Black on the Inside
By Dionne Ford
My daughter has decided that she is white.
With her butterscotch skin and thick copper-colored curls, it’s easy to see that white is only half the story. Her father is white, with his Irish grandmother’s freckled skin and red hair and his Finnish grandfather’s long limbs and blue eyes. I am black, cocoa-colored like my grandmothers from Arkansas and Mississippi. I want Desiree, as a biracial child, to self-identify, to not let others box her into some container too small to hold all of her.
I just never considered that she might not identify with me at all.
I liked it better when she worked in tones. When she was four and heading off to preschool, she compared us to the colors in her crayon box. She was peach, Dad was pink, and I was brown. The kids in her school were an amalgam of different colors, races, and religions, with parents of varying sexual orientations, and I happily sent her off to its cocoon of otherness. That’s why we moved to Montclair, N.J., in the first place. According to the New York Times, it was the best place for interracial families to live in the U.S. I felt comforted when we first moved that here, we would all fit in. Color would not be an issue.
Then on our way to preschool one morning, Desiree asked why I call myself black when I’m not black like the SUV that was idling in the drop-off line in front of us.
“That’s just how people of our race, of my race, have described themselves, or have been called by other people, um … ,” I stammered before she lost interest and started singing along with the Music for Aardvarks tape.
What had kept me clinging to the term “black” long past puberty? It was defiance, really, an attempt to rail against black as bad and evil and to redefine the color and with it others’ perceptions of me. It helped that I was never one to follow the crowd. When people started wearing black plastic bangles like Madonna, I promptly threw mine in the trash, and when people started following Jesse Jackson’s lead in calling ourselves African American, I clung to the abandoned black term even tighter. Like my daughter, I was trying to decide for myself.
For both of us, this is tricky business. My daughter’s innocent question that day was the harbinger of more complicated things to come.
One night, we read Black Is Brown Is Tan about an interracial family made up of the same parts as ours. I said something to Desiree about her looking just like the little girl in the book, same curly hair and brown eyes, though the girl’s skin was darker.
“I don’t look like her, Mommy. She’s black,” my daughter said.
“Well, she’s part black, and so are you,” I said.
“No, I’m not. I’m white. Just look at me.”
The horror I felt must have registered on my face because she quickly smiled and added, “I know I’m black on the inside ’cause I was in your belly, Mommy.”
That seemed much worse, like an inverted Oreo. I was always called Oreo growing up because of my white insides—the words I used, the music I listened to, the honors classes I took in school. Those things didn’t seem to match my brown skin. Unlike the cookie, there was nothing sweet about that nickname.
Was my daughter already divvying up people into categories the way her school teaches her to sort the food groups? I was her age, about five, when I became aware of my skin, how it sometimes made people treat me differently. Had racism somehow leached into her psyche from the few TV shows she’d been allowed to watch, or from attitudes at school, making her equate white with desirable and black with problematic? Would it persist and lead her to identify solely with the more privileged choice, the white choice, the one that doesn’t include me?
The whole thing made me long for my grandfather, a very fair-skinned black man. I remember asking him once if he was white because his skin was like a cloudy pearl, his pitch-black hair straight as a pin. He stared me down from behind his Coke-bottle glasses then told me I ought to know better than that.
“I’m a black man,” he said, like it was simple math. If he were still alive, he could tell my daughter that he was so fair because his grandfather was a white man who owned the pecan plantation where his grandmother was enslaved. He would say how he pretended he was white when my dad was little for better pay at his grocery store job.
He could sit my daughter on his lap and tell her with his Louisiana drawl, “Look here, I’m black, and so are you. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It matters what blood you have in you.” I imagined that my grandfather’s easy embrace of his blackness could help Desiree embrace that part of herself just as easily.
When I was a kid in the seventies, to call yourself even half white, no matter what you looked like, was to disparage your blackness. It implied that being black was something to be ashamed of. Even pretending was looked down on—my mom gave me a good yelling at once for draping a towel over my head and swinging it back and forth then asking her how she thought I’d look with blonde hair and blue eyes.
For good or for ill, “one drop of blood” used to mean you were black regardless of appearance. How times have changed. When Tiger Woods came up with the word Cablanasian to encompass all of his parts, I cheered. I supported changes to the 2000 census that would better serve my interracial family by letting us check all the categories that apply to us. I’m disappointed that Barack Obama identifies himself primarily as black and not biracial, but he’s from my generation, not Desiree’s, so I understand.
In my parenting especially, I try hard not to get tripped up by old ideas. If my daughter decides to be a boy for the day and tells everyone to call her Liam, I pass no judgment. When she insists on wearing open-toe shoes in the winter, I tell her to throw on some socks and I roll with it. My daughter is afforded more choices than my grandfather was, and ideally this is what I want for her—choice. But this insistence that she is “a little white girl” digs a hole in me. It seems to point out that the stigma attached to being black is still intact.
My husband gently reminds her when the subject comes up that she is both black and white and that this is a good thing. He tells her about his Finnish grandfather who was a cowboy and reminds her of the tractor ride she took at my grandfather’s farm in Arkansas. On MLK day this year, he extolled the virtues of Dr. King and asked what she’s learned about him. She sang us a song about him from her school’s assembly and told us he was peaceful and tried to help black people get their rights.
“You know what else?” she says. “You guys wouldn’t have been able to get married if it weren’t for Martin Luther King.”
We nod at her intention, tell her that in some states our marriage would have been illegal. I take her comment as a shift in her thinking toward embracing her black part, too. So, I take the plunge and ask her how she sees herself now that she’s a second grader.
“I’m white. I don’t want to be black. It’s too hard.”
I whip the eggs I’m scrambling with too much gusto, splattering yolk and whites onto our Corian countertop.
“You’re white and black,” I say, resisting the urge to shake this truth into her before the world does. “What do you mean it’s too hard to be black?”
“You can’t sit where you want. People treat you bad. I’d rather be white. They’re treated better,” she says, her bright brown eyes averted, avoiding my gaze.
“Black people can sit where they want on buses now. Things have changed.” I silently curse the MLK day celebration and its thorough depiction of all the inequities blacks suffered and reconsider for the thousandth time whether we should join Jack and Jill, an eighty-year-old social organization for black kids. Pro: She’d meet more black kids. Con: She’s not entirely a black kid.
“I know things are different now,” my daughter says, “but still, it just seems easier to be white.”
From the mouths of babes.
For a second I am disappointed that she already knows this, but then, wiping up the gooey mess I’ve made, I remember my friend in junior high telling me I wasn’t really black because I was smart and didn’t live in the projects, and another friend in middle school who cautioned me to stay away from their dog because her father had trained it to attack black people. In a way, I feel affirmed. My daughter already understands something that most people who aren’t dark-skinned never comprehend: that it’s harder to be black than it is to be white in this country. Her understanding gives me hope.
She starts to recount the latest episode of Hannah Montana so I know she doesn’t want to talk anymore, and I know better than to push it. When she’s done talking, I kiss the baby soft hairs on her forehead and tell her that I love her and that I’m a part of her no matter what she calls herself. Still, I lift her chin and spread my arms wide so she has a good look at the pink sleeveless tee shirt she bought me for Mother’s Day with the Japanese symbol for “mother” painted across my chest.
“Come on,” I say “How hard does it look to be me?”
I know this story won’t end here. As my daughter grows, so, too, I suspect will her concept of herself. And as she makes different groups of friends, they’ll ask her to choose. Maybe on certain days, she’ll feel white, on others, black, on others both, the way now she sometimes insists she’s a boy, or an alien princess, or a movie star. All I can do is keep her connected to all of her sides, gently reminding her that she is both black and white, inside and out.
Author’s Note: When I called my big sister recently to talk about this essay, she informed me that when I was about six I declared that I wanted to be white. “You were tired of the girls in the neighborhood”—one Asian, the other biracial -“making fun of your skin and hair,” my sister reminded me. Hmm. I guess my daughter does identify with me after all.
Brain, Child (Fall 2008)
Dionne Ford is an award-winning journalist whose essays have appeared in the New York Times and Literary Mama. She’s at work on a memoir about her family’s history which she blogs about at findingjosephine.com.