Black and White

I am biracial. My mother is Polish, and my father is black.

I grew up in a white neighborhood*, with a single mom who struggled every day to do the best she could for me. Alone, at 18, with a half black child in the early 70's, my mother faced challenges she could never even have dreamed of at 17. It was just the two of us. There were no grandparents, no aunts, no cousins. There was no money. There was just the love between a child herself, and the baby she had. (*Edit: After speaking with my mother about this, she told me that for the first 6 months of my life we didn't have a home. We went from couch to couch with anyone that would have us. Then, she got an apartment in the inner city. It wasn't until I was older that we moved to the "white neighborhood").

The neighborhood I grew up in was mainly filled with Polish and Italian families. I grew up with my dark skin and Chaka Khan hair next to the blonde twins across the street. With their feathered, Farrah Fawcett hair, they were the most popular girls in the neighborhood. They called me nigger. They called me Oreo and Zebra. When I would walk out of my house, they would yell "Chocolate, Vanilla, Swirl" (which was the Jello pudding pop commercial of the time). When I complained to their parents, I was told this was "kid stuff". "This was ... normal". "Just ignore it". My mother did her best to comfort me, but she was young and white and doing the best she could for us to survive. These were new topics that were being discussed. It would have taken more than one loving woman to have dealt with them.

I never met my grandparents until I was around 6. They had disowned my mother when she got pregnant. I remember her telling me that we were finally going to meet them as she was giving me a bath. I can still remember sitting in that water, as I started to cry. She didn't understand why I was crying, she had "sold it" to me as though this was a really good thing. But I knew. I said through my tears, "they won't like me because I'm half black". I recall my naked brown skin in the water, as my tears added to the pool. The pain my mother had to bear... I can still see it on her face.

There were other challenges we faced. Little things that made a big deal. For example, every day, my mother would take a brush to my curly hair. You know, the kind of brush built for silky white hair - the kind that should *never* be run through curly unruly hair. I remember the handle of the brush breaking off in my head because she just couldn't get it through. Her intentions, were good - we may have been poor, but dammit we would be groomed... but she just didn't know that you can't brush mixed hair. I remember the first time I got my hair chemically straightened. It burned the ends of my hair off and my long lioness mane was turned into a short, broken bob - yet I could have cried with joy at not having to walk around with my hair standing on end in all directions. What we both would have given to have had someone explain to us how to do my hair.

I went to the gymnastics class at my local "Polish Falcons" hall. I was good. I was nimble, and strong. There was a competition we were going to participate in, and I was so excited. That is, until my Mom was told I couldn't participate because I was black. This was the "Polish Falcons", after all. I could pay them money to take classes, but I couldn't represent them in a tournament. My mom threatened to sue and they changed their position. My mom then told them to go fuck themselves (Paraphrasing. (probably.)) and pulled me out.

In 5th grade, I got a letter to attend the inner city school City Honors. It was by invitation only. I don't remember much of this time, because the world I lived in was deep in my head. But I do remember my best friend, Danielle, with her dark skin and thick braids. This was the first friend I had that was black. In all actuality, this may have been my first true friend of any color.

In 6th grade, I remember my black teacher (who knew my Father's side of my family) staring at me in disbelief. "Mulatto", she said. I had never heard the term before. She explained to me that there was a term for people like me. She even pointed it out in a book - and there it was, on the pages, in "black and white"... It seemed a dirty word to me. It read like the word "mutt". Like an unfortunate accident. I felt embarrassed for not knowing the word, and more alone than ever.

In 7th grade, I was placed in a white Catholic school that had a total of 48 students in all of grades K-12. I was not Catholic. I was not white. Things did not get better for me.

In 8th grade I was placed in a different Catholic school. That was the only part of the equation that changed. Renee (blonde) threatened to beat me up after school for no other reason than my skin tone. I had heard that she took martial arts and I was terrified of her. She and her gaggle of pretty girls would laugh at me as I walked by because I would keep my head down so I wouldn't make eye contact. "Nigger", they whispered. In school, someone started a rumor that I had a crush on the popular boy. The boy with blonde hair. The boy with money. I don't remember if I actually did or not, I just remember them all .... laughing. Why would anyone be "attracted to a nigger like me"?

In High School I went to another Catholic School. I think there were 8 of us who were not white. I befriended a girl around the block from me. She was 1/4 black (but shhh... because she didn't want anyone to know), and she was gorgeous. I think she took pity on me. She allowed me to hang out as she got ready for her dates with the local Italians who drove Camero's. I remember her trying to get her hair to look like "Bon Jovi's". I didn't even know who that was. I knew who Diana Ross was, I knew who Donna Summer was, I knew Motown. But not Bon Jovi.

I did make friends in High School, with people who did their best, and to whom I am thankful for to this day. However, there were lots of little hurts. Hurts they didn't mean. Like, when we learned in social studies class that whites would be the minority in America by 202x. My friend became terrified and with wide eyes looked around the room shouting "that's really scary". I remember locking eyes with her and feeling this rage build up in my heart and thinking "how clueless and insensitive can you be right now?". I was sitting right next to her. There were other black girls IN THE ROOM. And you want us to share in your horror at the potential of becoming a minority?

There was the time in religion class when the nun asked me to sing a hymn because "my people sang so beautifully". There were other black girls in the room. I was terrified to look at them because I didn't know if I was considered "their people". If I could have turned beet red, I would have, but my skin was too dark. I had no people. I was a mulatto. I was ... alone.

As I got older, I gravitated towards the alternative / punk rock scene, where the cost of entry was that you were ... a freak. It was comforting to be around other people who didn't belong - that was our common thread. I found kind people. I found people who helped me shift the rage and loneliness in my heart to something more productive - more effective. I found people who didn't care about my skin color. What bound us was that none of us belonged. Ironically, this is when I started to find my way.

In college, I was hyper-focused on getting my degree. The one thing about my life that I could change - that I could control, was my eventual financial situation. I knew I had a knack for math, and I knew I needed to be in a field where I could make money. The natural course was to enter the Computer Science program. I put myself through college. At the time, I lived in the inner city of Buffalo. I didn't have money for a car, but my job was at the mall in the suburbs and I needed that job because I needed that money. So I walked. It took me over an hour to get there, 5 days a week. I walked in the snow. I walked in the rain. I walked through the ghetto, alone, at 11:00 pm because that's when my shift ended. There was no other option. I needed my degree. I needed my job. I needed to walk. So that's what I did. I kept my head down, just like in 8th grade. And I did what I had to do to survive.

Out of college, I got a job at IBM. Awesome. Steady pay for the first time in my life. When I moved to the Hudson Valley, I was shocked to find out that they didn't have nightclubs like I went to in Buffalo. A Persian friend I worked with recommended I try bellydance. I fell in love. I found the Salimpour format, and fell even deeper in love. I kept my head down, and did the work. I spent hours a day studying, training, growing, learning... I wasn't after fame, I didn't want to be popular... that was not a safe space for me. I kept my head down. I did the work. 2 decades passed.

My dance work took me to a place where I knew I was good at teaching. I knew I could reach people, inspire people, give them the gifts that were given to me. The problem is, I kept my head down, and I did the work, so even though I had so much to offer... no one knew who I was, and the obstacle preventing me from doing the thing that I think I am meant to do (teach), was the same thing that allowed me to get here in the first place.

The first time I was ever in a position to be cast near top level dance talent, I was so excited. I was given the opportunity to teach because I was a Level 5 instructor at the Salimpour school, and there was a certain amount of credibility attached to my name and work ethic. This was a major moment for me. To my horror I watched the rollout unfold as it was received in the Bipoc Dance Community and (appropriately) met with anger at the lack of representation listed. This was the first time I had ever been invited to a festival like this - I never thought to ask who else was on the bill. I never thought of myself as being in a "power position" to make demands on an event organizer. This was new to me. Things quickly became more complicated as I started hearing rumblings of things nameless dancers had to say about me in nameless groups.

She's not black enough.

She's light skinned.

She is not one of us.

She doesn't count.

The deepest cut of all. I don't know who said this. I don't know which of you feels this way about me when I walk into a room or step foot on a stage. I have born the burden of being called a nigger for much of my life. And I did so alone. I was not white enough. And now, not black enough. What I would have given growing up, for the opportunity to be a part of a culture. Can you see this?

My daughter watches me cry. She is 13. Her room is covered with BLM signs. We've had discussions about her heritage. She has questioned me with things like.... "Can I wear braids"? "Would that be appropriation?"

We discuss privilege and factors that can bend the equation. We discuss the "One drop Rule". We discuss class, and sexuality. We discuss my last name, "Hanesworth," is a slave owners name. We discuss that we don't actually know where my lineage is from because that information was not brought over with the slaves.

I didn't know what to tell her when she asked me about the braids, because for as much as I want her to embrace and be proud of her heritage, I don't want her desires to be misconstrued as disrespectful, or unworthy. If I'm not black enough, what does that make her? What do I say to her?

I know that my experiences as a mixed, light skinned woman do not equate to those of a black woman who was born into a black family in a black community. As a mulatto, my issues are different. As a mulatto who was raised without access to an entire culture of half her lineage, my issues are also more rare.

I would never make you fight alone. Please don't do the same to me.

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