On being black. Or not. Do I have to choose??

I had a bit of a strange experience on my way to work a couple weeks ago. That morning, instead of my usual casual Friday jeans and sneakers, I decided to put on a dress and a pair of shoes I’d just bought (round toe! twist detail! and on sale to boot!) Walking down the street, enjoying the sunshine, minding my business. When all of a sudden a man stops to tell me:

I gotta say, black people don’t wear shoes like that, it’s not our thing.

Direct quote.

I was a bit stunned, obviously (who stops and tells someone they DON’T like what they’re wearing?) but also confused. Firstly, what kind of shoes did this guy think I was supposed to be wearing? I wasn’t aware that footwear was divided on *those* kind of colour lines. Usually when I’m in the shoe store, I’m thinking “but do I want these in red?” That’s as far as my relationship with shoes and colour goes. My sister, brilliant person that she is, later provided me with what I think would have been the perfect snarktastic response:

Pray tell, sir, where can I find the nearest appropriately racialized footwear retailer?

Secondly, shoe choices aside, I was just actually surprised at being called a black person. You see, I’ve never self-identified as black. This isn’t a label I’ve ever chosen for myself. And so few people have ever called me black. That I know of. I mean, I’m clearly not white. But beyond that, my appearance seems to be fairly ethnically ambiguous. People don’t seem to know what box to put me in. I know this because they so often ASK. “Where are you from?” “What’s your background?” All euphemisms for, “I can’t identify your colour or features and this confuses me. Please help.” (And I don’t begrudge them the question. We all like to put people into categories.)

I say I’m mixed, if I have to say anything at all. Partially, it’s because I’m a bit of a literalist. If you saw an object (a shoe, say) that was painted the same shade as my skin, “black” is not a word anybody would ever use to describe it. “Tan”? “Dark beige #4″? “Tawny cappuccino sunrise”? I don’t know, I don’t work at Benjamin Moore. “Black” seems a misnomer. I know, this probably seems like a really stupid argument. But this is how my brain works. If I’m supposed to use black to describe skin colour, it fails, in my mind, as an appropriate descriptor of me.

So perhaps I might alternatively use black as a proxy for background? For me, this is even more of an inaccurate descriptor. I was raised exclusively by my white mother. (And by exclusively, I mean financially as well as custody-wise.) We spoke her language, read stories of her culture. I’ve read all the Brothers Grimm tales in the original German. The only cousins/aunts/uncles/grandmother I’ve ever known have all been white. Family photos = white (other than me and my sister, obv).

I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood. My suburban highschool was pretty white, from what I remember (I could go do a census of the photos in my yearbook, but I’m lazy). I have NO connection with the black side of my family. I’m not on speaking terms with my father. I know almost nothing about my (deceased) paternal grandparents. I’ve never been to Barbados (where my father is from). Labelling myself as black would almost feel to me like claiming a cultural background and a lived experience that isn’t really mine. Not mine in any direct experiential way. It just doesn’t sit quite right. Plus I sort of feel like I would be somehow discounting my Austrian side. My mother. The relatives that I do know. The grandmother that I did know and love, though she died many years ago. Again, “mixed” seems more honest.

Further, I have never felt like I was a victim of racism, not in Canada anyways. Not once that I can remember. Have I blocked stuff out? Certainly. I’m sure somebody, some time, somewhere said SOMETHING. But I honestly can’t call to mind a single incident where I felt like I was being discriminated against. I had people whisper about me while visiting small-town Austria (saying I must be adopted while I was out for lunch with mom and uncle)*. But other than that. Nothing. I realize this makes me very VERY lucky as a person of colour. I am also aware that this wouldn’t have been possible in too many places in the world. Not even everywhere in Canada. Not by a long shot.

I honestly feel like I’m neither white nor black. Both of those labels seem incorrect to me. Too dark to be white. Too light to generally be presumed to be black. I don’t mind “person of colour”. At least then I don’t have to specify the colour. One-drop rule be damned, if most other people can’t seem to put me in a convenient race box on their own, do I have to do it for them? Do I get to choose? Do I have an obligation to identify a certain way? Do I get to continue on with this privilege of getting to label myself? Or NOT label myself? Am I being selfish?

I’m not actually sure if these questions HAVE answers.  But I’m going to keep wearing whatever shoes I please.

* When I was travelling in Rwanda, I was actually labelled WHITE. People stared intently (not a lot of tourists in Rwanda). Little kids would point and say “mizungu, mizungu”. Which was definitely a new experience, but you get used to it quickly. You also get used to being overcharged by the moto-taxis for clearly being a foreigner.

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2 comments

  1. Kiwi

    Fun fact: according to the one-drop rule, the current prime minister of Sweden is black. His great great great grandfather was african american.

  2. Crommunist

    Your experience and identity are clearly very distinct from mine, which is understandable even if we only consider that you were raised by your mother, and I was raised by my father.

    Interesting and insightful. Glad you wrote this.

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