A few days ago I spent a little over an hour watching Wanda Syke’s “I’ma Be Me” stand up routine. There is a section in this routine that made me laugh so hard that my daughter looked at me and said “seriously, whatever you are laughing at must be extremely funny….but please, for the love of lilly (our pet), shut up!”. Wanda was talking about the difference between Gays and Blacks. She stresses the difficulty of coming out as gay and she says that one does not really have to “come out as black” to their parents. The way she set it up was so funny. You can watch and listen to it here.
It got me thinking though, when you are raised in a predominantly white Christian family, often times your Adoptive parents just see you as one of the rest. You grow up thinking that your siblings who are white, are just like you, so you must be white too. You grow up not really knowing that you are black.
It is not really that they did not talk about race with me, it was more of a “it won’t hurt her if we don’t mention it”. The problem with this thinking is that everyone around me noticed, and called me ugly, morena (which is equivalent to the word nigger), and fea. So, if I was hearing about my color from other people, why would my parents not acknowledge that I was indeed black?
I remember being about 6 years old, I was coming home from school very upset. I had a fight with another kid who happened to be my color. He said “negra” to me. Still, at six, I had not heard my family directly say I was any color at all. But the boy told me I was black and it made me soooo mad. I got home and I was sobbing intensely (the type of crying that makes you convulse a bit, uncontrollably bouncing your shoulders up and down). I was mad. I was so very pissed that I was called black. Why had my sister not been called black too? I didn’t get it!
My mother put me on her lap and said “I hate to break it to you…..but you are black.” This was so devastating to me. Me? Black? I thought I was,….like everyone else. When she told me I was black I cried even more, maybe psychologically I knew that between the ages of 6 and 19 I would be treated poorly solely based on my color.
So I hid. I tried to pretend I was white. I spoke “white”, I walked “white”, I thought white. I wore clothing that I thought would help me fit in.
At about age 14, I was sent to live with friends in North Carolina. The family I was put with was completely white so I though “yes, I’ll fit in just fine”. I didn’t want to be around the blacks that I saw on T.V. They were too aggressive and they talked funny. The first day I walked into school, I remember walking to my locker. I had on these Khaki slacks and a button down shirt with a really ugly sweater my Adoptive mother had purchased for me at the Good Will before dropping me off in the all white neighborhood. There were 3 pretty black girls at the lockers. I walked past them pretending not to notice or hear them but in my heart wanting to be just like them. One snickered saying “damn, that nigga walks like she be white…don’t she know she be one of us?” I remember this clear as day because I actually turned around. I opened my mouth to say something and once I started to speak, they just laughed right in my face.
That was the first time I had actually encountered black people who would expect me to be black and one of them. I had encounter black people in the country I was raised in, but it was with more of an “I am superior than you” mentality. It was all about refining the culture in my country of residence so when I went to live in the United States, I learned that we are the same, but I didn’t know it or maybe had trouble admitting it.
Each year after the age of 14 I lived in different states in the USA. I began to open up my mind a bit but the problem I was still finding was that I was living with all white families who associated with all white friends and went to predominantly all white churches. I was the only black girl at the after-service potluck. I was enjoying meeting black people at school but wouldn’t dare bring my new friends to the house. I felt the families I lived with were uncomfortable with me in the house, and would flip if there were two or three of me. So I continued to hide.
I was really introduced to loving diversity when I was chosen to be Dione in the off-broad-way musical Hair. I lived in Telluride for about 4-6 months and really learned about culture and diversity. There were all types of people there; gay, straight, white, black and ginger hair colors. It was a mosaic-a beautiful site to see and be a part of. I was 17 years old and I belted out lines and songs and felt at the top! After all, I was chosen out of all the others who auditioned. During this time I had the chance to speak at a few High Schools about my role in the musical. I had no idea what my role meant to the black girls and boys in school. I was their role model. But i realized after the 2nd night of presenting, that even though I was playing the part of a black woman, I had not really accepted my blackness. I had not really come out.
It would take another 4 or five years before I actually came out as black. When I told my parents what they already know (usually the case for the Lgbt community), they were upset with me. They treated me differently because I wanted to embrace my blackness and because I had chosen to embrace it and they could no longer pretend that I was just like them. I told them that I wanted to be black and they would say “you are who you are” which for me felt like they were dismissing my new found identity.
For them, being black meant being loud, poor, in debt, full of foul language and drugs, pregnant at 15, and uneducated. oh did i hear the uneducated bit way too much. So they didn’t really want me to “be black” in front of the white people. I asked them why they felt so ashamed and they said it was because that was not the “way they had raised me”. For them, my identity was in how they raised me, surrounded by their kind of people and now I wanted to “be black”. “You’ll get tired of it” my mother would say. Tired of what? being black? How can i get tired of being who I am?
I learned later that what my Adoptive mother meant was that I would get tired of “acting” black. As if blacks have a certain act to fulfill. I told her after college that I was tired of “Acting” white. It shook her to the core because in her mind, that was all she knew.
I came out as black and it felt strange. Black is not an activity or action or mentality, black is who God made me and I’ma Be me!
If you take anything away from this post, please understand that your children who are adopted and living in a life, family and world that is different from their own culture or race often think that they are who they are raised by. Be there for them, listen to them, and for the love of Lilly (my dog) tell them they are different and celebrate those differences! Let them be Them!