By Jessica Tillman
When you’re black and white, growing up in Joplin, Missouri, you have a long soul-searching journey ahead of you. My Mom was white like the classic Barbie doll – long blonde hair, buttermilk skin and diamond blue eyes. The features every girl wanted to have. The features I dreamed about having. While my Dad was extremely dark, with eyes that almost looked black. And I was a mixture of both.
Although, I suppose it wasn’t easy to tell if I was mixed or not as I was darker than most mixed girls. Not that it really matters. Because when you’re mixed, the first thing people see is black and the relevancy of the rest just seems to fade before their eyes. But, being mixed had more depth to me. Was I black? Was I white? What was I supposed to talk like? What was I supposed to act like? And most importantly – who was I supposed to be?
I remember things got so bad throughout my life, I would flinch when someone simply said the color black. “Here comes the joke” or “here comes the gruesome questions,” I would think to myself. I had been accustomed to not just being treated as a different race, but a different species entirely. And even when the promise of being a normal little girl was in view, I was tricked and it was back to square one – you’re different – you’ll always be that – black girl.
Joplin, Missouri had barely any diversity all throughout my youth. There was a handful of African Americans. So most the time, I was the only person of color in my class. I didn’t let that hold me back from participating in the usual youthful expeditions:
I remember my first legitimate crush. His name was Steven. And he’d shown me attention. I wasn’t used to that. It was usually my white friends who were hit on way before me. Nobody wanted to be with a black girl. Or so I had thought. Every interaction Steven and I had took place in the library. I remember when he first said, “You’re cute.” Looking at me with his piercing eyes. My heart had almost pulsated out of my chest. “When you’re black you can be cute?” I thought. I had thought you were just black.
So when Steven had asked me out in the next following days, I said yes without hesitation. My first boyfriend. I had triumphed in being worthy. I was thrilled. Things started with anticipation. I felt this normalcy I had always craved. This sense of acceptance. Though, immediately Steven didn’t hold back from the devastating reality of my world: you’ll always be that – black girl.
We were sitting together in the library as usual and he asked intrigued, “Have you ever been called a Nigger?”
His eyes shone with intense interest. And I couldn’t breathe hearing him say the full word, no censor.
I had lied not wanting to talk about my least favorite topic – my race. Steven didn’t hesitate to bombard me with me more invasive questions about being black. Insensitive questions. Questions that exempted me from being like everyone else, just with darker skin. I was an alien. And then he ended our discussion with the statement, “I’ve never dated a black girl before. Now, I can say I have.”
I hid in the bathroom stall afterward, crying and feeling like I was some sort of science experiment. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I hated how each silent promise of being ordinary was muffed by the familiar revelation that I could never get rid of this skin I was in. That it would always be drawn to people’s attention. Steven broke up with me a day later, now that he could cross dating a black girl off his bucket list.
When I was much younger my close cousin and I had gotten in an argument. I hadn’t even brought up her skin color. It was a battle of “at least I’m not…!” And when she had said in all her glory, “At least I’m not black!” I had felt like I’d been slapped. “You know in some places, you can be shot for saying that!” was my comeback, propelled by anger. Her mother (my aunt) came outside to intervene and snapped at me, “And in most places you will be shot for arguing with a white person!” I didn’t say anything more after that.
All my family was white. I didn’t have a father in my life growing up. So I never got the aid or advice of someone else black. Therefore, I feel like I had to learn my way through the world by myself. Learn what to put up with. Hearing boys I had mingled with that took interest in me saying, “I’m not into black girls but you’re different.” Or “I don’t like black people but you’re cute.” Within my naivety I found these things as compliments.
When John the open racist’s (both of us drunk off of vodka,) tongue grazed against my sixteen-year-old selves – I felt pride. “I’ve never kissed a black girl, but you’re white too, so it’s not a big deal. I’m just not into black girls at all. But you act more white.” He said tracing his fingers down my jawline. I had smiled in my drunken stupor. The words I loved to hear as a teenager. Making all the white men fall for good ole’ chocolate me.
It took a while for me to learn that these weren’t compliments. That this wasn’t right. That degrading my part black, wasn’t uplifting. That acting ‘white’ wasn’t real. That spoken stereotypes weren’t beautiful proclamations. That defying Ebonics didn’t matter. When does it finally become that YOU define who you are? Not your race, your background, the way you talk?
Why was I searching for my identity so hard through two different shades? Is this what the animated character in the children’s movie “Balto” felt like? The part wolf and part dog breed. Everyone was afraid of the wolf side of him. Yet, the dog side of him made him feel like he didn’t even belong with the wolves. I guess you can say I didn’t have the greatest self -esteem. My mom didn’t instill in my head that black was beautiful.
And being among such matching milky white beauties in my family always created a void. I’d close my eyes and dream of looking just like my mother. I was white with long straight hair. The boys chose me now. I wasn’t a second choice. I wasn’t a choice that needed justification. I remember feeling so happy in those dreams. And when I woke up I would cry realizing it was all a delusion, I could never change the skin I was in.
At the age of 16, I started attending Webb City High School. There was even less people of color than Joplin here. The awkward demeanor that had swallowed me, shined like a beacon now. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be invisible. Maybe they won’t notice you. I often said these things to myself. A sassy girl named Morgan took a liking to me among my first days of school.
She asked me if I knew all these different names, all of them black people. “My boyfriend’s black,” she declared. “I love black people.” I was surprised. “You-you do?” She nodded eagerly. Morgan befriended me for my race. And even though reflection now kind of makes that shallow, I appreciated it more than ever. Webb City High School was plagued with competition. And I didn’t feel like I had the means to even exist alone. Now I didn’t have to be.
One time in my history class, that Morgan had with me, I had experienced another incident. But this time was different. We were learning about African Americans throughout history and of course as usual, every kid in the room glanced at me throughout the tragic history events with lynching, slavery, and such. Though, my history teacher vocalized his thoughts. He had made a reference about black people in association to me. I hadn’t even said a word about the discussion.
“You can’t get upset.” He said. “You’re only a halfrican.”
The whole class went wild. My stomach lurched. I wanted to cower away. But in that moment something different happened. Morgan snapped about how unprofessional he was being and defended me. I wasn’t use to people defending me, besides my family. She had given me courage. And suddenly I was by Morgan’s side mouthing away about how wrong it was of my teacher to take it there. I had found my voice for the first time all because someone had shown me theirs.
And that’s the thing people forget. Silence aids the oppressor. I think of all the unjust times in my life. How very different it could have been for me if I didn’t feel so lonely. If only the children nearby me hearing me being called racial slurs could have said it was wrong to the child taught that it was right. If only my mother could have sat down and talked to me about my race. If only children’s innocence weren’t tainted by adult’s ignorance.
Yet I learned how to love myself growing up on my own. I started looking in the mirror and saying how beautiful I thought I was. I started loving the glow of my skin. I started realizing my self-worth when it came to men. I stopped asking how I should be, and being how I wanted. It was a tough journey but I learned a lot and came back stronger than ever. I tore down the walls of this timid girl and replaced her with a more open persona. Someone who wouldn’t be hurt for something she couldn’t help. And shouldn’t have to help. Someone who wouldn’t be afraid of their skin color to being “noticed.” Someone who would share her stories to help people utilize empathy and realize these things happen. They might not happen to you but they happen. Small towns like Joplin and big towns everywhere.
Slavery may be abolished but sometimes we enslave ourselves to society and what people think of us. Things have progressed but today, there is some other person who feels just like I did. Lesser for the color of their skin. And in this situation I think what’s best is prove everyone wrong by being the best you can be. Kill the stereotypes. Silence the stigma.
What I will say for every person who’s faced the strife of racial inequality at the hand of the many different oppressors-
“They tried to bury us, thinking we were soil, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”