By damali ayo
“Are you black?”
My dark-skinned African American upstairs neighbor gave an evaluative look up and down at my light brown skin, long black dreadlocks, wide nose and full lips and spat out the all-too familiar question.
He was in the middle of tearing me to shreds for shining a laser beam into his apartment window. I thought this would seem like a fuzzy cloud of red light, but instead it looked like a sniper was fixing a weapon on his forehead. He had every right to be angry.
I had taken the ill-advised action after a long year of neighbors waking me up at three-am, and a long painful day that included going to urgent care to find out I had kidney stones. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I had exhausted every ounce of patience I could muster for his extremely boisterous x-box habit. The sound effects were so loud I thought the NBA playoffs were taking place year-round. Pushing my good judgement even further over the edge was the repeated dropping of the “n-bomb” that he and his buddies used to punctuate their video game smack-talk. I was there to let him know that I wasn’t going to climb into bed with this as my lullaby, not tonight.
I answered his racial inquiry as he continued to ball me out, but his words turned to an audio blur as my mind danced around that persistent and haunting question I had been asked by black people my whole life, “Are you black?”
Over the years this question had been phrased and rephrased any number of ways including, “What race are you?” or “Look at you, you must have some white in there somewhere.” One woman attended a talk of mine and during Q&A openly stated, “I wasn’t going to come to this because I didn’t think you knew anything about racism, since you obviously grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth.” (I assured her that the only thing silver I remembered in my household was the Velveeta wrapper in the fridge). These questions were always accompanied by a particular look that seemed to indicate my willful inadequacy, as if to say– had I tried harder, perhaps my skin would be darker.
Despite spending my entire life as an unofficial and official representative of black people, I was constantly feeling kicked out of my own race.
As my neighbor’s tirade rambled on, I felt my tolerance for other people’s constant racial doubt of me run dry. I thought If one more black person asks me if I am black, I swear, they are going to get stabbed in the eye. I envisioned drawing a knife, and tackling my ranting neighbor to the ground gouging out the vessel that had judged me, leaving him with only half his sight, which it seemed to me was all he was using anyway.
I didn’t know why this kept happening to me.
I apologized to him for shining the light in his apartment. It was wrong and I had no problem saying so. He didn’t care. He continued to rant, and I continued to apologize. When both of us got tired of that cycle, he went back inside his apartment and I went downstairs to mine. I opened my door with a jittery hand, walked slowly past my kitchen into my bedroom, and sat on the edge of my bed in silence, shaking.
I sat staring at an empty page in my journal, which I had pulled out in the hopes of processing my feelings so I could go to sleep, but I wrote nothing. I said nothing. I had no words. I sat in stillness for half an hour, just staring at the blank page in my hands.
Then it hit me. I am half white.
This was relatively new information to me, but apparently it had been obvious to everyone else all along. I had spent many days over the last forty years looking at myself in the mirror wondering why I looked the way I did. Now due to some family lies being revealed as lies, I was free to integrate the information that although I was raised with Black as the only racial identity I was allowed to name, I am English, Italian, African, and Native American. None of which are “one drop” they are big chunky identity-rebooting percentages.
I realized that my neighbor was only seeing me as I really am.
All those people had been trying to tell me something I had not been allowed to see. I thought about all the people over my lifetime who had been confused by my racial identification. I thought about feeling like an ambassador to white and black worlds, but never having a home in either. I remembered the classmate who told me my accent changed based on whom I was talking to. I thought about how black people always seemed suspicious of me. I thought about how white people treated me as a novelty. I remembered looking at photos of my high school graduation and thinking I’m way more light-skinned than I think I am.
The more I allowed myself to hear my thoughts, to see the threads of my own story, the more I sounded like my multiracial and biracial friends. I stopped shaking. A deep breath of truth worked its way from the center of my body all the way through my toes and the top of my head.
I was ready to finally be me.
I was trained to be racially angry and paranoid at a very young age. My mother likes to tell the story, with pride, of when I was two years old and enrolled in tap-dancing class. I ran to her in terrified tears, because I was afraid to let the white teacher touch me. I was afraid she would turn me white. Children are not born fearing difference like this. I was taught early on that whiteness, inside or outside of me, was dangerous.
Recently a friend visited me in the new small, mostly white town in which I have lived for the past two months. She is a brown-skinned black woman with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper dreadlocks and as we sat together outside a cafe, friendly people passed by and greeted us with smiles and hellos. I enjoyed sharing the comfort of a small town cradled by mountains, graced by a generous sun, and filled with friendly faces. Los Angeles had never been this pleasant.
Over the course of the next few hours, my friend made comments like “Ooh, there’s two of us,” and “We could scare them by showing up together.” I felt knots in my stomach that I hadn’t felt in the two months since I moved here. I recognized in her the racial paranoia I was taught as a child, a paranoia I had cultivated throughout my life. I didn’t want to feel that kind of constant, nagging pain anymore. That pain made me a sad, angry, and deeply lonely person. That pain came not only from the presence of racism, but from my personal investment in it. Sometimes it felt like the best proof of my existence was in the evidence of racism, “I’m oppressed, therefore I am.” My dependence on this existential declaration was doubly reinforced by the challenges I got about my race and the credibility of my racial experience. I stocked up on evidence of my own oppression to prove to white people that racism exists, and to prove to the doubting black people that I was a legitimate member of the club.
It’s not that I don’t think there is racism everywhere, there is. I have forty years of proof of that, but after forty years of proof, I realized that it doesn’t do my health and well-being any good to keep looking for more.
I have new, happier evidence of my own existence.
It was always there, but the status, the cache of oppression, and my need for it, clouded the joy of my own life. My friend seemed disappointed that I would not participate in her fantasy that every passerby viewed us with suspicion, judgment, animosity, and ignorance, instead of seeing two beautiful women having a chat on a bench in their small friendly town. She asked me how I found it here with a look that indicated she was inquiring if the people here are racially ignorant. I said, that since I had stopped looking for racism around every corner, I hadn’t experienced any.
It was surprising to hear myself say this, and even more surprising that it was true. I marveled at the fact that I never thought that people were looking at me twice because I was “the black girl” but rather because I was the new girl in town. Their kind and helpful responses to me seemed to jibe with that fact. It actually had taken me nearly a month before it even occurred to me that people might be thinking about my race.
As a woman who had been trained to be racially paranoid before I could read, it was a freedom I had never felt.
Accepting myself as multiracial requires a great deal of forgiveness, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a well of forgiveness within me ready to tap. The truth does that, it opens up stores of forgiveness that cannot be accessed when it is being repressed. I found myself forgiving my family, forgiving myself, forgiving both white and black people, and forgiving of all of my ancestors. Talking to a friend I heard myself say, “One group of my ancestors (English) enslaved another group of my ancestors (Africans) and murdered another group (Native American). (As far as I am aware the Italians are in the clear). I am ready to be at peace with that.”
This blew me away.
I am ready to be at peace.
I have to be at peace. I spent too many years in the angst of a deception, staring at my truth in the mirror and obscuring it through the tools of anger, paranoia, and fear, trying to prove to everyone else that I exist within their parameters. Now I choose to look in the mirror and see a miracle of history, the dissonance and conflict that led to who I am can exist in a happy person, and maybe one day, in a happy culture.
Since all of this transformation has been occurring in me, a line from a song has been constantly running through my mind. When I was in my early twenties my favorite band was The Neilds. One of their songs said “So I will change, ’cause I have changed. It’s time to put these combat boots away.”
Nearly twenty years later, the substance of who I am has changed, and I will change to meet it. It’s time to put my combat boots away.
About the Author: damali ayo is a writer who was once a conceptual and performance artist. She is the author of two satirical books on race and is currently searching for a publisher for a deeply revealing memoir about her own femininity. damali is available to talk to your school or community; please visit her website damaliayo.com.