OPINION: The black, white and pink elephants in the room
I tried to be white, once. I’m biracial (Italian-American and black) so, genetically I was already half way there. In a perfect world, I would be accepted as biracial. But America’s incessant need for mutually exclusive categories has inevitably made me black. During the Jim Crow era, America created a social construct defining any person 1/16 black as “Negro.” That means a physical recognition wasn’t always necessary as long as there was at least one person along the bloodline that was socially recognized as African American. Although the Jim Crow laws have since been amended, and bi and multiracial Americans are now the fastest growing demographic, I’m still a “Negro” by common cultural standards. But, the good thing about social constructs is, as constructs, they’re subject to change. They’re society’s understanding at a given time of how to socialize. I wanted to see what it was like to be white, especially at Pratt – a predominantly white institution. So, I flip-flopped the Jim Crow criterion, and began claiming the other half of my biological makeup.
Pratt’s website lists the black student population as 4%, in a borough, Brooklyn, that has a 48% black population. Being that small a minority at Pratt means having to deal with racial slights. It means having my hair probed by uninvited fingers. Sometimes I’m asked if I’m wearing a hat (and by “hat,” they usually mean weave). It means being addressed in bad Ebonics. It’s explaining, repeatedly, that, yes, a hair store sells hair but it’s deeper than that. If there’s more than one of us in a class (highly unlikely) it’s assumed that we communicate with each other telepathically. I’m expected to know why the caged bird sings. Being black can be microaggressively overwhelming. But this isn’t old school racism. I don’t feel that the questions and comments I encounter stem from some deeply embedded racial hatred. Microagressions, stem from misunderstandings. I’ve come to realize that there are many students (and professors) who just haven’t been around that many black people. The problem arises when one struggles to find a correct way to address my “otherness,” as if normal address wont suffice. As far as I know, there’s never been a “black” way to do things and I don’t have to be addressed “blackly” in order to comprehend.
So, becoming white was fairly simple. Like I did with my former black status, I checked as many “white, non-Hispanic” boxes as I could find. When asked, “what are you?” I responded with “white,” emphasis on the wh-. I strapped on my Doc Martens, stocked up on Greek yogurt, enrolled in a Pilates class, and binge-watched Friends for a weekend. I was ready and expected to be welcomed with open arms by the white community exclaiming, “You’re one of us! Here, have some privilege.” But, surprisingly, I was met with either laughs or condescending glares from confused individuals in need of an immediate explanation. “You don’t look white,” they’d say. “But, that explains why you talk like that.” I still swatted fingers from my hair and I was still in the 96%. Instead of being accepted as white, I was viewed as a black girl trying to be white. My personal experiment in changing society didn’t work.
I’ve since reconciled with my blackness but I am and will forever be biracial. I embrace both sides of my genetics equally even if other people don’t. And the microaggressions continue, and “Oh! That makes sense, now” is usually the response I get when I explain my genetics. But rather than run away from them, I correct them. Fashion Professor Adrienne Jones once told me, “If you don’t talk about it,… if you aren’t made aware of it, then how do you change it? If you don’t discuss it then it’s just there, sitting, like a pink elephant in the room.” While my hope is that the growing number of multiracials will eventually make labeling antiquated, dialogue, communication, and correction are a good start.
But, seriously… don’t touch my hair.
—Lana DiCostanzo is a senior in the Writing Program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn
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