To define me — and really to define anyone — is complicated. Having straddled an invisible line between White and Black my whole life, I still struggle to find my place among my "people." My timing in voicing my displaced angst may seem inappropriate given the current public health crisis and extreme racial divide, but I feel there is no better time to air my personal dilemma. What I will attempt to map out is an issue within the race I have always mainly identified with: African American.
For as long as I can remember, it has been incredibly difficult to feel completely accepted by any one race. Since childhood, I believed that my mother, who was my main caretaker, was a mixture of Black, Native, and White. Whereas, my father, whom I have never met or even have seen a picture of, was, as my mother told me, Puerto Rican and Spanish. Then it all gets turned upside down when Ancestry DNA enters the picture and develops a little test that, with a mouthful of spit, can determine your true lineage.
Turns out my mixture is beyond anything I could have imagined. My highest percentage of ethnic DNA is from Spain, and then there are percentages from Nigeria, Ireland, Mali, Benin and Togo, Ghana, Portugal, Indigenous Puerto Rico, France, Cuba, Southeast Asia, Norway, and among others, European Jewish blood (I converted to Judaism over 10 years ago). To my surprise, my biracial status consisted of far more pieces than seemed humanly possible. Time has watered down all races, and I think it is creating something quite physically beautiful. However, with the new offshoots comes more perplexing racial issues. By this, I mean a whole new group unable to find a "slot" or a race that truly embodies them. I can only tell this story by recalling, and to the best of my ability describing, how my biracial status has always made me feel.
My mother once told me a story about when I was in early grade school and she feared that I believed I was White. She rightly assumed this, as I conducted myself as so and attended a basically all-White elementary school. If I tell you anything about my mother, it is that she was adamant about instilling pride in oneself in all of her children. She proceeded to ask me the question, "Do you think you are White, Danielia?" I quickly responded, "Yes." Horrified, she corrected me and told me I was Black. I tearfully yelled back, "You're wrong," and that I was indeed White.
The reason I bring up this story is to point out that I mainly identified with the children around me all day, for eight hours a day, five days a week despite the image staring back at me in the mirror. When I chose to be brave enough to look at myself in the mirror. My only desire was to fit in. The few Black children who attended my school were painfully dealing with the same issue. As I grew older and began junior high school, my other peers always commented that I had the "perfect tan." Never knowing how to digest that statement, I found myself feeling happy that I did not offend them and that they liked and possibly admired my skin shade. However, moments of true acceptance were virtually nonexistent, and I continued to feel like I was on the outside of every group — alone in my pain.
When I finally got into high school, I had high hopes that everything would change, and I would find my place in the world. In my freshman year, I won homecoming for the freshman class and was crowned "Lady." At the homecoming dance, the boy that was our class "Lord" refused to dance with me and said, loud enough for me to hear, that he "wouldn't dance with that nigger." A true gentlemen and upperclassmen kindly asked me to dance and we dated for a time after that. Although he became my knight in shining armor that night, I was scarred by the blatant public rejection.
Winning gave me a false sense of security and a belief that I was one of them, but once again I was faced with the truth that I was in fact different. Luckily, my school had a program where students could try out to attend a performing arts school, where classes were attended at a local community college. We were bussed there every day for half a day. In this setting, I finally found comrades and people more like me. There were several African American kids from the nearby schools, and I was happy to be in a more equal racial setting.
What I, unfortunately, learned rather quickly was that they thought I acted "White." I must point out that my mother and her family made a point to instill etiquette and articulation, I believe they did so with a bar higher than most. Some would interpret this as speaking "White." My family just thought it was the way an educated person should behave, nothing more. Color was no part of that equation. Nevertheless, I found my new classmates sneering at me, "Why you talk like that? You think you better than us?" What would follow after a few weeks at my new school was the painful realization that I did not even fit in even with those I physically resembled.
The moment one first feels unclaimed can be a revelation that takes one's breath and hope away. The loneliness that follows, and that stayed with me well into my adulthood, has never really been one that I could truly face or even begin to know how to conquer. I believe I am among many who experience this daily displacement, and it is something that inevitably has to be dealt with in order for the race I truly and mainly identify with, African American, to be able to heal as one body. Do I have a solution? No. Do I want to try to be a part of somebody who tries to find a way to heal us as a race? Yes.
Currently, I feel both numb and incredibly sad. Between COVID-19 and the racial upheaval brought to an apex by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, and that we are in fact in the middle of a real racial crisis. Believe it or not, despite my pain and displaced feelings, I have hope. In the last four years, we have become painfully aware of the fragility and our need to protect Democracy — to never take it for granted. We also have had our eyes opened to police brutality — and in many cases its racially charged nature. My belief is that as horrific as these deaths are, they have shined a bright light on something we need to fix. Now let's get to work on all things.
I believe I will find my place, Democracy will remain intact, and racism will be much more scared to raise its ugly head. For when it does, we will stomp it out. Let's no longer be indifferent. "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." I am socially defined as, and called, biracial. But I identify as a Black woman and quite frankly, that's the way the world sees me.
If you're interested in some of my work, you can check out my latest music video below.
WRITTEN BYDanielia Cotton