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When they say the fight against racism starts at home, they aren’t lying

My mom loved me. And I loved her. But that didn’t stop racism from living between us.

Maria Hergueta for the Boston Globe

I’ve never met my mother’s father. But in eighth grade, I lived in his parents’ basement.

In an apartment under their Virginia Beach home, I secretly stayed with my mama while she took care of her grandparents. The Osterheldts were old and German. Lawn jockeys — little statues of black-faced servants — lined their driveway.

Every day, I crept out of the back of the house, walked past those racist relics of the Jim Crow era, and went to school, where I pretended that I lived a normal life.

I entered my great-grandparents’ home through the front door, like a guest, only once that year. They thought I was there for a short visit with mommy. The introduction lasted less than five minutes. I went back to the basement apartment, where a baby monitor was always on in case they needed to call my mom for help.

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“She’s pretty for a nigger,” I heard my great-grandmother say with a smile in her voice. She meant it.

Such is life.

My mom believed that‘s just the way things were, that racism was something to shake off like a scrape of the knee. When I got called a nigger in a Minnesota elevator when I was 21, she shrugged it off with a joke about me being labeled the wrong slur.

My mom loved me. And I loved her. But that didn’t stop racism from living between us.

Anti-Blackness in America is so deep and insidious that sometimes my mom would view my love for her, our very blood bond, as something that hinged on how I self-identify.

Once, when she felt I was behaving a little too Black (whatever that meant), she said:

“You’re just as much white as you are Black.”

What was she trying to signify? That I should be less Black? And how does one measure that?

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That sentiment has been echoed by others in my family. It’s been directed at me by strangers online, too. Something about fighting for Black humanity incites white indignance. And if you are Black and biracial, it seems a lot of folk, but especially white folk, want to police your identity. They simultaneously want ownership of you, distance from you, and to size your Blackness or non-Blackness.

Racial science is dangerous, and supremacist Louis Agassiz tried to use it to fight miscegenation. He would call a woman like me an inferior “hybrid,” a danger to whiteness that needed to be eradicated.

And that thinking, hundreds of years old and still present today, is why I can never be as much white as I am Black. Because of slavery and rapists, I am more than half-white. Most Black Americans share the genetics of old oppressors. My dad’s family tree was not spared.

But I don’t live my life in pieces. I am my whole self: a proud, Black woman. I am also mixed, a member of the so-called Loving Generation — the kids of one Black parent and one white parent born between 1965 and 1985. Mildred and Richard Loving, a Black woman and a white man, were jailed because of their marriage and took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, winning in 1967. Loving v. Virginia struck down all remaining anti-miscegenation laws.

This was after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. America tried its best to never legally allow mixed marriages, especially if it meant a Black man and a white woman together. A lot of Black men were lynched based on the white supremacist imagination of interracial sex with white women.

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There is a reason why white slave masters wanted the “one drop” rule: When they raped Black women the children would be deemed Black and whiteness could be preserved. Whiteness is a thing people protect and aggrandize, even when they don’t realize they are doing it.

So biracial kids, specifically those who are mixed with Black and white, are not America’s hope for an antiracist future. Our existence has not “fixed” racism any more than our first Black president, who is also biracial, did.

My birth didn’t even fix racism in my own family.

When my mother finally made her wish a reality and opened a diner in the North Carolina mountain town where she grew up, she put a photo of my big sister on the wall. My sister, unlike me, is white.

There was no portrait of me in her dream come true. “You know how it is, babygirl.”

Yes, I did. She met my dad in Northern Virginia. She had me. And she didn’t return to Maggie Valley to live until I was grown and on my own.

She spent much of her life having to validate our relationship. People always had questions when they saw us together. I longed to look like I belonged to my mom. My hair was too wild and curly, my skin too much the color of peanut butter. How could the short white woman with hazel eyes, fine hair, and white skin be my mom? Never mind the shared deep, doe shape of our eyes, the roundness in our faces or the cheeks that are somehow both chubby and high.

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The difference in our skin blinded people to the fact that I looked more like her than my white sister did. Strangers wondered if I was adopted or just some kid she was babysitting.

Sorry, y’all. This Black baby came out of her white body. It happens all the time. But there’s an interesting thing that happens to some mixed people. In your home, you might be the darkest person in the family. In the world, there is a sick benefit to being a palatable kind of Black.

That’s the thing about identities in America: White folk have their favorites. They want to build a wall and get rid of Mexicans and Muslims. They seek to typecast Asians and homogenize their identities. And with Black folk, your very existence could get you murdered, but the lighter you are or the more you shape yourself to their standards, the better. That proximity to whiteness affords you the privilege to be the kind of Black person that white folk get so comfortable around that the racism slips right out.

“You’re different, Jeneé.”

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“You’re so well spoken.”

“I want to have a mixed baby with hair like yours.”

Colorism is stitched into the psyche of America and light skin secures some misguided status. And mixedness? That’s an extra serving of privilege. It’s also a second helping of hate sometimes.

My Black cousins and I, though we loved each other, were locked in a color war that preceded our existence.

“Zebra” is one of many names I was called. “You ain’t cute because you light skinned,” they said.

Before I even knew about European beauty standards, the doll test, and slavery, I was being schooled in racism and the way colorism creates a caste system by skin tone.

There were times when I felt so empty, I rode on the ego trip of microaggressive compliments. I nestled myself in the facade of safety only to feel shame as the reality of racism set in.

My cousins were right about one thing: Even if some folk thought so, I wasn’t cute because of my light skin. I was insecure. For a while, I did what I could to never draw a certain kind of attention to myself. I did anything to shrink and be less than myself. But no amount of effort spared me the stereotypes of being another uppity, high-yellow heifer or too-fast redbone.

The shade of my skin carried both a privilege and an offense. But being too Black for some and hardly Black at all to others is a blues song no one wants to hear from biracial Black folk.

Black girls with beautiful ebony skin have been dismissed, bullied, erased, and murdered because of their skin. There aren’t enough Marsai Martins and Lupita N’yongos and Naomi Campbells or Black Barbies to make up for systemic bias against them. Viola Davis was right when she told Vanity Fair her entire life has been a protest.

White folk have used their gaze and beauty standards as a weapon to divide Black folk, and that plays out in how we see ourselves and one another. Race may be a social construct but it’s also real, and far more complicated than an identity check box.

At school I might have been what some called “light, bright, and damn near white,” but to my mom I was always dark when I got on her nerves.

“Don’t get that Black girl attitude with me,” she would say when she was mad. Loving Black men didn’t negate the racism she was raised with.

She would get wound up over the fact that I didn’t have any white boyfriends, not once asking me if white boys even looked my way. She wanted to know why I didn’t have more white friends. She reminded me that I was half-white, too.

“You’re mixed, not just Black,” she said, on more than one occasion.

Not just Black — as if Blackness alone isn’t enough, isn’t beautiful, isn’t whole. As if being mixed somehow made me one level better. As if my not identifying as white stripped her of maternal ownership.

Yes, I am unashamedly mixed and absolutely of my mother.

That doesn’t change the fact that I can never be just as much white as I am Black. There has never been a place in America where I could claim whiteness and be accepted as such, not even in my mama’s arms. Not even in the diner of her dreams.

I’ve never made a big deal out of it. Because, to me, this is very much an American norm. Unless you are a white American, your humanity is always up for debate and based on the shade of your skin. With luck and unlearning, you find your sense of self and love your Blackness in spite of the lies you’ve been taught. Living every day in your body and loving your Black self is resistance to a system and a culture that actively conspire to make you hate yourself.

I fought a war inside myself, inside my family, and in this country, just to stand proudly in my identity as a Black woman. I make no apologies for coming out the victor.

Black lives matter. Mine is one of them.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.