The rest of the month, I called my closest friends and told them about my discovery. This task was challenging. I didn’t have to do it, but I felt as if I owed to them. What was it that I owed them? I’m not sure. But telling them about my “new identity” felt like something needed to do. Most of the calls started with, “Hey, Girl! You got a good minute? I have something unbelievably unreal about me that I want to share.” or “Heeeeey! You busy? Want to hear something insane I found out about myself?” I must have called over 20 close friends, and each friend spoke with, either gasped or thought I was joking. They all knew my family really well, and we’re just as shocked as I was with the news.
Some of my friends offered comfort in any way possible, and most of them took me out for drinks—I needed it. However, the most gripping part about a few of my conversations with my friends was my ethnic/racial background. Before I could finish my story, some friends asked if I was half white. Wait, what?, I said to myself. When I confirmed their answer with a “Yes.”, they’d follow up with, “uh-huh,” like my skin color was something they’d always questioned themselves. I was a bit shocked, and my mind imagined them back in time at their dinner tables with their family and envisioned their conversation like this:
“Mom and Dad? Why does Janeen look like a white girl? Both of her parents and her brothers are black—you know, she says shes black/black.”
“Baby, we don’t question God. Let’s just leave it alone.”
Even more fascinating, most of my male friends’ responses to my story ended in a joke, which always felt like a swift kick to my stomach and ribs.
“Whatever, Neen. You’re still Black!” they’d laugh.
“What? I know I’m Black!” I’d quipped back.
I was and still am!, I’d think to myself. HOWEVER, their responses exposed the poison of colorism I’ve dealt with as early as I could remember. Their responses reopened Pandora’s box, distressing memories about my struggle with my skin complextion.
>>Pause. I’m going to share a few of my life experiences about skin tone with you.
Elementary school, 5th grade: This experience happened during lunch and recess. A group of girls played tag, and I asked to join in.
Hey Theresa*! Can I be on your team?
Janeen, if you want to play, you’ll have to be on the other team. We’re playing the Black girls against the white girls!”, everyone laughed.
Theresa! You know I’m not white! You know my family!
I know Janeen. But you’re like a Black/white girl. I’m mean you’re definitely Black on the inside, but you’re white on the outside.
Reluctantly, Theresa let me on her team. It felt great to be on the “Black” team. However, I also felt the need to prove my Blackness by running fast like the other Black girls and “giving attitude” to white girls when they tagged me.
Middle school, 8th grade: I was waiting on the bleachers in the school gym for the school bus to take me home. Slowly, I’d inch my way over to the Black kid’s section—they were so cool! However, once they realized I wanted to hang with them, I was forced to answer their Black Music Trivia questions to enter their crew. I remember specifically one question. “Name some Black musicians.” One would think that that would be an easy question to answer, but it wasn’t. This question came with rules. I wasn’t allowed to answer, Michael Jackson, Stevie wonder, New Edition, Prince and other famous Black artists. I was required to name rappers (I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap). After thinking for a moment, I remembered the song “Push It!” by Salt-N-Pepa that I had heard on the radio, and so with a lot of pride, I blurted out “Salt-N-Pep!” The “Black crew” laughed so hard. They said that the only reason I knew Salt-N-Pepa was because I looked like salt. Sadly, at that moment, I knew I could never “win.”
High School: I wasn’t allowed to date outside of my race. My parents told me it was because they didn’t work hard to make me an amazing, beautiful Black girl only to be taken away by white people.
“White people always take the best of what we (Black people) have. We’ll be damned if they take you too!”
And that was that. This meant that my white boy crushes stayed only in my head. Unfortunately, most of the black guys I had crushed on in school weren’t interested in me. They’d say, “I wasn’t Black enough.” However, in my Junior year, I did manage to catch the eyes of a cute Black boy from a neighboring school. We became the unicorn couple. He was a 6’1, red-headed, “red-bone,” and I was a 5’8, 88lb “high-yellow” chick. We were a quirky looking couple, but my sweetheart saw me for who I was, and I saw him.
College: I was accepted to an HBCU, Norfolk State University (NSU)! I was overjoyed and bragged about it to a lot of the Black kids in high school. I couldn’t wait to escape the burden of proving my Blackness!
Once I stepped foot on NSU’s Green and Gold campus, I knew I had arrived. Colorful waves of all sorts of Black students were everywhere—Ebony to
Alabaster, sista’s with “ba-dinks-a-dinks” and “ba-dunks-a-dunks,” brothas and sistas from the North, South, East and West coast, and from the Islands! And seeing Black men and women proudly displaying natural hair and colorful weaves, high top fades, and dreadlocks was a magical moment for me. NSU invited me to be me unapologetically, until 1993, when I became Miss Norfolk State University. You see, I didn’t win—I was 1st runner up. The winner had become pregnant and had to, sadly, relinquish her crown. This was because the Miss NSU pageant is part of the Miss America Organization and its rules. Anyway, the day I received my crown was bittersweet first because I was friends with the original winner, and I felt like I was taking something away from her. Second, later that week, people began ridiculing me on campus and on the radio.
Radio announcer: “Tell me caller. What do you think about Norfolk State’s decision to make Miss NSU step down and give up her crown because she’s pregnant?”
Caller: “I don’t think it’s fair. I think it is a scam and that they (NSU) just wanted to pick someone who looks white. I mean, is this new Miss NSU even black?”
I turn the radio off immediately. “I AM Black!” I screamed in my car. That same day, my roommate told me her class spent the time talking about the Miss NSU scandal and whether I was really Black. She was exhausted defending my Blackness too.
I could give you hundreds of stories about the questions and comments I’ve received about my skin color and ethnic background. I think I’ve heard it all (at least I hope so)—everything from people being surprised that my husband married a white woman and then realizing I am black, people assuming that I was my children’s Nanny. One time, an African woman admired me for supporting and dancing with my Black children in a community African dance class.
“Janeen, I think it’s wonderful that you are supporting your kids in dance class! I mean, a white woman surrounding herself around so many Black people and expressing herself through African dance for her Black kids is amazing.”
It took every ounce of goodness I had in me not to knock this ignorant heffa’ in her face. Yet the 2 insults that disappointed me (not hurt) the most was in 2017. A woman I was volunteering with at my children’s school said that I couldn’t be all Black because I was too beautiful and because my nose was too tiny. The other insult came from a colleague. She said that she refuses to recognize me as a Black woman, despite what I think I am. (See why ethnic studies should be implemented in the educational system?)<<
So, when some of my close friends exclaimed that I was still Black, I felt a stab in my soul. I never claimed to be anything but Black. It was and is this world and people who tried to fit me into their human color palette. Note: It’s exhausting, nothing to joke about, and must stop.
So, discovering that my birth father was white was shocking. I’ve spent 46 years of wasted energy explaining my Blackness and proving that I wasn’t “mixed” only to find out that I AM bi-racial. What a hot confusing mess. I often wonder that if I had used that energy to focus on myself towards being a better person instead of defending my person, where and who would I be? One thing that I do know for sure is that I AM and will forever be Black enough.
*Name have been changed to protect identity.
Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people who are usually members of the same race are treated differently based on the social implications which come with the cultural meanings which are attached to skin color.
What are your feelings or experience about colorism?
Where do you think colorism started?