Growing Into My Racial Identity -The Toast

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I owned a white doll when I was two years old. Like any self-respecting tiny caretaker, I had a miniature stroller to tote the doll around in. I made crop circles on the rug of my living room as I wheeled back and forth busily. My parents later bought the doll a companion, but this one looked like me. They propped the new black doll up in the stroller beside her white equivalent. I proceeded to fling the black doll onto the ground. My mom and dad resituated the dolls side by side. I cast the black doll onto the floor once more. They tell me this happened like clockwork for days on end. I left the white doll to watch the pattern ensue from her high and mighty perch.

I’ll never know what whims compelled my young mind. This was my own land before time, made up of urges without ambitions and movements without memories. Yet it feels like the beginning of an itch, a needling pulse inside of me that would eventually leave me clawing at my skin.

It went like this. Oreo. Commonly known as “milk’s favorite cookie.” See also: a name other people liked to call me. Black on the outside; white on the inside. The eponym speaks for itself. I was the token black girl in a predominately white slice of suburbia. I was soft-spoken but well-spoken. I stretched the walls of the boxes that people sought to put me in. Thus, I spent my childhood years having my identity reduced to crumbs, being christened with an inner dermis to which my skin did not subscribe. A voice in my head resented this, but another wondered if it was true.

Sometime in middle school, I spent a Friday night curled in bed with my mother, watching a TV documentary about a young transgender kid. Though deemed a boy at birth, she asserted her right to girlhood. She galloped and twirled across the screen in a tutu, and I remember feeling struck by the sight of someone so authentically herself. While I could never fully understand the complexity of being transgender, I latched onto a shared sense of confusion – the terror of inhabiting a body that does not feel like one’s own. It was a fleeting thought, streaking across my synapses and gone almost as quickly as it came. Could I be transracial?

I now know that transracial is best defined in respect to cross-cultural adoption, but when I was younger, I had different ideas. My ideas orbited around the fact that I listened to pop punk music and that all of my best friends were white. There was an invisible chasm between those who looked like me and my own self. Seeing no reflections of my likeness, I presumed that the black me couldn’t really exist. I felt alien, so I aligned myself with whiteness in search of who I was. It was both a conscious and unconscious alignment, a concoction of a country with a history of assimilation and a young black girl (me) with a history of feeling out of place.

One day, a classmate asked me what should have been a rhetorical question. “Are your parents white?”

“No,” I replied with a question mark embedded in the tone of my voice. I looked down at my very brown hands, my very brown fingers spinning my ring in a nervous carousel.

“You’re just really proper,” he said back, as if this were an explanation. As if next to proper in the dictionary was a pair of Caucasian caretakers, slowly cultivating me into myself. Instead, I think he meant that I was “conforming to established standards of behavior or manners.” I think he meant that I seemed “fitting; right.” These are all descriptions that lie outside the imposed bounds of blackness. So it was presumed that I must somehow be white. Perhaps on the inside, I allowed. Maybe if you peeled away the chocolate you would find a personality that seemed more beige or bisque. But my parents were definitely black.

My parents always seemed to live with their feet dragging in the mud of the past. Some part of their souls stayed tethered to a sandy patch of seafloor in the depths of the Mid-Atlantic. When we visited history museums in the muggy heat of the summer, my mom would leave with her tote a little bit heavier. It would be weighed down by books about ships and shackles and faraway coastlines whose geography seemed etched in her skin. 

At the time, I found it pathetic. Look at them, I thought, carrying the baggage of yesterday, lugging around history on their shoulders. Here I was, believing I was a 21st-century maven, post-racial princess, poster child for integration and all that good stuff. There they were, chained to a story that didn’t have to be their own. My parents chose to submerge themselves in an ocean that we had already crossed. It was not until I was older that I would realize the paradox of their choice. Because it was one part choice, one part already chosen. They knew something that I didn’t: we cannot shrug off our shadows.

The one time my mom heard me say an unkind word about my hair texture, she dove into a lecture mid-car-ride. It was the kind of lecture where I stared out the window as her words pelted against the side of my face.

“Don’t you know how many people would love to have hair as thick as yours?” she asked. I didn’t answer her. I didn’t have an answer. “People wish they had that. And they go outside and go tanning. All so they can look a little bit more like us.” My mom never specified who “they” were or who “us” was, but we both knew.

Still, I was left in limbo. She had a grasp on some truth, however questions began taking root in my mind. If they wanted my hair so badly, why had she introduced me to the flat iron, the hot comb, the sting of chemicals? Why did we spend every Saturday at the salon? What were we trying to achieve?

This is where we find the knot in my tapestried life, where I once thought I could spin black thread into something lighter. For an actual trans person, transitioning involves letting a personal reality become visible to the public. It is an exultation of what should be or, to be precise, what already is. For me, my life revolved around an erasure of truth rather than an exposure. My body became a site of betrayal. I thought that if I only ironed out the kinks in my clothes and my hair and my speech enough, I could recast what was written all over me into hues of pale peach.

In high school, I spent a lot of time in my head, turning ideas over like stones. I felt attached to the world by just a faint bungee cord of consciousness. The realization that I existed beyond the borders of my own mind was an abrupt tug on that cord.

The summer before my senior year consisted of asphalt and orange cones. I sweltered in a school parking lot behind the wheel of a car, circling around the lot in endless constellations. This was driver’s education class. A girl by the name of Ella sat in the passenger seat beside me. She was my class partner, ready to put the emergency brake to the test if I turned a little too sharply or accelerated a little too recklessly. She kept her eyes trained on the road and kept her blond-streaked hair in a messy ponytail.

Outside of the car, I was something of a loner. The class was merely a requirement to get my license, and you could see that in the way my eyes stayed glued to my cellphone or gazed wistfully at the metal fences that wrapped around the school. All the same, I thought of Ella as my comrade. When my friend Sam later mentioned her during a brief Facebook escapade, I seized the moment to proclaim our mutual acquaintanceship. I told him that she was my partner in driver’s ed.

“Really?” Sam said. The edges of his mouth tickled at some joke I hadn’t heard. “Ella said the black kids in that class were crazy.”

My initial reaction was to remove myself from the equation. Ella hadn’t meant me. She had meant them. The others. The ones whose names got replaced with a pigment. I continued to search for a mental divider to set myself apart, but the logic was simple. Regardless of how I perceived myself, I was a black kid. And I was in that class. Ella hadn’t not meant me.

I took a step out of my mind and, for the first time, saw myself as the world did. Zora Neale Hurston’s words stamped themselves across my soul: “I do not always feel colored…I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” To the white world, I was the black girl, and that designation came with a fixed mold that I sometimes fit into and sometimes didn’t. But whether I fit the mold or not, I would always fit the color.

I found myself uncomfortable in this new place, this identity that scratched against my spirit like wool. I didn’t know how to be black after spending so much time imagining myself as anything but. While my white friends colloquially tried on the n-word like a new shade of nail polish, I kept it out of my mouth on a shelf that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to reach. My friends were too white to know the burden, whereas I wasn’t sure I was black enough to carry it.

Yet I was black enough to be one of the anonymous “black kids.” Black enough for my outside to overshadow what lay within. We cannot shrug off our shadows.  Blackness could be decoration for some – a sprinkle of slang, a row of braids – but it was destiny for me. I felt the cultural cargo that my parents were carrying, that their parents had carried before them, and realized that I would never be able to put it down again.

My white friends can try on black identity for a day. They can plait their hair. They can plump their lips. But whiteness is the shelf that I will truly never be able to reach. Whiteness is the identity that America keeps under lock and key, that stays password-protected with all the capital letters and special symbols that the world has to offer. Passing as black becomes a joke, a modern rendition of blackface without all the baggage. Passing as white remains an aspiration, a mark of social dignity, proof that you owned that ocean and conquered that land. For all my education, all my white friends, all my chemically straightened hair, all my perfectly enunciated words, all my crisply tailored clothes – I will never pass as white. And I no longer want to reach that shelf.

Because reaching the shelf of whiteness means stomping on the shoulders of all my ancestors. It means grinding my heels into their skin without a second glance. However, I want to take a long look. Soak it all in. Remember the soil and the salty sea, the cotton and the chains. Somewhere in my deep brown eyes, history is embedded in the irises. I will trace the routes of slave ships along the lines of my palms.

I am not the warrior I should be. I shift in my seat when my linguistics class discusses African American Vernacular English. I shrink when my friend criticizes racially charged riots. I remain on the fringe of my university’s Black Action Society for fear that I won’t fit in. I may never be the warrior I should be; I may always straddle a strange line. But I am the color that I am meant to be, and I am one of the “black kids.” Now there is no other club I would rather be part of.

Kaylen Sanders studies linguistics, computer science, and nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She likes social justice and has a weakness for milkshakes.

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