She looked at me without apprehension, without any fear of offending. Her words were easily spoken. “If I was Black, I’d want to have your skin tone,” she said. “Darker Black skin reminds me of an ape’s skin.” A feverish warmth crept over me. An awkward laugh escaped my lips, releasing some of the nervous tension generated by my shame. She was a woman I’d known for years, sung with in the vocal ministry of the large mega church I once belonged to. How can I be okay with this kind of thinking? How could she do it? Say something like that to me? What do I do now? “I can’t believe you just said that…” was all I could manage in the moment, one which transported me back to childhood, a time of low self esteem and a socio/cultural survival instinct that advised silence when it should have been telling me to howl in the face of racist ignorance, even if it was coming from those I loved and admired.

The inauguration of Donald J. Trump is now a thing of the past. But the reality that 52% of White women helped him achieve his goal, has me wrestling with the same questions I did that night with my church friend. How can I be okay with this kind of thinking? How could they do it? What do I do now? Indeed, I have asked those types of questions repeatedly throughout my life.

In Green Bay, WI, a place not especially known for its racial diversity, I was a biracial girl, living with my White mother and White adoptive father with little to no connection to my Black heritage. I was not brave. I just wanted to fit in. And that wasn’t easy because most of the time, I was the only brown person wherever I went. There was no one like me to compare notes with, or commiserate when racism reared it’s ugly head. Thankfully, it is not like this any longer. My world has expanded. I reconnected with my birth father, finally met my brother and sister and their families, and formed meaningful relationships with them. I love them all. But throughout my life, the majority of my close relationships were with White people, mostly women and girls. They represent half of who I am. They have been my friends, family, mentors, and teachers. It is largely their approval and love I most craved throughout my formative years. I have loved them deeply and many of them have truly loved me back. But many of them have been like my church friend, unaware or unfazed by the cognitive dissonance they possess when it comes to matters of race.

My one time ministry friend is not the first White friend to make a racist remark to my face, and believe they were paying me a compliment, nor is she the first White friend to behave in a racially insensitive manner towards me but show no visible signs of moral dilemma in doing so. Once at a family gathering, my own grandmother--who I loved tremendously and who loved the bejesus out of me--made an almost identical statement about dark skinned Black people. In high school, some of my White girlfriends would routinely confess that “I didn’t seem Black to them,” usually in a context which suggested I was considered superior or more acceptable to them because of that fact. The older sister of my best friend in 2nd grade used to make fun of my kinky hair at sleep overs in her house. She’d insist on picking out my curls--despite my shy protests-- until they resembled an afro: “Now you look like the Jackson Five!” she’d exclaim with delight.

In order to remain in relationship with some of these people, I’ve had to forgive and accept that a part of them is blind and their blindness causes me pain. Several weeks after learning the demographic break down of who Trump’s supporters are/were, I find myself, once again, engaged in this same reconciling process. It is a dance I am used to performing. As I struggle to understand the logic behind their votes, I read articles that attempt to explain. A collection of adjectival buzz words and phrases crowd the corners of my mind: disaffected, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic. Which of these most accurately describes the people who gave their support to such a man? Jon Stewart-- who I’ve always admired-- said recently in an interview with Charlie Rose that not all those who voted for Trump are a monolith. They are not all racists. They are not all misogynists. I think he’s right. But they are overwhelmingly White. Some of them are college educated, some are not. Some are middle class; many are poor and working class. Something like 81% of them are White Evangelical Christians and 52% of them are White women.

A friend recently asked me why this last group in particular inspires such sadness in me. After all, I have lots of friends, women who happen to be White, who did not vote for the new president. They share my feelings of hurt and betrayal. I’ve been thinking about her question and I’ve realized it’s more than a sense of perceived disloyalty within the ranks of my gender. For me personally, as a racial minority, it comes back to the question of belonging that plagued me as an adolescent, well into my 20’s, and sometimes on occasion, to this day.

President Barack Obama is biracial, like me. He was raised by his White mother and White grandparents, like me. He learned how to talk to, and commune with both sides--Black and White--like me, and yet in the end there were still lots of White people, including--most famously and adamantly--Donald Trump, who sought to remind him that he wasn’t truly “one of them.” According to them, he wasn’t a citizen, and so therefore didn’t belong. How many times have I experienced that feeling of hitting some impassable threshold with White people, where they suddenly need to remind me of who I am to them and how I’m only “allowed” to go so far? Too many to count: I have been that girl who some Christian mom liked to see as a singer on the worship team at her church, but was too Black to date her son. I have been that someone who’s skin color a girlfriend once admired, but only because it wasn’t too Black. I have been the brown girl who belonged...until someone told her she didn’t.

I can accept and believe that not everyone who voted for our new president is a racist. But I think its pretty clear that at worst, he is, and at best, he has no qualms about using racist rhetoric in order to gain power and attention. Either scenario is despicable. The White women who voted for Mr. Trump heard the same words from him that I did, witnessed the same uncouth behavior. They heard him call Mexicans rapists, refer to Black neighborhoods as generally “burning down,” crime infested ghettos. They heard him demonize an entire movement that is justly and understandably concerned about unfair treatment of Black men by the police, they listened to him call for the banishment of an entire group of people because of their religion, and they watched as he harassed our former president--our first Black president--in public, with accusations that he was not a citizen. And yet, they voted for him anyway. I won’t uniformly label all of them racists. But I won’t hide the fact that as a Black and White biracial woman, who has always felt great love for—and to a certain extent—camaraderie with White women, I am deeply, deeply wounded by the choice so many of them made.

Perhaps the complexity and longevity of racism’s hold on this country’s systemic structure and cultural psyche, makes the cognitive dissonance inevitable. It’s like living with the symptoms of a long ago contracted disease you never figured out you have, and so nothing is done to treat it. There is a disconnect somewhere. And it makes coming together that much harder to do.

I take heart in knowing that in spite of how I feel about the election results, there are still many, many people willing to self-reflect and have honest conversations about race and racism in this country. They are able to wade into the bitter waters of its history--as painful and uncomfortable as that can sometimes be--and acknowledge all the ways it has hurt us as a people, as a community of Americans. Yesterday I marched in Chicago with women and men of all races, and from all walks of life who were standing up for the good stuff. I soaked up all the global coverage of worldwide marches with a thirsty soul and felt satisfied. On days like that, I feel hopeful. I feel like I belong.                                                                                         



Me around  1 year old with my mom and dad.

Me around  1 year old with my mom and dad.

"When you gonna start having some brown babies, girl?" the old woman asked my friend, a black woman married to a white man. It was the first time I'd heard that expression used in reference to biracial children. The old woman was the wife of black civil rights leader John Perkins. We met her while on a church bus trip that retraced the route taken by the Freedom Riders.  They were encouraging words--to me as a biracial person who'd experienced disdain towards all things interracial from both camps--and to my friend, who once confided that she initially resisted her husband's flirtations, believing it demonstrated a loyalty expected by the black community.

I always thought I'd have a brown baby. I prepared emotionally for Hazel's birth as if she would be.  I considered  the racism she might face one day, fretted over the ignorant, intrusive questions she would be asked, like "What are you?" or "Are you adopted?" I thought, "As a fellow mixed race person, I have endured such inquiries so I will know how to coach her through if it happens to her."  I searched for children's books with biracial protagonists and dolls with brown faces; both had been scarce when I was a kid. I would teach her about Black history. She would know about those who came before her and feel proud. I'd been isolated from a lot of that knowledge growing up, which often left me feeling like an outsider. I wanted Hazel to "see herself" in the world around her.

I of course was projecting many of my own experiences onto the poor kid before she even got here.  When she finally did arrive, it was 3:45 on a Tuesday morning.  My girl, coaxed by expertly maneuvered forceps and one last push from mom, came out honey colored, not brown like me.  She was beautiful and alert and mesmerizing but she looked nothing like me. Everyone who saw her commented on how she favored her father, a rosy complected Englishman.  

And for some reason, I was a tiny bit unsettled by this. In truth, tucked deep down in the small left over little girl part of me I wanted her to be a brown baby. I craved one of my own kind, within my family--someone to walk the middle road with me, a companion in that racial space so many in the world want to rigidly define. I felt insecure and I wanted to parent what I already knew.  But you parent a child, not experiences.

The next several days after leaving the hospital left no room for contemplating the complexities of racial identity. We were just trying to keep the small, honey colored human now living with us alive!  When a month had passed Hazel and I went to the zoo in Lincoln Park. I strolled along with her sleeping in my Boba wrap. Thinking back now, I don't remember driving there, getting her out of the car seat, or even situating her in the wrap. I can only see myself coming down an incline on the nature path that winds along the smaller petting zoo with its array of farm animals. Some man asked me how old she was. "Four weeks old," I said shyly, wondering silently, "Does he think she's too young for me to have her outside already? Well I had to get out. I just had to! " An unnecessary defense against an imaginary attack. I was paranoid, exhausted, and freaked out. I was a mother, having trouble believing she was a mother.  

And those first few steps back towards the world outside 1439 W. 18th Street in Pilsen--into an environment I'd been in so many times before--were surreal and dream like because of the little peanut snoozing on my chest. Who was this person that had suddenly made the zoo feel like the Twilight Zone? I know now that the answer to that question will have to wait; she has only just started becoming. But every day there are hints, small things:  like that she has a  preference for bananas over mangoes, or how she lights up when I sing show tunes, Adele's hit song "Hello," or the Sesame Street song for her, or the way she studies new people intently before sometimes treating them to a smile. These are sweet revelations and I value them.  But what of our shared racial and cultural identity?  I can't help wondering how deeply she will internalize it.  To what extent will it shape her?  The fact that my skin color is so different from Hazel's is a potential source of insecurity for me.  Will it be for her too?

This fear unfortunately has deep roots. Years ago, after meeting my parents for the first time, a black actress I did a show with asked me if I was adopted. Granted, my mom and biological father had split when I was only two and my mom remarried a white man who adopted me. So, the woman was looking at a biracial person with two white parents.  However, I'd always looked a lot like my mom, so I was devastated when she didn't match me up with her. Then there was the time an older white lady, introduced to me at a family function, could not get past my brown skin in a "sea" of family members much lighter than me. "You just don't look like anyone else here," she kept saying.  

Recently, history seemed to be repeating itself. While visiting the Sod Room, an indoor play facility in the city, a woman asked me if Hazel was mine. She thought I might be the nanny. And there it was: our identities appeared to be ambiguous for a moment. I watched Hazel reach for a wooden block and shove it happily in her mouth. Her drool glistened in the sun.  She was friggin adorable.  The woman's question hung over me like some tacky pinata that I wanted to smack the shit out of.  And that familiar feeling of displacement started to naw at my insides.  But in the end, all I saw was my girl--my girl, and so I answered the question, and what do ya know? Life went on. And somehow, the comment didn't sting as did those in the previously mentioned incidents. I'm not sure why it was different this time.  Maybe its one of the benefits of being an older mom:  I am learning to care a little less every day about what people think. Maybe its because I'm so sleep deprived most of the time I have trouble remembering things people say to me from one moment to the next.  Or maybe its because the entire experience of bringing Hazel forth and caring for her has been so visceral, so physically and emotionally consuming, I have been imprinted for life and no insensitive inquiry about identity or race can alter that.  And really, I guess It is the same with me and my family of origin--or at least it ought to be.  The truth is, I am theirs and they are mine. The reality of the connection does not cease to be just because someone else does not see it. It's very simple. But even simple things can sometimes take a whole lifetime to sink in.  Or at least until you have a child.