Monday, November 30, 2009

7300: Biracial In A “Post-Racial” Society.

From The Chicago Tribune…

Being biracial in a mixed-up world

By Tamara Kerrill Field

Those of us born to a black parent and a white parent have the spotlight in Barack Obama’s America. Our president has openly discussed his biracialism in books and speeches, leading to a rich public discourse on what it means to be of mixed race in America. Popular culture is examining our struggles and rejections, our attempts to hopscotch the racial landscape, our unique take on loneliness.

But don’t get too excited, people. The tragic mulatto still has a pulse.

The woman who approached me was not someone I knew well in college. But, hey, this was the first black alumni reunion at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus and we were all coming together in a new spirit, right? We exchanged pleasantries. I was holding my 9-month-old baby who, for all intents, looks as white as her dad. Did I have other children? I broke out the iPhone and proudly flashed photos of my 3-year-old son. He is on the other end of the family color spectrum, slightly darker than me.

“So, did your husband know you were black before you had your son?”

My body went hot from head to toe. I had come to the reunion to heal wounds; to talk to some of the black folks who kept me at arm’s length in our school days, to be my authentic self among them instead of the nervous loner perceived as an aloof, beige princess. Thus far, I had been pretty warmly welcomed. And now someone was asking me if I was passing for white; if I was outed—as early 20th century writers might put it—by “popping out a darkie”?

I’d like to say this was an extreme example, but it’s not. Like the interracial couple recently denied marriage by a white justice of the peace in Louisiana and the light sentencing of an Arkansas man for driving a white woman and her biracial kids out of their home with a burning cross, I’ve been shocked by the misunderstanding and pure racism of my fellow humans.

The events have stacked up: The white boss who, upon hearing I was invited to a lunch with the company’s minority affairs rep, quipped, “Oh come on, you’re not that black.” The black friend who came to dinner and on the way out referred to my husband as a “snow bunny.” (“Come on, you should understand,” she spat in disgust.) The myriad white people who, after learning of my black heritage, say, “Well, you can’t even tell!” And the endless legion of women who size up my brown against my daughter’s white and ask, “Is that your baby? Really?”

When it comes down to it, the proverbial straddling of the fence still stinks.

As President Obama lays out so elegantly in “Dreams from My Father,” biracial identity is still murky in the narrow world of racial credibility. Our chief executive’s biracialism is acknowledged, but he is known worldwide as the first black president of the United States—mainly because it’s true. It’s just not the whole truth.

Personally, I’m not that much closer to uncovering my racial truth than I was at Nichols Middle School, where I was warned by black girls that I’d better start “hanging around with (my) own kind.” I hated and worshiped those girls. I desperately wanted to be considered black enough to hang with them, but I didn’t want to give up my white friends to do it. So I formulated an unconscious survival plan: I, quite literally, jumped back and forth between races through the rest of grade and high school. This was a black year, this one was white. It wasn’t until college that I found black friends who really wanted me, and I was in love for four years. The herky-jerky course has continued.

The most wrenching moment came in the summer of 1983 when I was 14 and stuck in northeast Wisconsin at gymnastics camp. There was only one other kid there who might have been black. One night we were telling stories, and a counselor I admired wanted to talk about her hometown of New Orleans. She shone a flashlight on me and asked if I would mind if she referred to black people as “niggers” since that’s what she called “them” at home, the unspoken message being that she considered me almost white—a safe nigger. I wish I could say I exploded, that I made a complaint, that I demanded to go home. But I didn’t. I felt devastated and small and insignificant. Later that summer when I had a serious depression, I did not connect up the incidents. But I’m certain they were intertwined, along with a lot of shame and self-hatred.

I ask myself constantly, why can’t I find a better mix? I don’t have any great answers. All I can offer is that I feel the stratification of black and white on a near-daily basis. Some people settle in the middle-class cultural melange near the edges; I’ve been there too. But I’ve learned more from traveling into the guts of monoracial culture. It’s scarier there and rejection looms, but only there have I begun to identify the million tiny pieces of myself.

Many years ago at the University of Illinois, I borrowed my roommate’s T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Black by Popular Demand”—a trendy slogan at that time. In my life to date, I have never gotten more attention than I did crisscrossing the quad that day, declaring black as my own. Gapes from students of all races told me I was making people uncomfortable. I wasn’t even sure I deserved to wear the shirt, but I held fast and I’m glad I did since it was one of the most authentic things I’ve ever done.

Tamara Kerrill Field is an Evanston-based communications consultant and writer.

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