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Two years ago, I was dating someone who was black, just like me. But color, as any painter will tell you, is just a matter of degree, nuances of shadow and light. And therein lay the confusion. His father was clearly black, but his mother was white, and by all appearances her son sure looked white, too.
While my boyfriend considered himself black and never tried to pass for white, others did the passing for him. Blacks would give him curious looks when he walked into “their” neighborhoods. Whites felt free to make racist remarks about blacks in front of him.
Once, when he visited a Nation of Islam mosque with a group of black students, he was turned away on account of whiteness. And then there were the vendors at the Million Man March who refused to sell him a shirt. He just kept trying until he met one who would.
When we walked down the street together, young blacks would softly whistle “Jungle Fever” and laugh. More often, though, black folks would just look at us with disgust as we passed by. Only once did one of the brothers on the corner just come out with it: “Sister, you should be with a black man.”
What was I supposed to do? I was with a black man, at least according to the American definition of black. But I could understand the confusion.
I would have assumed my friend was white, too, except that I met him at the poet Gaston Neal’s house, where he was helping set up the living room for a meeting of the “Listening Group,” a strictly black collective of male jazz fiends.
Even after I learned his credentials, though, I had mixed feelings. I had dated a white man before and found it to be more trouble than it was worth. With this man, I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with insidious racism or cultural clashes. But it was frustrating to face outsiders’ constant assumptions.
My boyfriend didn’t seem to notice the stares and dirty looks as much as I did. In moments of weakness, I would think, “If only he were half a shade darker/had kinkier hair/got a suntan, we wouldn’t have to deal with this.” It’s incredibly silly when I think of it now, but at the time it seemed more realistic than dreaming that people would stop being so judgmental and colorstruck.
When we went to Georgia to meet my family, my grandmother claimed she could tell he was black. But I could sense that his presence unnerved my relatives. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my uncles and male cousins were disappointed in me.
Later that night, we took a walk on the barely lit dirt roads of that small Southern town. Two teenage boys on bicycles came rushing up behind us with flashlights. My heart raced. This is it, I thought, conjuring all sorts of Dixieland scenarios in my head. The boys stopped just short of us. “Oh, I thought you were my sister,” said one of the boys, a schoolmate of my brother. “I was just checking to see who she was with.”
We broke up a few months after that nightfor reasons that had nothing to do with color, perceived or otherwise. But even now, I still feel the ever-present gaze of passers-by sitting in judgment. The other day, I was getting into a cab with my white male roommate in Adams Morgan when a visibly homeless black man called out, “Sister, you
are misplaced. You should not be sleeping with
That day, I wasn’t having any of it. “You don’t even know me. You don’t know anything about me!” I shouted through the taxi window.
“Are you romantically involved with him?” he asked. I could have said, “No,” or better yet explained that my roommate was gay. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that this particular black man believed it would be better for me to be with someone blackanyone blackthan to be with a white man. Never mind that my white roommate is ambitious, interesting, and gainfully employed, while the black man looked to be homeless, unemployed, and close to drunk.
“Am I supposed to be with you?” I called out the taxi window. That gave him pause. I considered breaking him down, telling him how kicked-to-the-curb he looked, but I figured he got enough of that every day. So instead I said, “You need to take care of yourself instead of worrying about me.”
At times like that, I’m struck by the absurdity of race as we know it today. All these people, most of them black, were calling me a sellout, when my boyfriend wasn’t even white, or at least not really white. In their misguided concern, they saw me as their sisterassuming a familial bond that I too sense, even as I see it becoming less and less sure.
Skin color is a marker for a presumed culture, a code for labels that invariably unravel under stress. Contemplating race in America today is a lot like zooming in on a video screen: The closer you get, the less sense it makes, until eventually the order of the image breaks down into thousands of tiny pixels.
Consider my Filipino friend who talks like a black man, having grown up in the projects of Detroit. Or the blue-eyed, curly-haired Jamaican sister I met last summer with skin lighter than the flesh-colored crayon in a Crayola box. Or my light-skinned ex, whose identity as a black man was shaped by Malcolm X’s autobiography and Frances Cress Welsing’s controversial theories of racismbooks given to him by his white mother. People like this are all over the place, bucking the system, making life complicated for those who want so badly for everyone to fall into the boxes we have made for them.
When I see a black-and-white couple, I still eye them suspiciously. I still categorize them almost effortlessly: self-hating black girl enamored of all things white. White boy who wants to be black really bad. And on and on. In spite of myself, I find myself doing unto others as they have done unto me. And though I resist shouting out my judgments on the street corner, I know I’m as much a slave to them as the next person. CP