Growing Up Black In White
I hear stories from other POCs about the time they were made aware of their skin color. They're usually something along the lines of you're out minding your business and someone calls you the n-word, a cop harasses you, or you get called names on the playground. Some sort of experience that made you realize that your skin color matters and that people will treat you differently because of it. I don't have a story like that.
One of my earliest memories I have about my life is asking my parents why I was the only one in my family with brown skin. I must have been around 5 or 6 at the time. It's hard to not be aware of your skin color when you're the ONLY person who is black. Not just in the family, but in the whole town. I grew up in Olympia/Rochester, Washington...in the 90s. Not that it's much more diverse now, but back when I was a child, another black person was unheard of. I spent the majority of my childhood being the only black girl.
See what I did there? "only black girl"—OnlyBlackGirl?
We were homeschooled so we didn't have much socializing outside of family until high school, not that it would have helped much. Rochester High school has about 0% people of color. The church was the only other place that we really interacted with other people. Our church was an old white Lutheran church. It was the church my mother was raised in, so everyone knew us. My grandmother owns an adoption non-profit and my parents had a logging company both of which worked very closely with the local community, so everyone kinda knew we were the odd family with black kids. It was here that I really started noticing people would treat me differently than the rest of my family.
As a kid, I didn't know why or what it was, but I always knew something was off. my mom would braid my hair with beads and the old white women would gather around me, gawking at petting me. Almost like I was a petting zoo. They never treated my white family members like this. If my hair was just in it's normal Afro state, it was the same thing. Newcomers to the church would ask who I "belonged" to—no one ever asked my white siblings things like that. Things we just not adding up for me. Between experiences like this and always being well aware that no one else in my family had dark skin, I eventually asked the most obvious question—
Why am I different?
I have to say my parents have always handled the "you're adopted" talk well, for all three of us. Talks about race, however, they were non-existent. After our talk about being adopted and explaining everything, they knew about my birth mother, assuring me she loved me very much but wanted me to have the best life. It was temporarily satisfying. It answered one question but brought up 100 more.
Was there something wrong with me?
Was it my fault I was given up?
Did my mother not want me?
Why did no one talk about it before this?
Why do people still treat me differently?
Is this even my real family?
Do I really belong here?
As an adult, I know the answers to many of these things, but as a child, I did not know what it all meant. Even after the adoption talk, we didn't address race. We didn't celebrate my blackness and culture. It was almost like we had to "tip-toe" around the subject all the time. Why? Was being black bad? Why is it so bad to talk about or acknowledge? I'm still looking for an answer to that question. It made me feel left out from my own family.
Looking back, I think it ignoring racial differences and failing to create a multicultural home, is a huge reason why I, (and I'm sure many other TRAs) don't feel very close to my family. Don't get me wrong, I love my family. I know they are my family. I know that I can always count on them and they will always be there for me. We all love each other unconditionally, but there's always this burning thought in the back of my mind that I'm not really, a part of the family. I mean technically, I'm not. Right?
I'm only here because the law says so. A million other technicalities and I could have ended up in an entirely different family. I see the bond my biological siblings have with each other, and I don't have that bond with anyone in my family. I couldn't even tell you who I have the closest relationship with, because I don't feel that I am that close to anyone. I guess my mom, is the one I talk to most frequently. But for the most part, I feel like an estranged child on the outside, looking in. We did nothing to unify the family. We were expected to be raised like the family was white, but we are not.
Not only were we raised white, but whiteness was celebrated in our families. Not in the sense of KKK rallies and white power parties. But both sides of my family are very proud of their heritage, Danish and Scottish. Many of our family traditions revolve around those heritages. Some of my most fond memories are listening to my grandparents telling us stories of how their parents immigrated to America and settled in Nebraska. Every holiday helping grandma make her secret meatball recipe. One of the greatest honors in our family is to receive a brand new cast-iron Ebelskivers pan, which you can only achieve by getting married (I have yet to get one). The point is, these are all things closely linked with my white family’s culture. Honestly, I’m glad my family has an actual white culture to be included in that isn’t genocide and burning crosses. Truly, I do love my white family’s cultures too, but what about mine? As much as I can observe, participate and celebrate my families Danish and Scottish heritages, they’re not mine. I don’t connect with them because they’re not for me...
Since you’re here…
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