In the past few years, it seems like topic of race has gotten to a boiling point many times. Particularly, it seems, as it relates to the American Justice System. When Trayvon Martin was gunned down in February of 2012, I sat in horror as his killer walked free under the baffling and absurd “stand your ground” law in Florida. While this case seemed outrageous to me, what seemed more troubling was how public opinion on this case seemed to split down racial lines. In many cases, all reason flew out the window as people tried to justify George Zimmerman’s actions by agreeing that a black man wearing a hooded sweatshirt was “intimidating”.
Now, we fast forward a little over two years and another young black man is gunned down – Michael Brown. This time, however, it wasn’t a hot headed neighborhood watch (police officer wannabe), it was an actual police officer. This time, however, the case never even made it to trial, witnesses were never cross examined, and violent protests broke out all across the country as a result. Similar to the Martin case, though, I see logic fly out the window as people join opinion camps based largely on their racial affiliation.
These tragic cases force us to face painful realities about our country. While we can all wear the badge of honor of having a black President, we must also come to terms with the fact that we have yet to reach the Utopia of racial equality that some of our countrymen like to claim we have. For those of you who don’t know, I am multi-racial. From a young age, however, I realized that it didn’t matter as much what I defined myself as because America had my label picked out before I was born. Any bi-racial people in America (who is at all black) would likely agree that the “one drop rule” still exists. Without getting into the history of the one drop rule, let me just give you this example:
Say a police officer pulls over a car full of people. In that car, there are a few black people, a white person, and a bi-racial people. If the officer says, “All the black folks need to get out of the car”…the bi-racial person will be getting out of the car. I would say nine times out of ten, no matter how pale that bi-racial person is, he/she will get out.
So, at this point you might be wondering why I am boring you with these strange distinctions about race. I say this to offer my perspective, as a multi-racial American on all the race drama that has occurred over the past few years. When these news events arise, it is never simple for us. We never get to just jump on a race side, and we are always reminded of both how we define ourselves and how society defines us.
My White Side: While I largely identify myself as a black woman (see “one drop rule” above), I am often intrigued by how the Martin and Brown cases both raised the issue of white privilege. It seemed as though so many white Americans didn’t want to see these cases as unjust because deep down this would force them to face white privilege. In my eyes, white privilege doesn’t mean that white people don’t have to work hard, or that they don’t earn what they have in society. What it means, to me, is that white people don’t have to overcome some of the simple obstacles that black people do. For example, a white teenager walking in the dark, in an affluent Florida neighborhood, would likely be given the benefit of the doubt. He wouldn’t be perceived as a thug simply because of the color of his skin. This is a basic example of white privilege. Does this mean that teen didn’t earn the good grades he got in school? No. It just means that he was given the privilege of not being hunted down the way Martin was in February 2012.
Now, I am not going to stand here on my bi-racial pedestal and not turn the mirror on myself. To be blunt – I have benefited from white privilege, and I am not ashamed to admit that. Some people might think I am insane saying this, as often times it is fairly obvious that I am not white. Even when I am not passing, I am not naive to the fact that I have had advantages in life because my skin is light and my eyes are blue. While nobody has come up to me and told me that I have gotten something based on this, it becomes fairly evident when I am in a crowd of people at work who don’t bat an eye when making a racist or homophobic joke in front of me. I have even had some of my own friends say things like, “well, you aren’t like actually black.” For the record, my response to this is, “Um…but actually I am.” I then usually stare at them awkwardly in hopes that they will overcome some of this ignorance on their own so that I don’t have to continue to educate after such a ridiculous encounter.
My Black Side: Growing up, I remember being aware of my brown skin from a fairly early age. I grew up in a majority white community where I often felt like the black kid in the bunch. That said, it wasn’t until I became an adult and experienced some of the worst racial discrimination that our nation has to offer when I truly saw the one drop rule play out first hand. On October 12, 2011 I sat in front of a Prince William County Virginia Police Officer as he accused me of a crime I didn’t commit. As he wrote up the paperwork in front of me and my attorney, I saw him stamp me with the “black” label right before my eyes. He didn’t ask me which box he should check, he just picked one. While I will never be able to prove that his judgement of me was racially charged, I will never forget how my ex (who was paler than me) would claim to be white when he convinced the officer to charge me. I will also never forget about the day that same police department brought in a black officer (two years later), while they admitted to just a few of the terribly unjust things they did to me and my family. I guess the random black officer was to show us that what they had done wasn’t racially motivated.
Passing: The topic of passing is a tricky one. I bring it up to explain how it feels to be “in between”. As a bi-racial woman, I often feel as though I don’t really belong in any category. While most of the time I think its obvious that I am bi-racial, I still often find myself in situations where I almost feel as though I have to announce myself so that people don’t put me in weird uncomfortable situations by forgetting that a minority is present. Other situations that people might not think about are those times when someone finds out your aren’t white (or maybe that you aren’t black) when you thought it was obvious. For example, the picture I used for this post was one that I put in my online dating profile when I was in my early 20’s. On one date, I actually had a man tell me he was disappointed because he didn’t realize that I was black from my picture. Just the other day, I had a friend tell me that this particular picture looked like I had bleached my skin.
As a bi-racial person, I often wonder if I have to have the race conversation more than most. I can imagine that sometimes it is similar to someone who is Gay who would rather just announce it and get it out of the way, rather than find out later that the person they just met is homophobic.
As a parent, the boiling point on these race issues scare me. I wonder what it will be like when my daughter is my age. I know that by that time, there will likely be more people who feel pulled in many different directions when these situations occur. Regardless of how she identifies, or how society identifies her, I pray that she will stand on the side of justice. And for everyone reading this, no matter what racial category you fall into, I hope that you will think of how you can be a part of the change for the better. I hope you will face your own demons on these issues. We all owe it to our children to make sure that this conversation is evolved by the time they are grown enough to be having it for themselves.