What Do We Call Ourselves?
In 1970, along with hundreds and thousands others I was born into a mixed race family. Despite my parents efforts to give me a liberal upbringing and raise me to believe there was no difference between black or white, or the numerous shades in between, and despite the fact that in the 1990 Census report, 6.8 million Americas stated that they considered themselves multi-racial, and that only ten years ago there were 1.1million interracial couples living in the United States, did experience prejudice, often from the most unexpected quarters.
The first memory I have of being aware of my racial heritage was thinking that white equalled prettier. I remember feeling jealous of my sisters hair as my mother (who had very wispy, delicate tresses herself) exasperatedly yanked and pulled my tight "naps". After a while, I started blow-drying, curling and relaxing my hair myself: anything to make my hair look straight. In the back of my mind was the assumption that the whiter I got, the prettier.
Heres a bit of terminology for you, direct from Virginia. A mulatto was half-white, half-black. A cascos was the child of two mulattos. A quadroon was half white and half mulatto. On the other hand, a griffe or sambo was half black and half mulatto. A sacatra or mango was half griffe and half black. A marabon was half mulatto and half griffe. A metif or mustifee was half white and half quadroon. A meamelouc was half white and half metif. A quarteron was half white and half meamelouc. A sang-mele was half white and half quarteron.
Confused? I was. No wonder I felt inferior to my pure white classmates. "Whiter is smarter" was another notion. Growing up most of my friends were white (for no other reason than there werent very many black or mixed race people in the area where I lived). At the private grammar school I attended there were three other children in my grade who were of mixed race. The only time I ever came into contact with black people was in the poorer sections of town. Having studied for his PhD, my father worked in a Black university, but his black colleagues hardly ever visited our house and I rarely was taken to his place of work. The division became more noticeable when I started public school- the black children played separately from the white children. A lot of the black kids were in remedial English, remedial math, staying after for remedial detention.
They got bussed, every morning and afternoon, from "Silver Spring". My mothers impression of Silver Spring was that everyone who lived there was taking drugs and on welfare. I heard her tell one of her friends once that people got shot there. So me, as neither black nor white, was uneasily accepted amongst the white kids. They rationalised it by saying I wasnt really black, just sun-tanned. They called me Oreo, two-tone, half-breed, mutt, zebra, sometimes with disgust, sometimes with amusement. My father was a "sell-out". My mother was a "wanna-be". The black girls sometimes despised me because most black boys wanted a light skinned girl on their arm.
They didnt want the stereotypes that I put up with, jeering at my attempts to be one of the girls but they also straightened and dyed their hair and put light coloured contacts in their eyes. The solution I discovered was to surround myself with biracial kids, so this is what I did and what eventually made me most comfortable in my own skin. After dating both black and white boys, and even though mixed race couples were becoming more fashionable in the 1980s, I fell in love with some one the same as me.
Now with a daughter of my own, I am part of the bridge generation. My childs skin is lighter than mine is; her racial heritage is even more ambiguous than mine ever was. What I hope for her is that will wear her mixed heritage proudly on her sleeve. In her grammar school class alone, she is one of seven kids that are interracial, one of four that are specifically black and white biracial. She asks me what the big deal is about black and white. I honestly cannot tell her, and so I point back to the strife and heartache of the 60s, the slavery of the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, the incredibly brainless people who still ask me if I am her nanny rather than her mom. And as she loses interest, I look to the future. I dont see a colour-blind society or a monotone tan earth, but at least a promise of indifference: the world losing interest in the race card once and for all.