“I was not black until I moved to the United States.”
My mom is from Panama. When she was 17, she moved to Miami where she soon met my dad–a Florida native with a big family originating from Georgia by way of West Africa and Native America for as far back as we know. Growing up, my mom would often tell me stories of the new American customs that she had to learn. Some of them silly or benign (like an egg-laying Easter Bunny) and others a more difficult product of struggling with a new language, environment and way of life.
One of the many things that she came to know was that her birth-assigned, chocolate-colored skin now carried a lot of baggage. She learned that the treatment she received in this new country was going to be a little different from her privileged life in Central America, and she would have to understand the history, significance, and the turmoil that came along with having dark skin. She was going to need to understand that she was now black.
My mom would marvel at the oddity of racism and tell me and my siblings that in Panama, they never talked about other people’s skin. “Why? Why talk about someone’s skin? Or hair? Or eyes? What is there to say?” I suppose it is this perspective that unconsciously, was a key part of forming my own thoughts on race.
My dad’s experience was a little different. He grew up in the projects of Miami. His parents worked as a cleaning lady and a gardener for white families, so he knew exactly what his black skin meant. His father moved their family out of the projects and across the large wall that separated them from the white neighborhood. Surrounded by a sea of white in Civil Rights America, my dad certainly understood what his black skin meant.
That didn’t stop my dad from wanting us to see the world and every person as positively as we could. In Tallahassee, Florida, we lived in a “white” part of town. All of my friends were white. My neighborhood was white. My church was white. And I liked it all. This never bothered me, why should it? This was simply the way life was. I was black, but that didn’t mean anything to my friends and it really didn’t mean much to me. It was not until later that I would begin to realize my acceptance of my white surroundings was not something everyone was necessarily okay with.
The first time I was called “oreo” was by a black girl in my middle school class. I didn’t get what it meant, which made her sneer in even more disgust. “You’re white on the inside.” She said this nearly spitting, making me realize the error of my white ways. What did I do? What gave me away? I didn’t tell my parents. And I hated this girl.
Over time, the comments became more explicit and more frequent. “You talk like a white girl.” “You live in that neighborhood?” “You need more black friends.” “You’re nice for a black person.” These weren’t things that I would hear just sometimes. I heard them all the time. So much so, that they stopped surprising me. And if it wasn’t said, it was written. Words like “nigger” and drawings of confederate flags weren’t shocking or offensive to me, they just became part of the everyday scenery that decked the halls. It was all just part of the milieu, and it would take years for me to understand the depth of the hatred in this backdrop.
I was told by many white people that they liked me because I was approachable. I filled their quota and made them ‘not racist.’ “But you’re not really black, Raquel, let’s be honest…” On the other hand, my adoption of proper etiquette and articulate speech made me a traitor to many of my fellow melanin-filled brothers and sisters. To them, I elevated myself as a superior. “Why do you hang out with them?” I would have to fuddle for a half-baked justification and would usually land on something insufficient like “they’re actually really nice.”
I was too white for black people. And at times, too black for whites. I failed the quintessential lesson that my mom had learned: you are black. You need to be black. You need to act black.
At a summer family reunion in a park of rural West Virginia, it was blazing hot and the only thing that could ease our suffering were delicious, heaven-sent snowcones. I walked up to the elderly man serving cones and asked him for grape. With a snort, he handed me a cup of mostly ice. I looked at my block of ice disappointedly and with an apologetic laugh, asked if he didn’t mind adding more syrup. Silly me, here I am being difficult and asking for more grape than I should. He looked at me incredulously and I decided to repeat myself. After more glaring, I told him I’d pay extra if I needed to. He shook his head, pumped more syrup into the cup, and handed it back to me. Looking around suspiciously at the group I stood with (my siblings and cousins) he asked, “Y’all the entertainment?” Confused, we shook our heads and walked away. We learned later that “the entertainment” was a group of tribal African dancers. Being a group of dark skinned people, we must be them.
One night in my early 20s, I was excited to go on a date. It had been a while since I had put myself out there, but I was feeling good about my prospects. The guy that I was meeting was handsome, with a strong build and dirty blonde hair. Absolutely my type. We met for dinner and he filled the night with story after story and lots of laughs. When dessert came out, the conversation shifted. He started to ask me personal questions about my sex life. I was deeply uncomfortable and clearly didn’t want to answer. “Have you ever been with anyone like me?” I shook my head. “I don’t usually go for black girls. I’m kind of stepping out of my comfort zone, here. Doing something wild.”
He paused, possibly as if to allow me room to follow this statement with a “thank you.” I was hurt. Here was again, a reminder of the limitations of my blackness. Not an option. A risky choice. A walk on the wild side. Not an equal. I left as quickly as I could. In the retellings of my date, I would leave this part out.
I’ve never wanted to be a color. I’ve spent a lot of my life struggling with this idea of whether I have intentionally distanced myself from something that should be a deeper part of me. But let me be clear. I am black. I have never denied that. I enjoy the color of my skin. I have never wanted it to be white. I have dark hair. I have brown eyes. I have black skin.
I refuse to reduce my identity down to a single aspect of my appearance. I am not so skin deep as to assume that hair color has a tie to intelligence or that the color of one’s eyes matches the depth of one’s preferences. I would not mistake your skin color for who you are. In each and every person there is a wealth of experience, of love, of pain, of beauty, of heartache, of perspective, of dreams, of struggles–all of which cannot be summed up by the unchoosable fate of pigment.
Yes, we live in a world where there is consequence for the skin you are in. I acknowledge that. Though race is a human construct, its repercussions prove to be very real. I have been and will continue to be criticized for my “lack of black pride.” But please understand, I am proud. I’m very proud of who I am and I am unapologetically me. I hurt for the injustices that have been performed against black people. I suffer as we all do when another human is devalued or mistreated. I am tired of the deep biases that never seem to go away. I won’t be satisfied until all pigment is equal pigment and all skin is beautiful skin. I take deep pride in how God chose to make me, just as I take deep pride in how He created intricate, beautiful differences in all of us. With the spectrum of our differences, we create something beautiful. I take pride in that.
I deeply hope that someday, much like my mother experienced, there won’t have to be a conversation on skin. We’ll be just as attached to our pigment as we are the texture of our hair. I desperately long for a day when we all understand that it’s the soul encased in the skin we should seek to understand before we assume to know all there is to know about a person.
Right now, that day seems far away. But until then, I am from the United States. And I am not my black skin. I have black skin. And I am me.