Good news, 23andMe chose not to sell my DNA on the black market, and instead, solidified the fact that I am genetically predisposed to never find a partner in life because I move too much when I sleep, have extra-long toes, and am a carrier for the genetic variant “That Bitch.” Oh well, maybe in my next life. Pythagorean theory of reincarnation, don’t fail me now.
On top of passive aggressively judging me through the “traits” category, I was given details from the part of me influenced by the donor father who probably has amassed a legion of children at this point. It’s kind of crazy to think about the history and culture that I have been completely dissociated from just popping up in a little pie chart, like, “despite what your Aunt Karen has said to all of her church friends for years, you are, indeed, black.” Over 42% of my DNA to be exact. I promise this isn’t one of those posts where I say I’m .12% of something and then appropriate that culture and make jokes about how I should have gotten free tuition. Because that’s honestly the worst kind of person, but also because I am already a minority who didn’t get any financial aid and have fulfilled my bitterness-as-a-joke quota.
When I was younger, people used to tell me I was four shades lighter than the average black person. I have no idea where that form of measurement came from, or who was the curve for that, but I can tell you in grade school I was the only person of color in my classes up until seventh grade. So, I’m going to guess most people were judging off what they saw in the media. I spent an hour every day straightening my hair. I was careful to moisturize my skin (but not too much because then I would look too shiny), because one time a boy called me “ashy” and I cried for three days. I used to lie about my ethnicity, because my biological father wasn’t ever a physical reality for me, so no one could really challenge it.
A list of all the places I claimed to be from when people I didn’t know asked “So, like . . . what are you?”:
· Specifically, Rio de Janeiro
· A fictional place called Pontiki
· The Shire
· A beach in France
I think I romanticized places the same way people were fetishizing what I was. It was a mystery and I didn’t have to confront the issue of not understanding a crucial part of how people identified me, while also not having to unjustifiably have a voice for a community I felt like I owed so much more respect to. I can’t count how often someone had claimed I looked “too white” to have dealt with the pain that other people of color have gone through.
And yeah, that’s kind of right. In so many cases, I am considered the acceptable black woman. I’m racially ambiguous enough to pass off as most any minority of color. I’m “exotic.” I have a white family who were all active in Christian churches. I am also a woman. Light skinned. Thin. And I went to a four year university.
The experiences I’ve gone through are nothing short of privileged, and I realize that. But I won’t discredit the egregious micro-aggressions people continuously tormented me with. I won’t devalue the severe sense of loneliness I spent years with.
My mother is an incredible woman, but she was so concerned with what life would be like for a fatherless child, that she sort of passed up the issues of raising a black girl in a white household. For years, I never knew how to do my hair, and unfortunately I am living with the repercussions of that with straw-like, damaged split ends. I didn’t know how to take care of my skin, and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered the magic that is shea butter. I hated my appearance because I didn’t understand it.
When I was fifteen years old, my first high school boyfriend called me, placing me on speaker with a bunch of his friends listening, and bragged about us dating. At one point, they asked what I looked like. He paused then asked me, “You’re not black, right?” And when I flushed with tears he couldn’t see, I lied and replied with an embarrassing, “No, I’m French.” To which he then responded, “Oh, good.”
The only media I saw with black girls was the Cinderella with Brandy and Whitney Houston, the Tyra Banks talk show, and the occasional Disney Channel movie or tv show. But in a lot of the representations I saw, it was like blackness was something that had to be talked about, confronted, understood with a deep conversation, and then accepted with some sort of peace treaty with everyone else. It was also something I was both terrified about and ashamed of. And very rarely did I see mixed race girls, so I felt even more isolated from the conversations happening.
As time progressed, people would say things like “mixed race babies are just the prettiest,” like I was a part of a biologically engineered experiment to make cute people who weren’t too intimidatingly foreign. The connection I was meant to have to a culture felt just as artificial as it would be had I been a test tube baby.
I was forcefully displaced from birth and I’m still coming to terms with it all.
The past four years or so have been a time of great growth for me. I am quick to identify myself as a young black woman and I feel pride and connection with other women who I wish I had looked up to much sooner than now. Black culture used to scare me. I, like many people, was institutionally trained to fear my own community. Whenever I walked alone at night, I was cautious around black men more than white men, who have truly proven to be more dangerous in my life. I was anxious around black women who linguistically spoke differently than me, because I was told to associate language with intelligence. I didn’t eat food stereotypically associated with black diets because I thought somehow my DNA would morph and transform into an even blacker person. I was repressing so many extensions of me by not compassionately and openly educating myself, and I was also allowing myself to be used as a marker for other people to maintain their prejudices. Friends, strangers, and even family members justified their subtle racism by saying “if it doesn’t bother Emily then it’s fine” or “Why can’t other black people have a sense of humor like Emily?” None of it was every acceptable or funny. I was just too unsure of myself to defend my community.
So, what next? Will I spend my savings to take a trip to West Africa and live amongst people for a few weeks and take a thousand selfies with black children in schoolyards like white missionaries? Probably not. At least not right now while I am still dragging behind me the weight of my student loans and thousands of dollars of debt from eating out at mediocre restaurants and ordering boho style clothing for that “effortless chic” look. But, I don’t know, there’s some sort of finality that came from seeing that chart. It’s as if this strange conglomerate reached out through the interwebs and said, “hey tiny nugget, let me just give you some clarity and also tell you to quite eating so much gluten.”
For a fun time with maps, you can look at the breakdown I saw below. This is in no way an ad for the company, and honestly, I encourage anyone interested in looking up their heritage to do some serious researching before they take a single company's results to heart, because who knows how accurate all of this is. For me, mentally, I was looking for something deeper than a chart, and I had to create that acceptance and those revelations on my own, I just so happened to need something as a jumping point in order to do it.