Image from blackgirllonghair.com
I am mixed. My mom is Black and my dad is white. I am light-skinned, lighter than most of the other mixed people I know. Growing up as a kid in a biracial household, I was never self-conscious of my skin color or my racial identity, I was just Sophia. Because I grew up learning about relationships from my parents’ biracial marriage, and because I never knew discrimination as a child, race never appeared to be a barrier for me.
It wasn’t until I went to high school that I become conscious of my color privilege. I went to a large public school in Culver City, California called Alexander Hamilton High School. We had code names for the different areas of campus where certain groups hung out. Knott’s was the area of bright yellow tables where the Latinx kids sat, Six Flags was the dimly lit space surrounding the cafeteria tables where the Black kids hung out, and Disneyland… was for the white people`.
It seemed normal at the time, but in reality these spaces were extremely segregated environments where mutual understanding between racial groups didn’t exist. As a result, I personally felt too Black for the white kids and too white for the Black kids. I wasn’t sure which group to associate myself with. I was called “whitey” by some of the Black kids, excluded from certain groups of Black friends because I “didn’t understand”, and in senior year when I accepted an award for being apart of the 4.0 Society, a Black boy from my school tweeted, “Not one Black person walked the stage with a 4.0 sash at Hamilton High School’s senior award night.” Let it be known that this kid saw me walk the stage, and knew I was Black. Throughout high school, I constantly felt like I was not socially identified as Black. I began to think, “If people don’t consider me black, then how can they consider me white when I am genetically both? Do they regard my existence at all?”
I began to wonder how a community known for promoting their own inclusion in society could denounce my position as one of its members. Through these insecurities, my racial identity was formed. My identity as a mixed woman became essential to how I wanted others to think of me. I created my own identity after being cast off as irrelevant to the Black community at my high school. I knew that if no one would listen to me speak out against color discrimination, I could at least be an advocate for creating a community for mixed persons to thrive in.
When I came to Northwestern, I had an entirely different experience. After Shaun King’s State of the Black Union speech of Fall quarter, 2017, I was sitting with some of my POC friends at one the dining halls. We were discussing the critiques King was getting for being the face of the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter, while also looking like a white-passing male. One of them asked how he can defend issues on race when he isn’t discriminated against as a Black man. I suddenly had a flashback to high school and thrust my arm out saying, “wait guys, what about me?” to compare my skin color to his, just to see what they would say. All of them exclaimed that I was “different” and actually “look Black”.
My perception of my identity began to fluctuate again. I felt publicly validated, and somehow that experience gave me permission to identify as relevant to my racial community. Can I actually be integral member of the BLM movement in my own community and be taken seriously? Race and how society treats someone is not based on your DNA, but what you look like, or what you are racially perceived to be. This outside opinion also entirely depends on the politics of location, which differ between states, cities, and even suburbs. One’s experience in West Los Angeles may be different than Inglewood, California, and even more so from Chicago’s Englewood, Illinois. How should someone of mixed race navigate advocating for rights of POC when they aren’t always recognized as a POC? It makes me wonder how I would have been received in high school if I had spoken up against the systematic racism towards our people… probably not well. “They’re not your people,” they might say.
This social terrain can almost be existentially challenging for POC that constantly receive the question “What are you?” as if being observed as some exotic “other”. It’s alienating. It can force some lighter-skinned, mixed race people into their own bubble separate from their community.
This is not to say that systematic racism can’t and isn’t experienced by people of my skin color. After performing at a fundraiser, I told a white woman that I was planning to attend a private university. She proceeded to say, “Wow, you got accepted to a private school and you went to a public high school?”, but I could tell it wasn’t just about my high school. I nearly said, “You’re right, it’s surprising I’m not tagging up buildings and in a gang yet.”
But the other side of the coin provides an even worse example of colorism: darker skinned people also experience the backlash of colorism, but instead of not being recognized in their community, they are negatively recognized in others—ostracized, even. When a dark-skinned Black man walks into a store, why does he have to worry about being followed by suspicious employees, customers, or even the police? Why does wearing a hoodie make a dark-skinned man seem dangerous?
Ironically, colorism entails that darker skinned POC are alienated from outside communities while lighter skinned POC are distanced from their community, by that community.
Though lighter POC may not be the most representative spokespeople of the BLM movement, it is important for us as a community to include everyone. I have experienced more privilege than most POC, but systematic racism is experienced on a spectrum by POC of all colors. If we cannot acknowledge that unity and respect for each other comes from recognizing that all of our societal struggles matter, regardless of skin color, then neither will everyone else.