Honoring Black History With a Gray Life

February is an integral month for Black America. The month kicks off with profound historical relevance, Freedom Day. The day in 1865, when for the first time in American history, all black citizens were constitutionally recognized as “free”. But in present day, February 1st begins Black History Month, and the inevitable controversial conversations of the need for and efficacy of such a racial national focus. In the past, I’ll admit, my opinions were not as bold or as confident, maybe because to me the topic did not seem that relevant to my life. As a lover of history and equality, you would think I would have been a staunch supporter from the start. But the truth is, as a half-black, half-white hybrid that grew up in a predominately white, southern suburbia, the most predominate feeling I felt was indifference.  

To give context, I was born to a white seventeen-year-old mother in the Midwest at the tail-end of the 80’s. My father is a black man. They met at a party, had a one-night stand, and I was the inconvenient result. Of course, no one has ever claimed this, but when I put myself in their shoes, I know that’s exactly how my life began. Not just inconvenient because they were teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, but because they came from different worlds. When I met my birthmother years later, she told me that her religious parents gave her two options: give me up for adoption, or navigate the world alone with no support. I thank her for her kindness every day in my heart, especially because I know I would have chosen the third, most contentious option: abortion.  

But my birthmother chose life, and gave it to me. And then she gave me away, to a white couple from the south that had already adopted two biracial children before me. I can’t honestly imagine the impact this has had on her, or my birthfather, as people. To perform such a selfless act that I might have a chance at a privileged future brings me to tears sometimes. Their sacrifice, and the willingness of my adopted parents to provide for me, laid the foundation of who I am today.

Who am I today, you might ask? Did I live up to the incredible opportunity given to me at birth? Truly, my answer depends on the day. But what I can tell you with assurance is that my life and my identity has and always will be a fluid, complex battle with race. Simply because I grew up a biological and ethnic hybrid during one of the most complicated periods of racial and cultural struggle. 

Which brings me back to Black History. For the majority of my childhood and adolescence, I was shielded from the racial war raging throughout my country and around the world. I grew up middle-class with loving white parents, and three biracial siblings. I am eternally grateful to my parents for being honest with each of us from the beginning, and telling us where we came from and who we were born to. Legally, contact with birthparents was reserved until we turned 18. But my parents never lied or tried to hide the truth. This was one of the best decisions they could have made as adoptive parents.

            From an early age, I was informed and aware that me and my brothers and sister were different. We didn’t look like the majority of white kids in our classes, or on our sports teams. Our family portraits looked different from those hanging in the houses of our friends. And while we noticed these differences, for a while we remained unaffected by them.

 

I’ll never forget the first time a classmate called me a nigger. I was fourteen, and genuinely perplexed. Not that I was ignorant to racism, or the disgusting history part of my ancestors faced in a past that is not as removed as many like to think. I remember feeling confused, because while I knew that nigger was a derogatory term unacceptable for white use, it had no power over me. Because I had never thought of myself as a nigger before. I had never truly identified with my enslaved black ancestors that were forced to answer to “nigger” for centuries. And while I’m not proud of the violence I exhibited towards my peer that day, I will not deny that asshole deserved the humiliation I dealt him.

That interaction haunted me for a long time, and jumpstarted my long, endless journey of defining myself and where I stand on the racial spectrum. Because for the longest time I let the sea of white culture I had been raised in carry me along, and used it to build up an identity around myself. The exposure to black culture just wasn’t there for me in Franklin, Tennessee. Of course, there were black students at my schools, and I made friends with everyone I could. One of my best friends in middle school was an immigrant from Mozambique, and she taught me a lot about ethnicity and culture. But still, by then I had noticed the growing divide between what I observed as black and white culture.

My sister, Crysta, is special to me. As complete opposites, she was my first lesson in understanding how deep differences between people can run, but how strong the bonds that connect us truly are. Being the younger sibling, I constantly felt encompassed by the shadow she cast. Growing up, she was popular, feminine, stylish, and strikingly beautiful. I was stocky, masculine, stubborn, and painfully passionate and outspoken. We obviously walk very different paths in life. But one defining, visible, and fundamental difference between us: her flawless skin is a rich russet, while mine changes from olive to pale, depending on the season. I can’t prove anything with certainty, but I believe this is a significant key to the cultural choices we made as individuals.

Because Crysta looked “black”, I would watch her assert herself in black social circles with ease, and be readily accepted. However, when I would make the rare attempt to do the same, I felt like I stuck out like an obtuse rock being forced into a circular hole. Judging by appearances and natural interests, I did not belong in black culture. So, for the longest time, I respected it from a distance. Society taught me growing up that I had to be identical to a subject to be authentic, or genuinely associated. As an adult, I see it everywhere. The segregation, the cultural misappropriation. The oppression of expression, and the undermining of cross-cultural efforts. Because corruption and theft can wear many deceitful faces.

As a hybrid, I have the privilege of moving across cultural boundaries relatively unscathed. I can listen to and appreciate the musical talents of The Weeknd and Tegan & Sara simultaneously, without feeling like a culturally-uninspired hack. (But music is an entirely different subject matter!) But that’s not to imply that privilege comes without consequences. The price I pay for my nomadic ethnicity is that I don’t truly belong anywhere. As a kid trying to find my place in the world, that opportunity often felt like a devastating burden.

No one took me seriously. One distinct memory I recall from high school was with a close friend in Creative Writing class. A group of us were discussing the senior superlatives vote, and one of the awards was “Most Soul”. One kind friend said, “I should vote for you, Caila.” But someone else suggested that “soul” was synonymous with “black”, and I was therefore unworthy of the award. Surprisingly offended, I declared, “I am black! And I do have soul!”

 

Then my good friend turned to me and said, “You’re not black, you’re diluted.” I was speechless, and deeply hurt. While me and that person eventually talked it over and made ammends, that comment still elicits a painful sting in my heart.

Because unlike the time a bully called me “nigger”, a part of me must have identified as “diluted” for it to have cut me the way it did. There had to have been some social truth wrapped in those offensive words that I had been unwilling up until that point to face. My whole life I have been told from both sides that I’m not black enough, or white enough, or simply enough to be recognized as a valid person with my own unique identity and culture.

Even standardized tests would force me to pick a side of the racial fence.

I hope you understand that I don’t share my experiences and thoughts to be pitied, or that I’m seeking undeserved sympathy. I know all too well that millions of others past and present have suffered far worse on behalf of their skin. No amount of sympathy will take away that suffering. In my mind, sympathy is only one dangerous, well-intentioned step away from apathy.

But the hardest assault to my racial identity, however, didn’t happen in America. It happened overseas, in the native lands of Africa. My husband, Matt, and I requested to do our Peace Corps service in Africa. To me, this was the perfect opportunity to become intimate with and connected to “true” black culture. Our wish was granted when we got the call to serve in Swaziland as volunteers from 2013-2015. I, like most Americans, had no real understanding of African history and culture. So I can’t understate the complete shock that I experienced, and the resulting chasm in my worldview and opinions on culture.

Of course, my experience was subjective. The service wasn’t easy, but I learned many priceless lessons. And one of those lessons is how twisted and ingrained racism is. In Swaziland, I was suddenly a minority. Not just because of my nationality, but because of my skin color as well. Everywhere we went people would stare and treat us differently because we were white in a kingdom of black people. I had never experienced reverse-racism like that. Not only that, but there were layers to it as well. Beneath our skin color was another dividing factor: our economic status. Swaziland is one of the poorest countries in the world, heavily impacted by colonization, political corruption, and the AIDS epidemic.

So when people saw me, they immediately saw a rich white person. There’s a name for it, actually: “umlungu”. I would compare it with the term “nigger”, but it’s different. The word “umlungu” denotes power through wealth, while “nigger” implies inferiority and poverty. Both terms offended me deeply. Because I certainly didn’t consider myself rich, or white. But what I came to learn is that the word “rich” is interchangeable with “privilege” to the average, impoverished Swazi. I might not have an abundance of accessible money in my bank account, but I have been afforded so much more because of my American heritage. And that is absolutely true.

To be clear, I’m not saying that all Swazis are racist, or that every Swazi called me an umlungu. Swaziland, like any other country, has its own unique cultural and social issues, enforced by centuries of complicated history. Just like I’m not saying all white Americans are racists. On the contrary, I don’t believe that in the slightest, and if anything, feel like I am making a much different point.

As a mixed person, I have experienced varying degrees of racism in many ugly, uncomfortable forms. But the common denominator in every unfortunate encounter with

 

racism was dehumanization through superficial means. Of course, skin color is always the initial target for attack, but it clearly doesn’t stop there. The discrimination inevitably spreads to attacks or assumptions about my culture, socioeconomic status, and even morality. As if a cursory look at a person can adequately determine all of these complex concepts of their existence. I am not ignorant of stereotypes. I know clichés exist for a reason. But what I also know through experience and education is that these are severely biased and impotent measurements of a person’s true identity.

To me, the real struggle lies in the human desire to make reality conform to our expectations. But one of the most meaningful aspects of the human race is our diversity. I don’t say that in the corny, ambiguous, and oftentimes shallow way that word can get thrown around these days. You can’t force diversity, or deny it. It simply exists, no matter how many people try to fight it or prevent it. There are billions of people on this incredible planet, each experiencing life in a way completely unique to their genetic code. While we all share in the basic human condition, there are millions of different ways we express our lives. Through music, language, art, food, fashion, architecture, mannerisms, etc.

So to me, Black History Month is a vital and completely necessary celebration of diversity. It is an acknowledgement of the hardships forced on black citizens, both past and present. It is a consideration and commemoration of the greatest black achievements. And most importantly, it is the intentional embracing of a vibrant, significant, and integral community and culture in our country and around the world. Honestly, I think everyone would benefit from truly respecting and engaging with another community and culture. I think we grow stronger as a species when we honor our differences and bond over our similarities.

Because we really are all in this together, for better or for worse. We are brothers and sisters from the same land. And just as I learned from my own immediate sister and family, our unity and love is so much more powerful than our fear of the dissimilar.

Guest Writer Contributions are direct-published opinion pieces. They are not always edited and reflect the views only of the author.