“Check All That Apply”

The question and answer below are between Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky and NPR Interviewer, Michelle Norris for All Things Considered on March 2, 2010.

Norris: One last quick question for you. Are you okay with the term biracial, or is there something else that you would like to hear as a label or a description applied to you?

Durrow: I like biracial. I say I’m mixed. I say I’m half African American and half Danish. If I have to say that I’m just black or I’m just white, then I’m not telling the whole story of myself or my experience, and I’d really like to be whole in my conversations with others. The thing I like to say these days is, I’m a story. I think that would be the very best label of all, definitely.

Ever since setting a Google alert for ‘biracial’, I have read more than enough articles from people admonishing people of mixed race to claim one race to identify with. I have lost sleep over these articles in the last few weeks. I yell at the ignorance of the authors and question their ability to make claims for a group to which they do not belong. I can no more claim one heritage over the other than I can one son over his brother. I have started four or five posts debating the issue and arguing for my right to be both black and white. Today I realized, I do not have to fight for this right, it is already mine.

Some say that claiming both is a form of self hatred for one half, typically the black half. To this I say, self hatred is in claiming one color characteristic and denying the other. I spent many years as an ardent self-hater. Because I was not reared by my white mother or with any considerable representation of her race, I learned to despise it. We tend to despise what we fear, fear what we do not understand and misunderstand what we do not know. I did not understand what it meant to be white any more than I did what it meant to not be adopted. I feared being the enemy. I feared that one day everyone in my black world would hate me as much as they did my white ancestry.

I should probably use present tense in the previous sentence.

At an early age, I learned to dismiss with a wave or a shrug whenever a black person in my presence made a derogatory comment against a white person. And it was okay because I didn’t consider myself white, just light, as I was often reminded. For many years I claimed one or another Spanish-speaking lineage based on resemblance not existence. Today I cringe at the sound of someone black disrespecting my white self with an assumption of oppression like “you know they won’t give a black man that job” or “they only treated her like that cause she’s black”. However, I do not dismiss their experience based beliefs.

I can’t recall being in the presence of a white person and hearing such a statement reversed but then again, that could be because they identify me as black too. Oh and the worse is when someone of either race says someone is acting a certain color! Now I’m all about embracing some stereotypes because it’s so much easier than becoming enraged over them and many of them are rooted in a tad bit of truth. Black people love fried chicken, as evident by the Popeyes, Bojangles, KFC, and Church’s all on New Bern Avenue in Southeast Raleigh. White guys love the uniform (= khaki pants + blue oxford shirt and on occasion a navy blue blazer). On one day during my hour lunch, while sitting outside the Wake County courthouse, I counted seventeen uniforms!

Not a day goes by without the proverbial “What you mixed with?” A few days ago a student asked if I was a mulatto. A few weeks ago, I overheard two students heatedly arguing my Latina heritage. I recall being labeled Portugese, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Italian, Native American, Mediterranean and even Turkish. I have been described as light-skinned(ed), red-bone(d), high yellow, light bright, lite-brite-damn-near-white, oreo, zebra cake, white chocolate, mocha latte, and my personal favorite-crigga.

 I have been defined as black and labeled as white but I am neither and yet I am both.

I am biracial.

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From Sag to Swag

This post is in response to the N&O article “Shaw students mentor middle schoolers in dress, manners” published on February 10th and is dedicated to the current and future alumni of the first Southern HBCU.

Jayden looked at the News and Observer article naming the young men on the photo. With each introduction, his smile widened with seeing his friends on the cover of the newspaper. He is not a member of Gentlemen of Excellence but as the grandson to a staff member, he receives an education in the importance of college every day. Jayden fully understands the necessity of hard work, good grades and excellent behavior as a map to higher education.

Just prior to Jayden’s arrival, Christopher Chunn, a Resident Advisor in Fleming Kee Residence Hall stopped by to tell me all about the GOE and the evening’s ceremonial festivities. He radiated as he explained how the young men in the program had made a difference in his life as much as he in theirs. As he speaks, I think about the mentors in my own son’s lives and I wonder if any are as authentically concerned with their success as Christopher is with his mentees.

With so much negative publicity surrounding African American males, it is refreshing to read a story of inspiration and dedication. It is especially so, when the editorial graces the front page of a publication. Gentlemen of Distinction (GOD) affords young men from underprivileged families and communities the opportunity to participate in a rite of passage program that instructs on everything from chivalry to filling out an application. Rooted in the spiritual development of themselves and the young men they influence, the approximately thirty members of GOD encourage each other weekly and maintain a strong sense of camaraderie. Everton Harris, President of GOD, says that putting Brother before each members name shows a sense of respect and creates unity within the group. 

Programs such as these are not unknown to Shaw University. Building African American Males (BAAM), under the leadership of Carlton Goode, former Shaw University Student Activities Director provides monthly instruction and advising from Shaw University alumni in various disciplines of life. From etiquette skills to post-graduate options, the men in BAAM use their experiences as Shaw students and professionals to give back to their alma mater. Christopher Young, local lawyer and 1999 graduate is excited about returning to his higher educational roots to encourage students to take pride in themselves and full advantage of every opportunity afforded them.

The Shaw Communiversity applauds these men, students of the present and past with a standing ovation.

Now the challenge is on…where my girls at?

Thanksgiving Misconceptions

On this Thanksgiving Day Eve, let’s clarify a few misconceptions surrounding this wonderful holiday.

1-Everyone does not eat pumpkin pie. Black people do not eat pumpkin pie. You will be out of compliance if you show up to Thanksgiving dinner in a Black household with this sort of dessert. Of course I haven’t polled every member of the African American persuasion, but I know enough to know this to be true. I will admit however, that when this southern Black girl moved to Texas, I developed an affinity for pumpkin rolls. In every Black household, tomorrow’s meal will conclude with some sweet potato pie. That’s right, not pumpkin but sweet potato and yes, we will also have candied yams (loaded with sugar, syrup and butter). Side note: canned yams are not acceptable.

2-While we’re on the previous subject…we also do not eat green bean casserole. I’ve never attended a traditional Black family holiday that served such. Our primary sides are macaroni and cheese and collard greens. If we do have green beans, they’re prepared in a pot with some unidentifiable part of the pig, onions and seasoning.

3-Thanksgiving has always been a day of celebration. Its origination was out of celebration in the emergence of the Pilgrim and Native American cultures. Feel how you may about the Pilgrims, the “Indians”, Plymouth Rock and everything else but this has always been a day of thanks and giving.

4-Black Friday has absolutely no racist connotation. My youngest and I had a conversation a few days ago about why it’s called Black Friday. His thought, undoubtedly from the 5th grader on the bus, was that it was the day that all the black people went to Wal-Mart for TV’s because they couldn’t afford them any other time. As my friend put it in response to an idiot on a social network site “it’s the day retailers explode into the black after a season in the red.”

5-Most importantly, Thanksgiving is not just a time to eat and shop. It’s a time to fellowship with family and friends (who are usually like family). It’s a time to laugh, love and heal. It’s a time to forget about the drunk uncle, the imprisoned brother and the drop-out sister. It’s a time to ignore the loans we gave out and forego on the familial gossip. It’s a time to remember those gone on. I am especially reminded of this as my aunt, cousin and I sit beneath a picture of my grandmother and laugh in memory of her. It’s a time to forgive and forget (if only for that moment).

I am thankful for you for giving me the opportunity to share my words, my thought.

Happy Thanksgiving.

3200 Roberts Street

I grew up in the south, specifically Alabama, more specifically…Tuskegee. ‘Skegee affords you an education you can only get in the birthplace Rosa Parks. I was blessed to have received this learning. It was at the age of six that I was asked by Lionel Richie to take his hand in marriage right outside the Alabama Exchange Bank. Of course he meant in 12+ years but nevertheless, I graciously received his proposal.  At seven, I spent my Saturday afternoons in the summer watching the Calhoun boys skin the deer that hung from a tree in their parent’s front yard. With blackberry stained fingers and muscadine skins at our feet, we watched with mouths agate.

You can’t beat the rich history in Tuskegee, and I don’t only mean human experimentation on sexually transmitted infections. The streets breathe culture…the homes, the trees, the University, the museums. Fred Gray told me story after story of the boycotts and his defense of Martin Luther King Jr. You can’t get that anywhere but barefoot on a rocking chair front porch, overlooking the lake, in the middle of August while drinking a Tahitian Treat and eating a chicken sandwich from The Coop.

I remember the first time I saw a White person. Actually, I had seen them before at church but I always thought those were like me, light-skinned. They were accepted in the community and we loved them so they weren’t really White, not like those that burned crosses, hung men and turned hoses on humans. It was during an election season and there was a van full of people outside the WalMart passing out campaign flyers and ‘vote for me’ buttons. A tall blonde man in a black suit bent down to shake my hand. He looked at my mother like everyone else, with that ‘you must be babysitting’ glare. He gave me a flyer.

From then on, I thought elections were for White people. Real ones. Most of my Black brothers and sisters seem to believe the same as evident by our recent election turnout. I dare not believe that only 4.7% hit the polls as has been unfounded and undisputed. At least I hope this is inaccurate. Many of our politicians seem to agree with the unsophisticated philosophy on politics of my youth. I didn’t see any politicians who reflected our student population on campus, but I must commend Bob Etheridge and his team on their mission to drive Black students to the polls.

Unfortunately, he did not win but he got me thinking, actually a friend got me thinking when he questioned why politicians don’t hit up the Black colleges. After all he said, “they are the future, they don’t need to campaign to me”.

Little Wise Owl

I remember our first date. We went to dinner at the Mayflower. He put ketchup on his hushpuppies. After our fine fried cuisine, we went to see a movie. The Lion King. There we sat, two teenagers amidst many moms and dads who had waited months to enjoy the first animated Disney film depicting African characters. I had heard the complaints about ‘why they gotta make black characters animals’. It was an absurd argument. Nevertheless, there we were Nala and Simba.

I should have read the storyline. I should have listened to the reviews. I was super excited that my father was allowing me to go on a date. I wore my brand new copper-colored polo shirt and matching skirt. It would be the only time I would wear the skirt due to sitting on gum (imagine trying to explain to my father how gum got on my butt). As soon as Mufasa got to the stampede I knew what would happen. I knew how the writer in me would have scripted the scene. I knew. The tension in his left arm told me he did too. His father had just passed. The hurt was still very real and present. He cried with Simba.

Today I read an article about a little girl named Shannon Tavarez. She portrayed Nala in the Broadway production of The Lion King. Monday afternoon, she passed away at the age of eleven. Just two years older than my first-born. My womb aches with her mother’s.

Shannon was unable to find a bone marrow match. Being biracial diminished the possibility of a perfect match being found. This is not an idea I have ever considered. I often think of the medical issues facing Blacks in disproportionate amounts and those facing Whites. It has never occurred to me that there are medical implications to being of mixed race in addition to the emotional.

I am committing to doing what I can to save the life of a biracial child by registering with DKMS as a tribute to Shannon. I am asking all of my readers, friends, relatives…and enemies (although I doubt any are reading my blog) to consider doing the same.

 Shannon is a Scottish name translating to “little wise owl”. That she was.

Color Theory

Today I became a dog lover.

I do not love all dogs, just one…Poet. Today, the fourteen month, sixteen pound schnoodle and I connected on a very deep level.

Let me begin by sharing our history together. About a year ago, my sons began asking for a puppy. After a visit with my sister, they began asking specifically for a schnoodle (shout out to Grady, my nephdog). I was not fond of this idea but thought it an excellent way to teach them some responsibility and award them for good behavior. We got the puppy. I was not particularly fond of him. Over the last year he ate my dining room chairs, funked up my sofa, shredded roll after roll of toilet paper, soiled my carpet…the list goes on and on. I tolerated him because my sons loved him.

Everything changed today.

Poet needed grooming. His hair had gotten so tangled that the salon recommended a buzz cut. I agreed. “He’s a gorgeous little mixed baby. I love how he has schnauzer hair on top and poodle hair on the bottom.” The ladies went on and on over his array of hues: red, gold, grey, tan.

Genetics is funny. His mother was white. His father was black. He was adopted. My third child is a canine reflection of myself.

It took over four hours to file his nails, clean his ears, cut his curls and flush his anal glands (uhmmm, yeah).  When I walked into the pet store, the groomer shouted “Poet’s mommy is here.” I smiled. I felt that same sense of pride I feel when I walk into the classroom of one of my human sons and all the kids get excited and whisper “That’s Ms. Bennett.” He was overly excited to see me. He had no idea that before today, I was never overly excited to see him.

On the ride home, I remembered a time in high school where a boy and girl were paired as a couple and required to “raise” a baby together for a week. My partner was white and we thought it would be clever to use a grey stocking to create our baby (the teacher didn’t get it). We, like all other kids were taught that black plus white equaled grey. We were misinformed.

Sometimes black plus white equal red and gold and grey and tan or as I like to call myself, soft honey. Your color can’t define you any more than the texture of your hair… be you canine or human.

Check, please!

When I was working full time in Real Estate, during the recent crash of the housing market, a fellow Realtor said to me “Business must be really good. It doesn’t look like the market hurt you.” She said this as I climbed out of my new truck. She was being sarcastic. I continued to retrieve files from my back seat and without hesitation, I responded “No. I just got a new Sugar Daddy.” I closed the door and walked off. She stood there, mouth agape, eyes wide, heart pounding.

I had checked her. Never again would she make an assumption about my finances and even though I lied-she got the point.

I learned the art of checking my first semester in college. Every time I saw a particular girl on campus, she would make a comment about my skin color. “White girls shouldn’t wear peach shirts” or “Do you know this dance white girl?” It irritated me. I had been used to being called out about my pigment but every day from the same person was a bit much. One day in response to “hey white girl” I said “hey darkie”. She never said anything in reference to my complexion again.

I checked her.

From that moment on, I checked everyone. I stopped accepting what I had learned to expect and began checking. Throughout the years I perfected the craft of checking and the rules of the art:

First-you have to be quick with the comeback. Some people are naturally witty. If you are not one of these, attempting to check someone may prove to be a difficult task when you’re at a lost for words.

Second-once the moment has passed, it’s gone. There is about a three second window of opportunity to respond and you cannot after that time is over.  There’s nothing more pathetic than a comeback five minutes into the next conversation.

Third-make your statement and move on. Don’t offer any room for commentary or follow-up. Walk away, change the subject, or completely dismiss that the person is there by turning away.

One. Two. Three. That’s how I did it. I say did because recently, I was caught by a statement that left me speechless. While enjoying a bottle of wine with some friends, we began discussing my work. One of the guest turned to me and with furrowed brow said “You’re not black enough to work there.” I was stunned. I did not check her.

Fourth-If you let the opportunity to check pass, it will haunt you.

I want to go back to that moment. I want to show her the ignorance, stereotype, stupidity in her statement. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe I knew that it wouldn’t make a difference. Maybe a history of being told I’m “too white” resurfaced as a belief. Maybe I would have slapped the hell out of her.

A few weeks later, I missed another moment and now I see that just as I found strength in that moment in 1996, I’ve found weakness in that moment in 2010. I’ve got to refocus because if I don’t check the college freshman, the housewife, the coworker…their ignorance prevails.

I’m not looking for the chance to prove I still got it, but don’t give me a reason to right now. 😉