A few weeks ago on Facebook, someone accused me of talking about race too much. The comment totally took me by surprise, as I don’t think I talk about race that often, or at least any more than I “should.” But the more I got into the discussion, the more I realized I wanted to talk about why I talk about race and also say…sorry I’m not sorry.
When I was younger, I didn’t talk about race very much because I was worried about being the Angry Black Girl. I remember seeing characters like Coral on “The Real World” and Omarosa on “The Apprentice” taking on that role, and no one seemed to be fans. I got the impression that the people around me didn’t like it when people talked about race or inequality, so I didn’t.
When I was in college, my ISS class (basically a required social studies class) was in a huge lecture hall with hundreds of students. Even with that many students, the instructor was still able to get good discussions going, and we talked a lot about race. I watched the black students speak up and talk about injustice. I even watched white students talk about it. But I typically stayed quiet. I didn’t want to draw attention to the ways I was different because I didn’t want people to treat me differently.
Then one day we were discussing whether or not the US should have to pay restitutions to African-Americans for slavery. As people weighed in, I finally decided to enter the discussion. When the instructor called on me I said, “You know, restitutions sound nice, but my concern is that once they are paid, people would take an attitude of, ‘OK, racism is over! You got your money, what more do you want?’ Well, you know what I want? I want to be able to walk into any store and know that they carry my shampoo and I want to be able to buy Band-aids that match my skin color!”
I felt a ripple go through the lecture hall and got the feeling that approximately 200 people who had previously been nodding off had just woken up and turned around to see who had said that. From their positions — slunk down in their seats, probably working on the State News crossword — it sounded like it had just come from a Valley girl. And yet the words implied it was from a black girl.
Obviously, I’m both.
But suddenly I felt like the energy in the room really shifted and actually lightened up a bit, and it was a really good feeling. I started to realize that I might be able to talk about very serious matters in a lighthearted way because I have both love and snark for both black people and white people. And it occurred to me that maybe turning my irritation and anger into humor would be a way to get people to listen.
When I started doing stand-up, I began working my race and experiences with race into my comedy routines and that was great for me; it helped me talk about it in a way that wasn’t angry (which is important to me, because generally, I’m not a very angry person; I’m passionate, but not angry) but still educated people. By laughing at the people who said ignorant things to me, I was treating everyone listening like they weren’t racist or ignorant, like they were in on the joke. If they saw themselves in my joke, then fine — they’d realize what they were doing wrong. But I didn’t have to make them feel like horrible people in the process.
A few years after college, I started blogging on Shedding It, and I rarely mentioned my race. I was back in the position of feeling like I didn’t want to draw attention to it, especially because all the other blogs I read were written by young white women. Once again, I started to worry about being criticized for focusing on race too much or alienating readers who didn’t want to feel like a health blog was getting super political, so I avoided bringing it up.
But after I had been blogging for a little while, my confidence started to grow, and I realized I was ignoring a big part of who I am. I’m half-black and half-white and that comes with a unique set of experiences and also a different perspective on race. I’ve experienced enough privileges of being white that I can talk about the racism I’ve experienced without getting super emotional, but I’ve had enough shitty experiences regarding my skin color to talk about it with passion.
The main reason I talk about race is to educate people. I truly, truly believe that most people don’t want to be ignorant; sometimes they just don’t know what is appropriate or inappropriate and they are afraid to ask. And who can blame them? It’s hard to be comfortable asking people questions about race. Without a diverse group of friends (which isn’t necessarily someone’s fault), they don’t have someone they can ask. I’m cool with being the person who tells them.
And I like telling people before they ask. During the first week of my core honors classes in high school, we had to do presentations on ourselves and one of the girls in the class (who is now one of my good friends) explained why she wore a bindi during her presentation. It was such a relief to not have to pretend to know or feel stupid for not knowing. I really liked how she handled that and I decided that might be a good approach to talking about race and differences. Maybe I should just tell people rather than make them ask, or at least start the discussion so they knew it was OK to be curious.
So now I volunteer information about my hair and answer questions patiently (though no, you still can’t touch it). I don’t wait for people tell me I’m “way too tan” or make them ask me where I’m “from.” I explain that “all biracial people are SO BEAUTIFUL!” is neither true nor that complimentary. I don’t let them just assume I’m Mexican. The bottom line is, I try to inform people of my race and of my boundaries with regards to talking (and joking!) about it before we’ve known each other for too long. Because I don’t think people will figure out where the line is on their own if no one is willing to talk about it.
The other reason I talk about race is because I know that a lot of my friends and blog readers are going to have mixed-race babies some day (or mixed nephews and nieces, or just mixed kids playing with their friends) and I like having open conversations about what my experience has been like. In a lot of cases, their babies will be the first mixed-race kids in their family. So…I want them to know what our hair is like. I want them to know that their kids are probably going to get asked if they are adopted and tell them that people might assume they are the nanny, and that it’s not OK, and that you should tell them that. I want them to know that many biracial kids feel racism from both sides and to make sure their friends and family know not to perpetuate that and no one should force them to pick a side. And I want them to know that it’s OK to be angry with how they or their children treated, but that they shouldn’t let the anger consume them. And I want their children to know that being mixed race is really pretty cool and they should be proud of it and own it from the get go.
While I used to not want to be different or attract attention for being biracial, I’m OK with it now. If talking about it makes people uncomfortable, tough shit. I talk about a lot of things that make people uncomfortable. I’ve owned it.