By Lila, Age 17
Ninety-eight teenagers sat together in a room, some in chairs, most stationed on the floor — all uncomfortable in the way teenagers usually are. Huddled together in our socially mandated “friend groups,” we were feeling our insecurities: Is the way I’m sitting right now weird? Am I too close to him? Should I have sat with that person instead of these people? Take all of that into consideration, add the fact that someone was in trouble, and we had reached a whole new level of awkward. One of our peers had made some racially charged comments online that were beyond offensive, and as a progressive school it was in our nature to make it an issue of the environment rather than an issue of that person’s behavior.
“Here’s the plan,” explained our class advisor, a soft-spoken biracial woman with the seemingly uncharacteristic ability to command her audience of awkward sophomores. “We’re going to break you up into four groups to discuss. I’m going to ask you to go with the group that you identify with. And if you’re having trouble deciding, maybe you can think about how other people might perceive you.” The four groups, she informed us, were as follows: females of color, white females, males of color, and white males. As cliché as it sounds, I think my heart stopped.
My dad is white. He grew up with the privilege of the color of his skin, but otherwise he was not what you’d picture when you think of privilege with a capital “P.” His father was a public school custodian of Italian descent, and his mother was a Scottish/Irish hairdresser. When he was seven years old, his parents divorced, and for the rest of his precollege education he lived in a predominantly black neighborhood with his mom and his sister.
I remember being a little girl and asking him what he was like as a boy. What was his house like? What was his town like? What was his school like? What were his friends like?
“We were all just poor. Poor people of different races, but we were all on the same footing,” he’d reflect. He was not saying that he was “color-blind.” He knew that he was a different color than those in his majority racial-minority community. He was pointing out that they were all on the same plane economically, woven into a common experience that rendered racial differences insignificant.
My mom is biracial. Her mother is white and her father is black. My grandmother has been a travel agent, a visual artist, an unpublished poet, and a gallery owner. My grandfather has been a published author, a police commissioner, a teacher, the conductor of an orchestra, and a television broadcaster. Growing up, my mom was aware that she was not the same as the majority of her peers; she attended an independent school where the popular group comprised solely blond-haired, blue-eyed white girls.
Driving in the car one spring day, looking out the window at the mountains beyond the crowded freeway, I asked, “What was your experience like with race when you were younger?” My mom’s immediate reaction was to share a story. Flashback to the mid 1970s. She was only a few years old and she sat in a chair in the children’s section of the local library, leafing through a picture book. Another little girl with dark brown skin ran up to her, and demanded, “I’m black! What color are you?” Looking down at her exposed forearm, my mom confidently responded, “Orange.”
“That other little girl ran off, probably to tell her mom how she had just met a stupid girl who didn’t know how to answer what color she was,” my mother said.
The truth of the matter is that my mom, as a child, did not have the vocabulary for discussing race because her parents never really talked about it. She knew that she had a set of fair-skinned grandparents whom she visited for almost every holiday, grandparents who were the color of the grandparents of most of her school friends. She was aware that she had another part of her family with brown skin and lots of aunts and uncles whom she’d see on Thanksgiving and sometimes on Easter, but not much more. Beyond that, however, there was little acknowledgment, let alone discussion, of race, racial differences, and racial identity.
I, on the other hand, feel as though I’ve been engulfed in that conversation for as long as I can remember. Five-year-old me wore socks pulled up and folded over inside of Velcro sneakers and had ringlets (reddish? brownish? blondish?) of hair that would someday become, paradoxically, both the one physical feature of mine that I could tolerate and a source of my identity crisis. My progressive Quaker elementary/middle school took pride in its diversity, and celebrated it by hosting various affinity groups. My parents, having specifically chosen the school for its attention to cultivation of identity, encouraged me to attend one.
“Lila! Later this week you can go to something called Black Kids Group! You and all of the other kids who identify as black are invited to go sit together in a new classroom and eat lunch together!” This may sound like relatively complex language to use with a kindergartener, but my mom, then a diversity director at the high school, wouldn’t have put it into baby talk for me. This was something that mattered to her. And because it mattered to her, it mattered to me. So I went.
My friends Jamia and Aaliyah were the other black girls in my class. I followed them down the hallway with its tiled floor of muted primary colors, scuffed with the markings of children playing “Jump over the red squares! That’s lava!” Once we reached the classroom, I timidly placed my purple lunchbox on the plastic folding table in front of me, and lifted myself onto the chair, making sure that Jamia and Aaliyah, my lifelines, remained in my sight. A teacher probably started talking to us; we probably started eating lunch. Other kids from other classes arrived. All of that is a blur. But that haze is contrasted by the razor-sharp clarity of the memory that followed.
“Why are you here?” asked Ariel, a boy from the other kindergarten class. He was asking out of curiosity; we were five years old. It made sense. Why was a girl with light skin and blue eyes in black kids group? But what his question instilled in me was not curiosity. It tied my stomach in knots. That was when I first knew that I didn’t fit. After that, I stopped going to Black Kids Group. I assumed I wasn’t wanted there.
A few weeks later, Aaliyah grabbed my hand. “Are you coming to Black Kids Group today? I heard there’s gonna be cheesy popcorn!”
The food was not enough of a draw. I somehow explained to her that I couldn’t do it or I didn’t want to do it — or some other weak excuse that I’d probably offer today were I faced with the same situation. Nevertheless, I remember a sudden shimmery feeling in that moment. I had been accepted. Maybe I could be wanted in the community from which I felt alienated, the community that I so desperately wanted to be a part of.
I tried affinity groups and diversity workshops a few times after that. Unshockingly, though, I never felt right when I was there. But the thing is, I felt equally uncomfortable, maybe even more so, in white environments. My experience never matches up with that of those in either group. I am neither white nor black. I am biracial. The shade of my skin, my hair’s coloring and its lack of tight curls — they’ve prevented me from experiencing racial profiling. I’ve never been followed by a police car for Driving While Black. But my mom has. And my grandfather has. And I still feel a fist to my gut when someone says something anti-black in my presence. Like a chameleon I can blend into the whiteness, but it doesn’t feel right. Yet it would also be inaccurate to call myself black. I know nobody would buy it, and I know that I can’t ethically claim the experience of a black person, given that I’m not buried under microaggressions from day to day.
So when my tenth-grade self was asked to decide whether I was a white girl or a girl of color, my throat tightened. Neither label seemed to fit. I didn’t feel justified in that moment to assert myself as a person of color, because I knew that I wasn’t experiencing the racial issues in our school’s environment in the same way that the rest of those girls were. But I refused to go sit with the white girls. I didn’t need their learned sympathy when I was brimming with genuine empathy.
In that moment, I did not have an answer, so I went to neither group. While I wish I could say I boldly protested the binary presented to me and pointed out the inconsiderate nature of making each student select a single racial and gender identity, I instead hid in the bathroom for the duration of the period.
I may have hidden from making that decision, but I do not intend on hiding from my racial identity. I’ve always found comfort in the in-between. I come from a middle-class family; we are neither rich nor poor. I have lived in both Boston and Los Angeles, and I adore each; I am neither an easterner nor a westerner. And in the same way, I take pride in being neither black nor white. My desire is to embrace my identity in its entirety. And while that may sometimes require me to step out of my desired fly-on-the-wall position to explain my background, so be it. I do not mind, because there is a profound beauty in not having to choose.
Still, I wish adults in school would have greater awareness of the racial spectrum — that many of us fall somewhere between the race categories. We're neither white nor black, neither Asian nor white, neither Latino nor black. Our experiences come with their own set of challenges and perspectives. But mostly, we want to be acknowledged and honored for who we are and what we have to offer the world.
To our teaching colleagues: We are looking for student perspectives and voices related to racial identity in school. If you know of students who have written on the topic or are interested in writing, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.