Just as harmful are the stories of millions of black Americans who weren’t killed by the police, who are simply victims of a racist and inherently unjust social order. For example, I do not have the same worries as those of my father: A black man with a Master’s degree who worked in education for 30 years, yet still has to worry about being assaulted (or worse) by the police for a litany of offenses, major or minor, real or imagined. That is the danger of being black in America: Even if you do everything right, you’re still not safe. Although I identify as black, I am inherently afforded the benefit of the doubt solely by dint of the color of my skin. I am able to treat the American legal system as a safeguard for my rights rather than an obstacle. The fact that I have any choice in the matter whatsoever means that I’m not black in the way that my father is.
My fiancée has a friend; or, I suppose, she had a friend. He is a black man, with dark skin and all its attendant, societally-imposed hardships wrapped around his frame. I’ve never met him, but I heard all about him when she showed him a picture of me and his response was, “Oh, he’s gotta be a house nigger.” My fiancée was hurt and offended by his choice of words; she couldn’t even say them as she was recounting the story to me. She was shocked by his repudiation of my identity without ever having met me, simply because of the color of my skin. My first response was to laugh and wonder aloud if that meant he thought of himself as a field nigger, as if having darker skin made him more “pure” than me. Although I take umbrage at the haste with which he declared me insufficiently black in both appearance and deed, I have to admit he had a point: I have the option of denying my blackness if I feel it’s to my benefit. And shameful as it is, sometimes that’s exactly what I do. This former friend of my fiancée is an intelligent man who attended an Ivy League school, but is routinely called an Uncle Tom because he didn’t go to Howard. If he had seen my father on the street, he probably would have thought of my father as just another black man. But if my father had been walking with my mother and me, this friend probably would have thought of my father the same way he thinks of me: Just a couple of house niggers.
Therein lies the paradox of the black existence in the United States: Do too little, and to bigoted white people you’re another personification of the undesirable qualities so often attributed to an entire race. Do too much with the limited opportunities afforded you in life, marry the wrong person, sire a child who doesn’t have enough melanin, and your blackness is called into question. When I told my father what my fiancée’s friend had said, his response was “No one but you can define who you are. You are not bound to stereotypes- how fortunate.” That last bit makes me wonder if my father is at least a little relieved that I don’t look like him. I would imagine it’s every parent’s wish to have a child who bears a physical resemblance to their parents, but in cases like mine, that wish stands in direct contrast to the hope that one’s children will have the easiest life possible. As a parent, how do you square the two?
I don’t know if my father truly understood the impact of raising my brother and me in a place where we had very little opportunity to meet other people of color. Or perhaps he did, and knowing what he knew about racial inequality in America, he would rather have had me grow up looking, thinking and acting like I was white. It’s possible he knew I would never be fully accepted by the black community, and he endeavored to afford me the opportunity to establish my racial identity on my own terms. My father’s sister once told my mother, “You’re lucky that your kids came out looking white.” Perverse as it may sound, she meant it as a compliment; as a black woman raising a black child, my aunt was and is acutely aware of how much more difficult her daughter’s life will be because of the color of her skin. My mother was incredibly offended by my aunt’s remark; she had never considered herself “lucky” that her children favored her in terms of skin color, because she’d never thought about it. This is, in itself, a reflection of the privilege she enjoys as a white woman: she never had to think about it.
When I was in high school, I identified so much with my black half that I went to extremes to prove my “blackness” to everyone else: I only listened to hip-hop and R&B, I donned Fubu sweatshirts, I wore two watches and a chain with a Ruff Ryders pendant on it (which I still have). I thought that listening to obscure rappers meant I had more “soul” than the other kids in my town. I tried to identify with black culture, but I did so through the lens of a stereotypical white person; my Fubu sweatshirt was my dashiki, my Ruff Ryders pendant was my Africa medallion, my Afro was my kufi. I look back on those days when I thought being black meant wearing excessive amounts of jewelry and listening to Blackalicious with a mixture of amusement and remorse. In my desperation to establish a racial identity for myself, I became a minstrel show dunked in a bucket of beige paint.
My perverse distortion of the concept of racial dignity led me to proudly accept the sobriquet of “Halfy” bestowed upon me by my peers. It was commonly lobbed my way in a snickering, derogatory fashion, with the underlying message that I would always be considered an outsider. But I didn’t care. I regarded it as a badge of honor, a sense of finally belonging to a particular group — any group — even if the group was so small that I was the only member in my hometown. I desired a sense of finally being a part of one community, rather than the constant feeling that I was an interloper between two groups that are historically diametric opposites. That I harbored this desire speaks to the white, male privilege I had, and still have: I can choose to make my life more difficult if I please. But why would I? Even if I invited all the vitriol and bigotry that my father has seen in his life, would that make me belong? Would it validate me in some way? Would it make me feel better, more pure, about being fiercely proud of my heritage if I had to experience all that normally comes with it?
I didn’t participate in any of the Black Lives Matter marches, nor have I done anything to support the Movement For Black Lives. Looking the way I do means I’m always cognizant of being thought of as the caricature of the “well-meaning white person,” a social justice warrior who’s happy to peacefully protest but can easily escape back to a life of inherent and unearned privilege when the road gets rocky. It bothers me that I can choose my racial identity as and when it suits me; I have the luxury of opting for the hard path if I feel like it. Yet more often than not, I don’t choose that path. How many of us would? Given the chance, who would opt to take a road that is rife with injustice and a dearth of opportunity at best and dotted with instances of mortal peril at worst? The question I’ve been struggling with, then, is this: Am I a coward for not taking the difficult road, given that it means I’m not fully availing myself of what we understand to be the black experience? I honestly can’t be sure; I’d like to believe I’m not, but cowards rarely think of themselves as such.
Though my experiences may differ wildly from those of millions of black Americans, please remember that I am not different from, I am different like. I am black, and my struggles with my race are no less valid or important than those of anybody else. Even if I’m never fully accepted as such, I am black, and I embrace everything that comes with it: The racism, the absence of a feeling of belonging or acceptance, the pride in my family and where I come from, the responsibility of honoring everyone who came before me and who will come after. I am black, the same as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama, my cousins, my brother. My father.