DISCLAIMER ABOUT THIS BLOG: I already know this is likely to cause some debate. To spark up feelings, stereotypes and misunderstandings. I want to start by saying that is OK. It’s OK to be human. It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to have a different opinion, experience or perspective. But because I am about to share some really personal shit, I want to let you know that it’s NOT OK to be mean in your comments. If you seek to build a bridge, I will engage. If you seek to burn one, I simply will not.
OK, let’s begin with colors. My black father. My white mother. They got married in the 70’s. Only one of my four grandparents attended. The absent parties’ reasons were non-descript, but everyone suspected it was because they feared that their child was ruining their life.
Most of the time I never felt like a “color “ while I was growing up. I was raised in Pasadena which, as cities go, is pretty culturally mixed up. My parents always told me that I could grow up to be anything that I wanted to be. They said this to me in spite of their experiences. My mother had been dissuaded from becoming a musical conductor on account of being a woman. My father was told he could never be a special effects makeup artist on account of being black. But they never told me any of this when I was small. They lead me to believe that the world was open and fair and that anything was possible. They filled my days with lots of extra-curricular activities so I was always trying new things and meeting new people. But despite the diverse insulation of my colorful world, the “race card” would still rear its ugly head.
The first time I remember it, I was visiting my grandmother in Illinois. I was in first grade. There were two Caucasian sisters who lived down the road and we had been playing together all week before it happened.
The youngest one said, “Hey Shaleah, are you black?”
The oldest one quickly piped up, “Of course not, stupid! She is from California. She just has that California tan!”
I just giggled thinking nothing of it and said, “Actually, yes. My dad is black and my mom is white.”
What happened next completely baffled my 6 year old mind. As disgust and confusion washed over their faces, the oldest finally made up some excuse about suddenly needing to be home. Then, they turned and walked away. We never played again.
Later on there were boys, of various races, who would literally tell me that they couldn’t date me because their parents wouldn’t tolerate them being with a black girl.
This seemed strange because I didn’t feel that black.
And then growing up, whenever I was with my father’s side of the family, I was always being told by my hairdresser cousins that they could “cure me”.
“You can’t just wear your hair natural! Don’t worry girl, once I get a hold of that nappy head of yours, I’ll fix you right up!”
I will never forget the first time I got my hair pressed out in proper African American salon. With my curls now flat, my hair had lengthened to my waist and was full and bouncy. I remember I felt like a barbie doll. But as the icy stares from women getting weaves penetrated, I remember feeling like I didn’t belong.
My first week of public high school, I was walking to class and I remember being cornered by 3 African American girls wearing the jerseys from the women’s basketball team. Their introduction to me went something like this:
“Why you not down with the sisters? You think you too good for us?! You think you a white girl?!”
This was our first hello and already I was “too white” for them.
This seemed strange because I didn’t feel that white.
I am still discovering the effects of this in my life and my personal identity. In the years that have followed, I have experienced many things in the company of diverse characters. I have been privileged enough to be invited into many rooms in which “I don’t belong.” When it comes to the topic of race, for me it is and should be an ongoing conversation. I am honestly not certain of much. But I have truly come to believe that in all the ignorance and jealousy, entitlement and guilt, all the pain and misunderstandings that we perpetuate usually come from one simple thing: fear.
The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s fear.
One of the main things that Berlin has given me is a fresh perspective on color as a result of having some distance from the US and the continual reach of it’s systemic racism. When I really started to delve into my personal development work, shedding the social labels I had taken on- the ones that didn’t serve me- was an invaluable step. But after taking stock of this stuff, there comes a time to reassemble yourself- to build your reality as it works best for you. And with this comes identity. And although I have no desire to “be an ethnicity” I would be remiss to deny my dualistic nature.
We are all more than one thing. We all have paradoxical elements in our hearts and minds, our personalities and upbringing. Aren’t there things about you that just don’t seem to mix? Aren’t there characteristics of you that sometimes just don’t want to play nice together? I have always had this feeling that maybe I didnt belong anywhere. But finding my place in the world is a continual work towards balance. It means choosing the path of love, not fear. And this means having hard talks with yourself and with others.
Cultivating a deep wish for personal integration could be the start of accepting our internal contrasts. If we can seek to understand and explore our paradoxes, we can make space for peace within ourselves. If we can make peace within ourselves, maybe we can start to make peace with our each other and our world.