A haughty woman glared at me across the aisle of a Fifth Avenue bus. Unable to decipher me, she asked the man accompanying her, “Is that a black woman or a white woman?” Her accent indicated she was likely a white African perhaps still bleating for apartheid. We Americans consistently try to infuse this manner of superiority into our societies, but, mercifully, the absurdity of it eventually washes over us. We upbraid or laugh at ourselves, and, often right at the brink of ruin, we slouch again toward democracy. To answer the woman’s question, I am both. Yet, even in my beloved America, many people cannot accept this. We are a deeply segregated people and we cherish our socially constructed racial sides. In fact, many still raise their children to cling to these sides as the very essence of life.
I have often wished there was a mechanism in our capitalistic structure for me to collect money every time I am asked to declare what side of the racial divide I am on. There would be a sliding scale and folks like the woman on the bus would pay at least a hundred dollars plus tax. This would help defray the cost of freely answering uneducated or poor people who fecklessly struggle to maintain the game of racism.
Recently, I told a highly successful and charming professor that I am writing about my life experiences growing up as the child of a black man and a white woman. He asked if I consider myself black or white. I told him my life’s work is to declare my right to be both, and to help young people who are confronted today with contaminated questions of identity to find a path to sanity. He was surprised. His life experience clearly prevented him from encompassing the idea of a mixed race person. I was born in 1954. All my life I have witnessed the slop of racism oozing from the minds of people who represent every side and divisive category invented by humans. If only I could charge the professor and his ilk a thousand dollars each for their questions about my racial identity, I would be doing crossword puzzles in a Hawaiian condo instead of trying to write a book.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.