Reflections of a Biracial Sellout.
I look into the eyes of my friend whose crisp gaze synthesizes many ways of knowing- beyond the limits of the physical world, reading into me soul-to-soul. Does she know that this is a power she carries? This woman seated within herself, sharpness coupled with deep gentleness and a voice softly spoken. She tells me that she struggles with feelings of being a sellout.
A sellout? I tilt my head to look at my magnificent friend. The idea is so out of alignment that I don’t think it could have occurred to me. If I hold my head this way, will some previously unknown aspects of her appear? This intelligent, thoughtful, human, committed, knowing woman thinks of herself, in part, as a sellout? Perhaps I would have understood better if she had declared herself to be made of marbles.
But I can certainly relate. How many have held the same experience?
I find myself doing an internal tally in my head. How many friends and acquaintances of color do I have? What is the proportion/ratio of them to the number of white friends and acquaintances? What does it mean to be seeing someone white romantically, especially when I said and thought I never would- and never did before 2011 (with the exception of one date)?
And sometimes I look across the table at my white friends, and I cannot fathom them. Even now, one of my closest friends in the world looks far away to me. We touch, we hug, we look each other in the eye, but I cannot tell where our connection is. She is so far. And this seems true, to one degree or another, varying with time, of all of my white friends. Who are these people? Half of me? And I sit there, looking at them, as though they are theoretical humans. As though this is a theoretical circumstance. As though race is not some profoundly inhibiting factor, both externally and internally. As though I do not feel them to be some indication of my lack of legitimacy. All of it feeling very theoretical indeed. And I miss them.
My friends of color, much beloved, are typically about as consistent as leaves blowing across the earth at the whim of the wind. I can share with many of them in deep ways, and then we fall apart and hope to come back together somewhere along the line, hope that we have not been lost to one another in the meantime. Lost to one another the way I have lost a beloved friend of mine who was also a mentor. Or lost to me through battle. For, I have only ever battled with other women of color. Friendships with men of color have fallen off with intentionality, and friendships with white people have slipped occasionally into oblivion and murkiness. But we do not fight. I fight only with women of color.
What does it mean to be half white? Half white in a context where Black incorporates the imprint of enslavement, rape, and racial mixture making me, undoubtedly, more than half white. What does it mean to have a white mother?
My mother is offended by a form that does not include “multiracial” as an option, and I find that I prefer it that way. I say so. “Don’t forget to claim your white side,” she says jokingly, which I know means “don’t forget to claim me.” She is not joking- the only time she ever hit me as an adult was over something like this- not claiming whiteness, not claiming her. I mark “Black” on any form that asks, and claim the white part of me only to acknowledge the privilege that comes with being light skinned. The privilege that comes with half of me being connected to a middle class white family that is far better resourced than the average middle class Black family. Half a family whose status was raised up by institutionalized racism while the other half was ground under by it.
No white person has ever claimed me as their own. No one has ever mistaken me for white. And I have never lived the life of a white woman. And how much do I repeat this refrain to myself as some sort of hierarchy of not passing, the status of which is inverted in the external world?
I look at my skin and contemplate the yellowness of it. Not the reddish that so often comes with deep shades of brown. Yellow.
What does it mean to have a white family? To be able to relate, on some level, even if it’s like looking through a window, to rural white farmers in the Midwest? To whites in small towns? What does it mean to be in this skin, and have more regular contact with and connection to my white relatives than to my Black? To apparently be more loved and thought about by the white side, with all of the messiness and racism that comes with it?
Does my blood inhibit my access to ancestors? What would my ancestors think? I think of my white ancestors and the stories I know of them. I can only believe that they would have been disgusted by me. Do I have them to call to? I am no anomaly in the history of my Black side. I do not think they would have any difficulties claiming me. But does my white blood make me less able to hear their call, make me less connected to them? Am I a child without place and a partial set of ancestors? Or do the dead do better than the living?
I can still feel humiliation and rage wash over me when I think of a Western States Center trans and people of color caucus retreat that I attended years ago. As deeply as I value the Western States Center’s work, my flushed excitement over the prospect of multiracial caucusing had long since converted into dread and shame. Prior caucus experiences had resulted in group-felt internalized oppression waylaying the facilitator and hijacking any potential, all of the drama playing out in some back corner we were relegated to. On that occasion, I was explicitly denied entrance into any other group of color (though the door in the other direction remained open), and assigned to the multiracial group. I watched the other people of color file off to meet with their (sort of) specifically categorized caucus groups of Native, Asian, Latino, and Black. Felt like an eye crust someone had wiped onto their sleeve. We, the multiracials, experiences as vast as any generalized group of people of color, tossed together as though we fit, and asked to come up with some skit about how multiracial people respond to… some ridiculous and wholly inapplicable scenario. Since we are all apparently the same kind of sickeningly unnatural- even the people without white parents. The message I so clearly felt was that we were the sellouts and near-sellouts by birth. The too-difficult-to-think-about group included in the retreat by grace and tolerance.
I still do not know what of this is mine, and what is theirs. But I have had too many run-ins with this mindset- internalized within myself or others. Too many run-ins with self proclaimed real McCoys.
My friend who berates her partner for being part white- as though she is not part white herself in a post-colonial world. She takes every opportunity to remind him of his excessive whiteness. How he is not quite legitimate. Perhaps she delights in the dejection that writes itself across his face. Delights in refusing to claim his biracial mother. No wonder it provokes my ire. And what is it in her that leads her to revel in this? What pain on the other side of this equation?
What does it mean the tension that too often arises between me and other Black women? Like a spring between us, pushing us away from one another, and fastening us together.
The Black woman sitting next to me. After only a few words spoken, lines somehow drawn between us. Adversaries. I facilitated, she regularly refused to look at me. Energetic push-pull, still bound by the same racial identity and wordless conclusions that push us apart. Elastic.
I am from a family of Black Jews who are unclaimed by white Jews, white Jews who are typically the only ones recognized as “real Jews”. Black Jews who do not fit with Black Christians. Black Jews who have cast me out through resounding silence and disconnection.
I do not want to be separated from Black people. And I do not want to belong to white people. And I feel lost in the torrents of understanding neither. And who else’s communities would I understand? Hierarchies, jokes, living. I am lost. Exiled to the island of people who do not fit.
I am most comfortable with those who identify strongly as people of color, and understand that designation to be cross-racial. Understand it means claiming one another in solidarity in the ways we know how.
The Latina woman I am in circle with identifies strongly as a woman of color. At first there is an opportunity for connection. An opportunity for place. And then, there is none. We battle over class differences.
She cannot shirk me off over skin color- according to the rules of skin color hierarchy, only Black people can do that to me. And she is mixed indigenous and white. Class differences are the shirking off point. Because being born into middle classness makes people of color greater enemies to their people than white folks. Poor white folks have more place with people of color. She tells me this. Our energies stretch out across the room to strangle one anther and attack with barbs of ice.
Indeed. My classifications must fit in a square of two inches by two inches to qualify. I should live from there or repent for my existence.
Are there people in the world who fit? Is there a price for fitting? The magical classification of not being queer, not being trans, not being female, not being poor, not being disabled, not being…
Blood is hot in my veins, viciousness runs through me. It takes me half an hour to calm down. This woman of color who will not claim me. I try to keep myself enraged by the disconnection rather than feeling the dejection of it. Feeling the despair of it. The despair of feeling disowned and unworthy. Lamenting. Like a child rebuffed. Loyalty and battle, all in the same run.
Perhaps my binding to people of color exists only in my mind, I concede.
Must I carry this forward? When do I stop feeling badly about myself? When do I accept myself in my own skin, my own herstory?
After all, how can I live small enough to pay for my selloutness? For being all of the ways that I am not supposed to be? Not being all of the things I am supposed to be? For disappointing people? For their accusations? How can I despise myself, belittle myself, enough to make it right? To perhaps earn their notice and their absolution? To be forgiven?
How long must I wait to appease these strings that the people in my life no longer hold? The strings that, instead, I have become the puppeteer of. The strings that come from the beliefs I have incorporated into myself. Drawing lines of blood away from my body, depositing them into the graveyard of self-hatred and inadequacy.
And I am in such amazingly good and vast company.
When do I forgive myself? For my body supposedly being a sellout. For the flaws that others have identified to my very soul, even people I have considered to be beloved and chosen family. People who have looked at me to sneer and step back.
My heart sinks. For is this hatred the only way for me to connect to them? Does it provide me with the absolution I seek, so long as I pay this cost? Is this the only point of connection? If I release it, if I release myself, will I float away into a cloud of dust? A puff of smoke? Will I be undone and unbound? Suddenly losing the ability to (someday) see just how profoundly I am lacking- in the full proportion and measure that they identify with me. Will the chance to correct this flaw I cannot yet grasp then be gone forever?
I imagine living without being humiliated by/of myself. To feel like I have a place. To not have to perpetually earn some kind of credit. To allow this internalized oppression to melt off of me. To exist. Not as a monster.
***Stop to breathe.*** I do not know what it means to be a sellout.
You have a power for which I do not have words for….
You are a healer.
Ruchi, that is a phenomenal compliment. Thank you. It was beautiful to see you the other day. Thank you for your inspiration.
Wow. Really powerful, Dara. I identify with so much of what you’re saying. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Stephanie. Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about it soon, ay?
Powerful. Twisting and vibrating. “this is her home/this thin edge of barbed wire” – Gloria Anzaldua
Thanks for reading this, lady. Gloria Anzaldua actually popped in and out of my mind some as I was writing this piece. Much love to you.
This is very well written and conveys a powerful message. I love you daughter. I cannot speak to being biracial since I am not, but I can speak to being in a “mixed” relationship for many, many years, having a mixed daughter, and the societal challenges these present. I would change nothing about my experiences with you and mixed relationships because I have a daughter of which I am very proud and that I love from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.
Thank you mom! I love you deeply. xoxo
just stumbled across this while looking for the passage including the anzaldua quote someone left in a comment above. (that line stuck with me since i read borderlands long ago and i have it tattooed on my leg.) in any case, i so appreciate what you shared here and so much of it resonates with my experience. kudos to you for sharing so honestly and vulnerably.
Thank you very much, Dana. I’m glad that it resonated with your experience.