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On Being Black

When I was in college and went down to the admissions office to pick up my schedule and discuss an issue on some forms I received, I was met with serious derision. My classes were the ones I chose and I liked them all. The first semester of college was actually fun for me because I took a jazz dance class along with biology, economics, and a history class that introduced me to the writings of Chinua Achebe. After taking these courses I was going to be nicely rounded out as a person, thank you very much. The forms had few race categories from which to choose and I was in a tragic mulatto phase at the time where I desperately wanted one of those boxes we checked to include a "mixed race" category. I wasn't trying to push buttons, though I have, admittedly, a rather defiant personality. The lady at the front desk wasn't sure how to respond to my request so she said this to me.

"There is no 'mixed race' category. You'll just have to choose one or the other."

That didn't sit well with me and I was a 19-year old college student who also happened to be a mother. I had dragged my little 3-year old daughter all the way to that admissions office and it left me deflated. Every time our class schedules were printed out, race was written plain to see underneath my name. It wasn't my identifying with race so much as it was my college's way of pointing it out to me.

After my third visit to that office that woman at the front desk rolled her eyes when she saw me coming. Not again, I could almost hear them say. She was exasperated with me and explained that it's the computer that doesn't allow that a 'mixed race' code and that it wasn't her fault.

"Aren't you smarter than the computer? Don't you people program that to determine what categories there are?" I asked.

She was never amused with my requests so I asked her if I could please change my race and she said that students were allowed to do that at any time. So, after my first semester of college I put down that I was Asian. I became Hispanic and Native American during my sophomore year, White during the first part of my junior year and Black during the last semester of that same year. When she saw me coming she would roll her eyes again and say, "What race are you THIS time?" and I would smile sweetly and ask to see what my options were. Even though there is no Spanish in my bloodline I liked to fall back on that one as I rotated through them all because I had grown up in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago and attended a bi-lingual school for a while. When I hung out with Hispanics I felt like I could blend in with them so long as I understood what they were saying in Spanish about me. My older sister looked far more latina with her olive skin and brown hair and dark brown eyes, but, for the most part, they accepted me. Trust me when I say that I also had to learn quickly what puta negra meant as well as a string of pejorative Spanish words that denoted my mixed heritage.

If I wanted to go all the way back in my bloodline I suppose I could have chosen something to reflect all the German, Irish, African and Creole I knew about. What I hadn't known at that time was that, if our family had dug a bit further, I would have known that I also came from a history of family members born in Belgium as well as the very tiny place of Reding, Luxembourg. Had I known that, any derisive reference to my genetic makeup, but then my knowledge of ethnophaulisms would have been far more extensive as well. But I think I've heard enough ignorant ethnic slurs in my lifetime that I don't need to go looking for more.

As much fun as it was messing with the admissions office of my university in the early 90's, I would have to say that my being, my person and my preference is just to simply say that I am black. Perhaps I have tired of the explanations or the corrections I make when people ask me what I am.

"Are you Hawaiian?"

"Who's the Black one in your family? Your mom or dad?"

"That's black hair you got, girl. But not Black Black. Just sorta Black."

The one I hear most often is simply "Are you mixed?" to which I reply "Yes, part Doberman Pinscher and part poodle."

I do that just to mess with people because, unless you know me very well, you have no right to act so familiar with me that you question my background. It's just rude. It always has been.

When I was hired by the first school district at the Career Fair at my college I was "Black" at the time. Not that they saw my course schedule card and knew that. I had taken my transcripts and my resume (which was on a floppy disk at the time. Floppy disk, y'all!) with me to interview with two gentlemen from the Human Resources department of the district for which I still work. One of the things I got to show off during the interview was my Spanish because the possibility of teaching that seemed like an option even though I wanted to be an English Literature teacher.

By the time I packed up my little family (by this time, my daughter was 8 and I had a baby boy as well) and headed to my new job I was entirely too excited about finding an apartment and getting my children enrolled in school and day care and finding my classroom and reading my teacher's manuals and getting my curriculum mastered before the first day in my own classroom. The English department chair called me over that summer to set up a time to meet and I went to the high school on a hot day with my shiny, new college degree and a bucketful of teacher dreams.

A few people were milling around the main office and I didn't know what she looked like, so I searched for a person that was, well, searching for a person. There's a look people give off when they're waiting to meet someone they've never met before. She walked by me a few times and I worked up the nerve to stop her.

"Excuse me. Are you Mrs. Neece? I'm supposed to meet with a Mrs. Neece about my teaching assignment."

She looked stunned and said, "You're Kelly? The new English teacher? That's you?"

We shook hands and she led me to her classroom. We quickly chatted about novels I would teach and what courses I would have to learn all the curriculum to and where all my rooms would be since I would be a traveling teacher that year and wouldn't have my own classroom. (Curses! All those posters and classroom decorations and desk formations I planned! Wasted!)

It took me three months into the school year to work up the nerve to talk to her about her incredulity at our first introduction. She was more than honest with me and said that she hadn't thought I was the teacher she was looking for because she was simply told this: you're getting a new Black teacher. What she didn't say, and what I guessed all along, was that I was filling some quota and that when she saw me I just looked like an ambiguously ethnic person so she didn't recognize me as "Black" right away.

There are only two ways I've experienced my race.

Not Black.

Black Enough.

Either way, it seems that I get to be assigned a category that either makes other people feel comfortable or one where they can trot me out and show off as a college educated Negro. When I got divorced last year we had to hire a CPA to determine how much of my pension that my ex-husband was going to get from me. (Don't even get me started on how a man can fix his face to ask me for such a thing because I am still embarrassed that any working, White-privileged male would see this as an option.) When I read the paperwork it described me as a "Negroid female" and my attorney said that my case would be difficult to defend in court. Historically speaking, most court cases in which the husband was suing the wife for child support and pension funds were done with White couples. They hadn't seen many cases where the Negroid wife made more money than the Caucasian husband.

Imagine that. Black enough when it comes to finances. Whatever would a Black woman be doing daring to be ambitious and making more money than a White man?

But I'm done with apologizing for that or for anything that comes of being Black. Because, let's face it. In this country at this time, I am Black and it's not for you and it's not for my ability to get a job nor is it a declination of my White heritage. Every job I have gotten after that first one wasn't because I was Black. It was because I was good. That was all I ever wanted in the first place. Maybe the people who hired me to teach or to be an educational consultant saw me as an ethnic educator, but I got the job for the entirety of my being and all the experiences it encompassed.

If you asked my father why I have what I have and why I do what I do, he would never envision that my work relied on my race. And he knows that I took my current position as an assistant principal because I recognized that in a school with a high percentage of students of color there was no administrators of color. We talked at length about why I was changing jobs and how strongly I felt about students seeing someone that looked like them in a position of authority. Black enough. He is a proud man who gushes every time he talks about my college degrees. Degrees. Plural. I'm the first generation college student in my family and my White mother is equally as proud of that fact. No category on an admissions form will tell you that. It's not something you can tick off in a box. That you will just have to experience when you meet me and get to know every part of me.

I'm Black enough. But I won't be Black just for you.
"If you know your history, then you would know where you're coming from. Then you wouldn't have to ask me who the hell do I think I am."  Bob Marley, "Buffalo Soldier"
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Reader Comments (55)

"I do that just to mess with people because, unless you know me very well, you have no right to act so familiar with me that you question my background. It’s just rude. It always has been."

I've had to deal with that all my life chicky. And knowing so many of us do have that same question asked over and over makes me sigh. It's getting old. Hope one day we can stop having to explain our breed. (Personally, I'm partial to saying "part Collie and part Labradoodle." lol)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter24 7 Victoria

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by susanmernit, mochamomma. mochamomma said: It was in me, brewing. Just waiting to be written. "On Being Black", new post. [...]

You just made me consider that while there is plenty of diversity at my son's school in the student body, there's just about none in the teaching staff or administration.

My husband's experience of race is exactly opposite of yours. Black, and Not Black Enough. I wonder what my little one's will be. I am hoping that it will be a big nonissue, but I'm not naive, either.

When we went to his kindergarten orientation last August, there was a little girl there clinging to her mom's leg. Total opposite of my social butterfly who doesn't know a stranger. Her mom annoyed the crap out of me by making a point of stage-whispering to me, about her daughter, "She's mixed, too!". Um, lady, I can see that your daughter and my son look like they could be siblings, but what does this have to do with anything right now? Nothing except that it's the parents making it "something". I felt bad for the little girl, hoping her mother doesn't go around making her mixed race this big deal, like that's the "thing" about her.

Thanks for sharing this post, Kelly.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn (@kat1124)

Thank you again Kelly for your honesty. As you know, I am a white parent to two black kids (from Ethiopia). I struggle with this idea of black enough for them. I worry how being raised by two white parents might affect how they are seen and treated by others--of all races.

I get asked when I'm out alone with them if they are mixed or if they are mine. I have been told they aren't mine when I say they are. People are certainly rude.

Recently my daughter said she wanted to be a grown up and I asked her why and she said because grown-ups are white and I want to be white. It hit me in the gut and heart like a dagger. I work hard to expose them to black women and men who could be role models for possibility and adulthood. My city is hopelessly segregated and our world is very white.

Thank you for re-enforcing that race is important but is not the only important factor. I hope my daughter grows up to be just like you.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Dalai Mama

The best part of comments sometimes are the stories you, yes YOU, bring to it. Kathryn, I'm so glad my parents never made me see other mixed girls as my only option for friends, but I can see why the mother is trying to find commonality. That's a mixed bag of emotions for me. (Huzzah! Mixed bag!)

And Dalai Mama? You never cease to amaze me with your complimentary words. I would love to meet your daughter someday if only to hug and kiss her and tell her that when she grows up she will be fabulous. There's no color for that.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

Well lets see. On my father side my grandfather is White. On my Mothers side my Great Great Great Grandparents are White and Native American. Do you know what that makes me? Black... that's all there is to it. I know I have some features that make people ask "Ummm, hey... are you mixed with anything?" I tell them I am and I consider myself Black. That's what society considers me and that's what society will consider my children.My hair gets lighter in the sun and I have freckles! (Thank goodness not many on my face!)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdelami

I love that freckled face of yours, Delami.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

This is a powerful piece on race. Powerful. And the tone of it perfectly reflective of your personality, which is also an inspired blend of many things.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBOSSY

Bossy, I swear. You just say things to make me tear up.

With that said, wouldn't an "Inspired Blend" be a great name for a coffee?

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

I get so irritated with those demographic boxes that I either fill them out randomly or not at all. I always have the feeling that the question isn't being asked apropos of what I am doing at the time - going to school or the doctor or getting a job - but to be used for the benefit of someone else (in applying for grants etc) or to be used in some future context that they aren't telling me about.

What difference does it make to my eye doctor if I'm married or single or divorced?

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

Suebob, I suppose if you're single they'll give you contacts because BOYS DON'T MAKE PASSES AT GIRLS WHO WEAR GLASSES.

See what I did there? I made it all about feminism.

You're right, none of that stuff matters. But it sure helps us to put people neatly into a place where they won't go messing up our systems. That's the place that makes people feel most comfortable.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

I worry about this, all of this, with my son.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Grace

You're Beautiful.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlceel

I love this. With me, it's always been a case of Black, but not black enough. I've gotten to the point where I don't care if people don't think I'm black enough.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBriya

Funny...I have gotten these two most of my life:

“Who’s the Black one in your family? Your mom or dad?”

“That’s black hair you got, girl. But not Black Black. Just sorta Black.”

And both of my parents are black!

I'm a green-eyed black girl with a mop of curly, sandy colored hair and a fair complexion. My family is from New Orleans and many of my relatives look the way I do. It never occurred to me that I didn't look like a regular old black person until I moved to Chicago and folks felt the need to tell me.

I think it's important that mixed-raced people be able to acknowledge all the races that make them who they are. And not identify, if that's what they want.

I think it's more important, though, that people let go of their narrow views of race and ethnicity and what people are supposed to look like. If they don't, you can check whatever you want on a form and it won't matter. The narrow minded folks among us will always put you in the boxes they decide you should be in.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterV.E.G.

I don't do this often, but every now and then, I print off a blog post so that my kids can read it.

This post, today, is one of those times.

Your perspective is inspirational. Plus you are totally hot. xo

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

And I'm kinda giggling that I just posted as Redneck Mommy on a post about race.

It's the little things. Don't kick my ass. Wink.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

I agree with Suebob that all of the pigeonholing that people constantly try to do is irritating and unnecessary.

Every time I have to fill out forms describing my half-Mexican, half-White husband, I get stumped by the "Hispanic" and "White/Non-Hispanic" options. The second option seems factually wrong, but because he doesn't identify as Hispanic at all, it feels more accurate to go ahead and choose it. And why would anyone care one way or another?

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAverage Jane

"Inspired blend" a great name for coffee--or a new box to check off on a form.
Aren't we all just inspired blends of wonderful?

Next time you are in st. lou let me know--you can hug my princess and I can buy you a cup of coffee.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Dalai Mama (Dawn)

Amazing, thoughtful piece. You teach me things every damn day, Kelly.
I'm not going to fill out those boxes anymore.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Sugarpants

I'm still waiting on the day we can all just be people.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermuskrat

The comments on this post are wonderful.

Kelly, I get why she wants to find some commonality, too. I just want her to notice how our five year olds don't notice each other as a category. Maybe she does and I should give her the benefit of the doubt. I was just so put off by her making race the first thing we talked about.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn (@kat1124)

My goodness, I love you. You have always been so real and I admire that about you. Your boldness and most especially every freakin' type of blood you have in your line. You would not be who you are without it. Rock on, my sista!

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlu

My college admissions essay was on this very topic. I'm not an "other."

Nor am I: Filipino, Nepalese, Mongolian, Japanese, or, my favorite, a "China doll."

I am half-Korean and half-Italian.

No, I do not speak Korean. And neither does my mom. And neither did my grandma. She's not the immigrant. She's been here for 5 generations. My dad, on the other hand, is a fresh-off-the-boat-er-plane immigrant from Italy. I'm a first generation American on my dad's side and yes, I speak Italian. (I hate the presumption that it's the Asian that must be the non-English speaker.)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStefania

I want to believe that one day all of this will end and we will manage a balance between just being the people we are as individuals and valuing our heritage. I fear, though, it will never happen.

I find it interesting that of all the races that make up so many people it is those with a darker skin tone that garner the concern/prejudice. Ulster Scots like me? No problem, unless you have a very Waspish outlook. African/ Irish? Then the African is singled out.

Perhaps one day.

In the meantime continue being fabulous, leave the detractors cold in your wake.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPenbleth

As usual sister! Great!! Love you...

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBigSIS...

I am so, so glad that I know you and consider you a friend. I love you muchly.

I want to say something smart or profound but the words won't come. Love this, and thanks for writing it.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngella

Who in the world would ask someone about their heritage? Unless heritage was the subject that you were talking about at that time. But then I have an odd group of friends who in one happy hour may be talking about heritage, beer, steam tunnels, rail guns and mag lev trains.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy in StL

I adore you.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLara

Bwahahahahahaha! Puta negra! But anyway...

Good for you. I've felt that struggle, too. There's no hispanic/white box on any form. I can't mix and match, either. It took me a while to put an x on the hispanic/non-white box because it felt like a lie. But now I feel that if the government wants to mark me as such so they can feel good about hiring an ethnic person, then that's fine. Bring on the perks and special treatment!

Also, WTF is hispanic anyway? Someone who has roots in Spain? What if my roots are from the Incas? Where's that box?

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex J

This is a very lovely post. Also? You and your father are very lovely! (insert catcall whistle)

I've worked in educational publishing for a decade now. Mostly ESL. When we choose stories to put in textbooks, we have to make gigantic spreadsheets showing the ethnicity of the main character and the author based on set percentages. It's RIDICULOUS to try to figure it out most of the time. We do this to make the book "accessible" and something that "all" children can relate to. Once, as a young editorial assistant, I marked "unknown" on one of the authors and my boss asked me to contact the author to ask for her ethnicity. Um, no. NO NO NO. Eventually, I convinced her that was a Bad Idea. Reading this post made me remember that experience--and be very glad I didn't ask. (shakes head in memory of old boss)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlondie

I am part white and part Native American. When I first moved to the area I live in now, I was asked almost daily what my race was. We have a large hispanic population and a large japanese population. My favorite response was: "What do you think?" The answers always leaned toward my being japanese. I loved the confused look on their face when I said that they were wrong. I have been fortunate that being racially ambiguous has actually helped me out a few times when I worked with at risk elementary school kids. I have been dicriminated against on more than one occasion for being "white."

I wish people in our country would judge people on their actions and not on their skin color or sexual orientation. I am working hard to teach my daughter that ALL people are different, even two people of the same color, and that all people are beautiful.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterABCfibi

Thank you for this, Kelly! Just wanted to say that, and to say that I've used that quote from Buffalo Soldier as the signature line of my email since I was a first-year in college after a friend of mine sang it out during our multiracial group's cultural presentation at our pre-orientation program for incoming students of color. This was 1992, and the experience blew my mind. I will never stop thinking about and writing about this stuff, just like you, now not just for me but for my kids. Thank you! :-)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdaddy in a strange land

Black Enough/Not Black Enough?

How about Plenty Human. ;)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCyn

What a powerful piece of writing Kelly!
It had never occurred to me that I was supposed to figure out which box you fit in. The boxes are silly - we're not some sort of pure-bred dog breeds. We're just people.
I had a friend growing up who was as diverse in his lineage as you appear to be. And to boot, he was adopted - so the exact nature of his 'ethnic backgrounds' remained a mystery. There were 5 listed on his adoption papers. But there was enough of anything and everything that we just used to kid around that he could check all of the boxes and still have left something out.

I love that you are just you.

Some label or other might get your foot in the door, but once you've stepped through it? It's all about what you do and who you are - not what box someone else tried to put you in.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLucretia Pruitt

Hold it. You're black?!? I just thought you had a really great tan.

Kidding! Seriously though, the first things I noticed about you when we met at BlogHer were your eyes and your height! I like to tell people I'm party pygmy because I'm so short. (-;

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLawyer Mama

I am very lucky to have someone like you as an inspiration. :)

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

I wrote a bit about my own feelings over on" rel="nofollow">Grace's blog post. I wonder if you've seen and have opinions about Stew's musical Passing Strange--you might like it. Available on Netflix for instant viewing if you're so inclined. It tracks with feeling ambivalent about what being Black might mean. The culture pretends Black experience is one thing, and it's simply not so.

Great post, thanks for sharing it.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Crawford

I'm trying to wrap my head around someone asking another person "what are you?"

I'm not known for being gentile, but even I know that's rude. Damn.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt

Hey, Joe Crawford, I haven't seen that one but you can bet it's in my queue now!

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

You are GORGEOUS! (That's probably a sketchy thing to say for a first time commenter, hi!)

I find that taxi cab drivers like to ask me "what are you?" They seem disappointed when I say "Irish and Jewish" like I'm not "exciting enough" for them or something. And then someone always tells me that "Jewish" doesn't count.

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

"I’m Black enough. But I won’t be Black just for you."

Sing it! A(nother) gorgeous essay Kelly.

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Stone

Great post! I plan to save it for my daughters. One is nine and the other is six. I have been asked lots of times are they mixed or biracial and then there comes the head nod of 'of course they are' when I say yes.

I wonder how they will respond when they are older.

I love that 'inspired blend.' I may use that on a tee shirt for them in the future.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLea

A great post and I was so happy to scroll down to read the wonderful comments too. "Inspired blend" is such a good name for coffee that I fully expect to see it at the market soon. I brew a cup and lift a cup to all the beautiful people.

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Powers

You are my favorite tragic mulatto. I'm glad you said it first, though. :)

February 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterangie

I love your writing skills. This is a very moving piece that is so very readable.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterannbb

kelly - you are amazing. your voice speaks so truly to who you are and what you seek. it's a thing of beauty.

and hey @molly! we're irish jews, too! and non-jewish, and french, german, welsh, english, etc, etc, ad infinitum...

February 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermommymae

God, I love your response of "part Doberman Pinscher and part poodle"! While two of my siblings look part American Indian (that we are), I am definitely the scotts-irish freckle face "white" girl. I attended schools where I was the minority and was kicked out of the program to encourage kids to pursue math and science 'cause I was too white--nothing else mattered, which really pissed me off.

My daughter's father is Iranian and she has always hated those damn forms and their limited, narrow focus of ethnicities. You've written of this so eloquently and with humor--loved it! Thanks for sharing. And thanks to the others who shared their stories--the comments are illuminating.

Don't get me started on the discrimination faced by teen mothers--been there, done that too.

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTJ

I love that you like to mess with people who ask about your background. I usually say I'm a mutt.

My husband wanted to hang a flag from the country his grandparents came from. He offered to get me a flag too. We would look like the UN if I flew a flag from everywhere my family came from.

February 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGrandeMocha

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