Feeling, Living the Black in Biracial

This post is something I lifted from a novel I once began and then abandoned.  The character is quite obviously speaking for the author. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA younger friend, who is also biracial, has said before that she’s just never felt black, which I understood very well.  It’s hard to feel black—the way you think black is supposed to feel—if you grow up with more advantages than most white people have.  Especially if one or both of your parents is white.  You might get looks when you’re out together with the white parent—but everywhere you go, you go under the shield of the parent’s whiteness, even viewing the world through a white lens.  You can’t see yourself, so you may forget you’re different at all.  To be fair, the mirror will remind you, as will a stray comment from a stranger to your white parent (she’s yours?).    Each time, you’re jolted into awareness: you stand out.   Depending on your environment (better if you live near the coasts, where different is more likely to be status-quo), you may have some self-esteem issues.   Maybe you’ll become self-destructive as a teen: date some bad guys or develop an eating disorder.  You may become a tireless people-pleaser, allowing the world—black, white and other—to walk all over you.  But there will be nothing off limits to you because of your race; nothing a white person gets that you don’t.   Racism itself will be an abstract concept that you read about or hear about—and when you do, you’ll feel not outrage, but guilt.  On those odd occasions when racism is directed at you yourself, you may not notice because it’s the last thing you’re expecting.

I never felt black either—not until I got that black is not a feeling at all.  It is a part of you that you wear and are; it never goes away.  I was still dancing professionally when it all finally clicked for me.  Ballet dancers spend most of their working lives in a mirror-lined studio—company class in the morning, the rest of the day in rehearsal.  The only time you’re not looking in the mirror—comparing yourself to everyone else—is the tiny fraction of the time when you’re actually on stage.  So, maybe I had an advantage: I never got to “forget” that I was the black girl, usually the only one in the room.  (Though I was always told I “washed out” under the stage lights: you couldn’t tell unless you looked at my photo in the program.)

Ballet companies usually have affiliated schools, full of little girls in pink and black with ribbons in their hair.  Each one’s biggest dream is to be you.  When the company is rehearsing, you can see these tiny aspirants watching through the glass doors, hoping, wishing they’ll be in your place one day.  When you pass these girls in the hallways, you’ll hear them sigh with awe (she smiled at me! No—she was looking at me!).  After performances, they come to the stage door, begging for a smelly, used-up pointe shoe with your signature on it.

img002The little black girls—sometimes there were only one or two—always came to me.  I had plenty of white fans—particularly the shorter girls—but the black girls looked only for me.   I remembered the few such role models I’d had as a kid: what they’d meant to me—even on a subconscious level: hope and validation.  I saw myself in the girls—no matter how many shades darker they might have been—they were mine.  I liked most of the kids; I had smiles for all of them but the black girls were always first to get my discarded shoes.  I remember thinking for the first time, thank God I’m black; thank God I’m here or—who would they have?  I’ve single-handedly integrated three different corps de ballet in my career.  Maybe it was an accident that there were no black girls when I got there, but I like to think I opened doors.   Opened their eyes to the fact that—contrary to what George Ballanchine declared—there were skinny black girls out there with “feet” and turn out and all the other non-negotiables a ballerina needs.

It’s like Obama (how does everything circle back to him?).  This country is home to many, many black people who are educated, accomplished, refined, and yes: articulate!  Our president is all those things, as well as being capable of reaching people of all races—all nationalities—without making any of it about race.  And still, he wears his race with pride.

10 responses to “Feeling, Living the Black in Biracial

  1. Brilliant Lisa, I wish I could have read this when I was a struggling little girl.

    • The things we look back on … I remember always looking for someone who looked like they could be my “big sister.” I know there were times when I had to be that for myself. You too?

  2. Love to see your posts come through. Missed you. This one was great!

  3. I’m glad that neat experience of yours for the girl fans during your ballet years. It’s great!

    Um…..I haven’t yet had that true “mentor” feeling. Not really. No one has pointedly come to me in admiration and wanting some words of wisdom/minor mentor like words. Especially as a woman of Asian descent.

    Or maybe one just takes certain stuff for granted. I have no idea. But like once when you were besotted with ballet and practicing it, as a long-time cyclist for transportation, fitness and travel, I just bike daily….and hope more and more girls and women cycle several times week. (And maybe they would stop complaining too often, how hard it is to lose weight. Not cycling when one is having fun…no matter how slow one is rolling along.)

    Then there’s my amateur art, blogging….honest one just lives.

    I do feel “Asian” in terms of not from China, but of my upbringing and life exposures during my whole life so far in Canada (I’ve never lived anywhere else). But that feeling is an integral feeling that rises to consciousness at different times… some of it relates to how I feel about parents, how people do notice me, food I prepare and what I read in the local press by whites who complain too many Chinese signs in a Chinatown. (I commented that it’s like wallpaper designs to me. I can’t read the language but the script is not harmful.)

    Someone was joking about wearing a “national costume”. Well, a Mandarin, contemporary top is not costume. It’s just clothing with fashion style. That’s all. But yes, I feel overtly Asian when I wear styles like that. I know I wear the style with grace and don’t have to “pretend”.

    I know what you mean about the “protection” of someone white…my partner is Caucasian. I’m not sure if it influences how people treat me when they know my partner….but it probably signals to them (wrongly or rightly), that I appear more assimilated.

    • Your experience is interesting Jean. I think it is very true what you say in the last sentence about appearing more assimilated. You leave such wonderful thought provoking comments! I’ve been thinking about your last one and I realize I never responded! 🙂

  4. This is such a spiritual uplift. Different and yet part of something. Thank you for continuing to come back, each time you make me smile and feel hope.

  5. Thank you Val. Your words mean quite a lot to me!

  6. Lisa, this is so eye-opening. An interesting glimpse into being biracial. Thank you for your candidness and honesty into what it’s like for you. I’m glad you could be there as an inspiration for the little black girls.

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