I never thought I’d be writing about this, to be quite honest. Quite frankly, I never thought I had the right to write about it because I pass for white most of the time and thus “enjoy” the privileges that come with that. But a recent incident pushed me to share my experiences.
I grew up in Rheinland Pfalz, Germany from age 2 – 12. Quite the formative years, one might say. Despite my white skin, I knew I stood out amongst my actually white peers. My hair and facial features are what usually gave me away – oh and the fact that my black father was the one dropping me off at school most days. People stared at us pretty much wherever we went. The only time I felt like I fit in was when we went to the military base where my parents worked because my dad was no longer the only person of color for miles around. In most other settings, however, we stood out like a sore thumb – at least that was my experience. If I went to town with my mother, no one thought much of it. If I went out with both of my parents, people did a double take but not much more. But oh boy, if it was just me and my dad, people were just plain confused. It’s funny now, in hindsight…kind of.
Growing up is already challenging enough without the stares and the whispers. (I distinctly remember being made fun of for my hair. I believe someone called it a “bird’s nest” once. In later years, I was told “You should straighten your hair” and “Your hair looks better straight” on a weekly basis). I became so uncomfortable that eventually I told my dad that he didn’t have to drop me off so close to the front door at school anymore. He turned to me with the most hurtful look in his eyes and told me that he knew I was ashamed of him. I was around 9 or 10 years old at the time. I swore up and down that I wasn’t but he was partially right. I wasn’t ashamed of him but I just couldn’t deal with the looks anymore. To say that I still feel incredible guilt now about that moment is an understatement.
When we moved back to the U.S. in 2006 (I was 12 then), I felt a sense of relief. I knew there were more kids like me here and I looked forward to not getting stared at. I was so naive! Kids here were just more bold about it. A girl came up to me at lunch once and said, “Danielle, are you half black? I was arguing about it with my friends because they don’t believe me”. I didn’t even know what to say. Yes, of course I’m half black but why is that argument-worthy? Who cares? Well apparently, lots of folks do. Since then, I’ve been asked by strangers “What are you?” on multiple occasions. When I was 16 and worked retail, I was asked by a male customer once. Although, he didn’t flat out ask what I was but instead decided to guess.
Just last year, a woman on the bus asked me what I am. When I refused to answer, because at this point I don’t feel like I owe anyone an explanation anymore, she said she had a right to know. She proceeded to guess multiple nationalities before “apologizing if I made you uncomfortable”. She sounded less than sincere.
I want to emphasize here that I am not ashamed of my ethnicity. Quite the opposite, I am extremely proud to be biracial. I am proud to look a lot like my father. I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. But then why do other people’s questions about my identity bother me so much? Do I even have a right to get angry because, after all, they’re just “curious”? I don’t really have an answer except that it just makes me uncomfortable. I was in a CVS last weekend when a stranger asked me what I am. I asked him why he needed to know. And, of course, he was just “curious”. Then, the incident that sparked this post entailed a person at work (a person of authority) asking me about my race. I won’t go into any more detail about it just to protect myself. It brought to the surface a lot of what I felt as a kid – as an “other”. Because, for the longest time, that’s what I had to check off on all official forms under “race”. Because, for my entire life, what I am has been the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind rather than who I am as a person.
I’m going to end this post here but I do want to acknowledge the struggles that everyone with a marginalized identity encounters on a daily basis. Most have it much worse than I do, including my dad, and I want you to know that I see you and I hear you.