“Mama am I Black?” I asked, as a child. She responded affirmatively, “Of course you’re Black.” That was that. I have a Black mother and a white father, and when those two parents are added up, I’m not half anything, I am Black. I always hated the word mixed. Mixed always seemed like it applied better to a smoothie, or cake batter, not me as a person. It also didn’t seem to describe the way I move through the world. Although I have the same number of Black parents as white parents, no one has ever mistaken me as a white woman. In America, white has always been the default. When you’re something else, that’s when the questions come in.
My conception of race is very connected to the uniquely American understanding of race that emerged from chattel slavery. For centuries the one-drop rule was what determined which side of the Black/white binary you fall on. If you had one drop of blood from a Black ancestor, then you were considered Black. It is no secret that more than a few American presidents had children they enslaved in accordance to the rule. You could say the one-drop rule is as American as apple pie. Had I been born in antebellum St. Louis, to my Black mother, having a white father would have meant nothing, because I am Black.
If I had a nickel for every time, I get the question “What are you?” I would be a millionaire. This question is mostly asked by people I’ve just met or people who want to know my race and nothing else. As a survival mechanism, I believe we look for patterns to try and make sense of the world. When it comes to race, people’s curiosity comes from a yearning to find order. If they can find out my race, then they know what stereotypes to believe about me, what kind of experiences I have had and what to expect about my personality. At least that’s what they hope. Without knowing that I am a prolific knitter, historian, and speech pathologist—the people asking about my race are looking to affirm something about themselves more than to learn anything about me. I never answer. I inquire instead. It’s always something like “oh I’m just curious”, or “I have a <insert distant relative> that looks just like you!” Spoiler alert, they never look like me. She will either have light skin or curly hair and on the rare occasion, both. Over the years I’ve decided it’s a lazy way of assigning me to a racial monolith they’ve compiled from all the things they’ve learned on TV and movies about Black people. Usually, they want confirmation from me before they can decide which box to put me into. Race can tell you some things, not the things that matter most. Interracial and racially ambiguous people unsettle the neat and crisp racism that is doled out on people with darker skin. The question may as well be “What kind of not-white are you?” because that’s what they really want to know.
I grew up with my mother and her family in St. Louis, MO, a city that is nearly equal parts Black and white, with the crime and poverty disproportionately affecting Black residents. If you’re looking for textbook inequity, look no further than the Delmar Divide right here in my hometown. I grew up living on the Southside of Delmar which is 70% white residents, but going to elementary school and church on the Northside. No one had to point out what the differences were, it was clear to me even as a child. On the Northside there are pothole-riddled streets, countless payday loan places, dilapidated buildings, and most residents are Black. On the Southside of Delmar, there are McMansions, a well-kept park, booming businesses, and most residents are white. I understood that for some reason, the places that white people lived in were much nicer, even though I didn’t understand why. I noticed the inequity then, I just didn’t have a word for it.
The Delmar Divide exists in the larger world, but amplified and messier. It exists along racial lines with white people having all the best, shiniest, new things while the rest of us get whatever is left. We have lots of innocuous ways to describe the inequity fueled by white supremacy in America. Some of my personal favorites are “the hand you were dealt” or “luck of the draw” when it comes to education, opportunities, or success. I never hear anyone talk about the dealer handing out the cards or the person holding the straws. Accepting that there is inequity means accepting that it didn’t magically become that way. More often than not, if you look at which people benefit from a system, it is likely those people (or their ancestors) who created and manage the system. If people can be racist, the laws and rules they create can also be racist and live on much longer. After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered, I could feel a palpable shift in the discussion around inequity. At least it was being discussed but I noticed something strange.
Inequity is always discussed in the passive voice. Yes, we can acknowledge that some people face more obstacles than others and many people have emerged from a privileged fog. They can see the obstacles that other people face more clearly. But somewhere between the fog clearing and removing the obstacles, the view has been re-fogged. There was no effort to actually remove and destroy the obstacles, rather a commitment to see them instead. This is where we find ourselves in 2021. Lots of solidarity online, listening and learning about inequity, but little actual effort to make the world fairer. You can’t order equity on Amazon Prime or have it delivered with DoorDash. Making the world fairer will not happen in passive voice, we must look to the person dealing the cards and holding the straws, then demand change.