It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to realize I’m a person of color. I wasn’t two, or 12, or even 30 years old. It was more like the month my Obamacare kicked in.
I’ve pondered what it means to be a woman of color for about ten years; wondered how to embody and live with the answers I eventually found for five; and have challenged myself to be a public ally for two years, maybe three. I am now 40.
Looking back at all the years I stayed locked in a bright white box with someone else’s name on it, I feel and have felt incredibly foolish. So naive. Passed out like a brown Sleeping Beauty. Deserving of an international medal for grand self-denial at every level of human development… from the U.N. or whoever, not really sure what else they do. Guess I’ll ask someone at the awards ceremony.
Growing up, there were no discussions that I recall with my white parents about race. I had no teachers of color who took me under their protective brown wings to show me the way, if there even was one. There’s no “awakening” montage of me at college, reading Toni Morrison in the quad, leading meaningful late-night discussions about identity and race. I had no boyfriends of color, no girlfriends of color, or any color at all. The overall message I received was: It didn’t matter what was on the outside – it was really your insides that counted.
Not your actual insides – kids didn’t wield power on the playground by having great organs or a sturdier heartbeat than Kevin – but the invisible insides that no one can see because they’re too busy judging your face, body, clothing, and lunchbox. Other little girls I knew who heard the same message were disabled, or ugly, or unpopular, or not very smart, so I equated skin color along the same lines: something seen but preferably unseen, some undesirable trait to make up for.
Lacking something society has deemed as worthy of love since the Beginning of Time? Like light skin or commercial good looks or skinny arms or money? Don’t worry, kid, there’s something even better and it’s called: INNER BEAUTY. Not every girl has it — just the special ones, like you!
“Inner beauty” was my first wrestling match with phony self-preservation. It’s the first time I remember lying to make an adult feel better (“You believe me, right? You’re better than all those other girls because of what’s in here!” *jabs my sternum* I nodded yes). It was the go-to excuse for moms who’d lived through the exact same thing: hierarchical, rigged popularity contests that paved the road to a lifetime of self-doubt and loathing. They knew it would build character or strength from adversity. They knew what didn’t kill us, made us stronger — though that didn’t necessarily apply to nine-year olds whose frontal lobes hadn’t fully connected yet. They knew these trials would turn into stories we’d share with real friends over wine later on in life. And hey, the moms weren’t wrong. But still we were encouraged to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that we could override the many-layered monster of popularity – and even society itself – to impress our peers with things like: Kindness. Determination. Chutzpah. Spirit.
The unspoken agreement to focus within and never on the outside was like terrible utopian math where we could all be the same, sort of. It was mass colorblindness for the good of the herd. The absence of color – the absence of acknowledging my color – felt safe, even though I lived in a big brown suit I actively ignored. Denying my own color, even hating it sometimes, meant acceptance and relief: nothing uncomfortable, zero conflict, absolutely nothing to see here. Look how nicely I blend in, nothing special! I’m just like you.
This is how I ended up a white-identifying brown girl with no connection to her outsides; a dormant person of color inside a blind Trojan Horse. This wasn’t anyone’s fault – though I will continue to blame 9/11 – it’s just the way my life rolled out. What I know about my childhood is this: I truly loved my white family, white town, white friends, and typical white life – plus all the trappings of white privilege and its comfortable, protective bubble. Going out into the world and discovering how it actually saw me was a whole other animal.
My parents raised me with the belief that I could be anything I wanted in life, but what I really wanted to be was literary heroine, Anne of Green Gables. How I longed for the wholesome, adopted farm life of accident-prone Anne Shirley. I wanted her alabaster skin and carrot red hair, the slim, freckled nose, even the puffy muslin sleeves. I loved all of her spunky mishaps and un-relatable lessons of yore, like How to Ruin a Cake with Salt, How to Sell the Wrong Cow or, my favorite, How to Get Your 10-Year Old Bestie Hella Drunk On Accident.
Turns out I don’t have porcelain skin or Titian hair or a very pretty nose, nor the ability to change the molecular structure of my body like Mystique, so the people I call “my parents” were monumentally wrong. I could not be Anne of Green Gables, not even a terrible parody of her. Maybe if they’d said I could be anything I wanted in the customer service industry, I wouldn’t have set my hopes on becoming a fictional white girl from Canada.
Other girls I desperately wanted to be: Mallory Keaton, Punky Brewster, Clarissa who told us everything, and Nancy Drew; adorable white girls with a certain kind of sass, plus – in Nancy’s case – a sky blue convertible and no real curfew. These girls represented freedom to be whoever you wanted, as long as you had your own show. I also wanted to be Shannon Whatsherface in the seventh grade: blond hair, blue eyes, good grades, sunny demeanor; a girl who went on to work with children and marry the hot guy from our high school. I was dying to be any of the girls who played the love interest of a Cory – Haim or even Feldman – because of course they were my boyfriend ideals. I wanted to be Cher in Clueless, or even Tai, but not Dionne; I wanted to be Jennifer Capriati, not Venus Williams. And I cringe to admit that I wanted to be the whitest, blandest Cosby kid – yes, SONDRA, married to a black man named Elvin, who just seemed like a nerdy white guy in disguise. The rest of the Cosby kids seemed like they were actually black, and I just couldn’t see myself in them.
Somehow, though, I saw myself in the most earnest Canadian to ever fictionally live. Anne of The Greenest Gable and I had a few traits in common – mostly negative, like a fiery temper and a flair for the dramatic – but beyond being adopted, nothing else. I even taped up my nose for a time in the hopes it might turn into a cute little appendage instead of some kind of aboriginal honker (aka my first real lesson in futility), but it wasn’t meant to be. Looking back, as an adult, the real point was: I wanted to be anyone but myself.
That seems like a terribly sad thing to say, but how could I want to be me? I had no idea what that might look like or how to go about doing it. In all of my little girl daydreams, I was a gorgeous white princess; in all of my teen girl fantasies, I had Blake Lively hair and cerulean blue eyes that sparkled. When I looked in the mirror, I saw all the things I could never hope to be, and I hated myself for that. Fantasy and Reality were not friends in my world. The only examples of personhood I had growing up were white ones: in my family, school, work, literature, television, movies. The people of color in my life consisted of a handful of humans, like a baby Smurf’s hand: a couple of kids in my high school (literally two), some Mexican landscapers around town, The Cosby kids, The Klump’s, Oprah Winfrey, ALF, and Maria from Sesame Street. All I wanted to do was blend, but where I’m from, that’s like asking a fully-lit firecracker to please be a tepid glass of water. My whole life has been me thinking that I’m super incognito, when I’m actually the painted elephant in the room, whispering, “So what are we all staring at?”
I think we can all agree that life is hard no matter what the circumstances. It’s wondrous in so many ways but can also be a pile of rancid awful. No one goes through life without challenges, though some were born with certain privileges – but even the privileged ones can still get shitsauce all over their free-range golden geese. Some days, it is extremely hard for me to walk out the door as a woman; as a woman of color; as a woman of color who identifies as white; as a fat woman of color who identifies as white; as a fat, insolvent woman of color who identifies as white; as a fat, insolvent woman of color in an interracial marriage who identifies as white; as a fat, insolvent woman of color in an interracial marriage that identifies as white who’s rocking a kidney disease and never saw The Godfather; and so on. It’s hard going out into the world with so many perceived negatives attached to my brain. My pep talks used to start with “Don’t” and end with “do anything at all.”
Now I try walking out the door – or fine, lumbering through an archway – as a proud woman of color who identifies as human at least 70 percent of the time. The remaining 30 percent is mostly jokes; five percent of those jokes are puns. Blame my dad for that.
Just recently, my mother asked my forgiveness for any unknown harm she may have caused me growing up in regards to our differing skin colors. She thought the people back then who judged her for having a brown baby were, and I quote, “fucking stupid” — but that was their problem, not hers. She thought all a child really needed was love, and they gave that to me in droves. But what she acknowledged, and what was so important for me to hear, was that we didn’t talk about race because she didn’t know how. She always knew when something off happened in school – from third grade, being told I couldn’t play with a group of kids “because Brownies have cooties,” to ninth grade when I was cornered by a group of skinheads and called the N-word, over and over, to the teacher who vouched to another that I was not a thief because “she’s the whitest brown kid I know” – but I never gave her any details because that would call attention to something we’d decided to politely ignore. For a first-time talk about race with my mom, at 40 years old, it was a solid, essential step in fully embracing who I am, or, shedding who I’m never going to be.
I’LL MISS YOUR SUN-DRENCHED HAIR, BLAKE LIVELY.
In a world where labeling is becoming more fluid – who cares what you are, where you came from, who you’re dating, what plumbing you have or don’t have, you choose your identity now – all I ever wanted was to check an easy box and get claimed by my group. Buy the t-shirt, march in our parade, get invited to a secret Facebook group called “Hey, You’re One of Us!” whatever that “us” might be. Like many others, I’ve been surrounded by people my whole life but never felt like I belonged. Denying huge parts of yourself for many years can do that to a person.
The first therapist I ever had used that hokey but on-point onion analogy – where you’re an onion and therapy helps you peel back the layers until – SURPRISE! – underneath is just another fucking onion. It’s the asshole M.C. Escher of onions, this complicated, unpeelable onion named You. But that buried onion within knows how to love itself or has a feelings journal or something, so it’s worth the pain of flaying your skin, Game of Thrones-style. Waking up has been a lot like that experience for me, but instead of an onion, it was more like an armored coconut — the most ironic visual here, since my friends used to call me a coconut in college: brown on the outside, white on the inside. Instead of peeling back the layers, I busted that coconut wide open with a fucking sledgehammer, and all of a sudden, there I was. A little brown me with enormous feet – journal in one hand, cake in the other – waiting patiently for her day in the sun.
The joke was on her, though, since we live in Seattle and it was raining.