“I can say this now that you’re with someone else,” said a friend of mine to me recently, as we ate noodles together on an unseasonably warm winter Friday in February.
“You were out of his league, yes, but I think his attraction to you was actually mitigated by your ethnicity.” I could tell the comment was meant to be less painful with time having passed, but I still felt a familiar sting.
She was speaking about someone she’d set me up with a little over a year beforehand, a person who nine months later had broken up with me for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with his commitment issues. “It’s not about race,” he had insisted as I berated him while he dumped me. He refused to go down with a fight. “Why do you keep bringing that up?”
This is a question I am used to hearing from white people, even the friends and colleagues who often tiptoe around the subject with me, afraid to say something un-woke. It hurts the most when it comes from a person I am intimate with because when I bare myself naked and vulnerable for a man, I am asking to be called worthy. I beg for individual validation from people because society as a whole continues to put me and other women of color in boxes.
I never found that validation from my ex. A hypothetical conversation about the future made his position pretty clear: “I’m afraid if we have mixed children, they’ll have no identity,” he said.
What he meant was: “I’m afraid of what my children’s lives will be like if they are not white, and I’m afraid they’ll have no life at all.”
And yet, as the relationship was ending, he insisted race had nothing to do with a future that was now eradicated. I was never convinced, though; I walked away feeling that I had spent the entire relationship - alone.
The fact that I am light-skinned makes this loneliness even more pronounced, because the ethnic groups I most identify with usually do not “look” like me. When white people ask me why I am “making it about race,” they are really saying, “You do not count as black/Latina/native, and thus, I cannot be accused of racism.” I recently found my experience as a light-skinned woman of color on paper for the first, second, and third time, all within the last two years, in Zinzi Clemmons’ recent debut novel What We Lose, which addresses race, womanhood, and identity in contemporary America; The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe, a fictionalized account of Anita Hemmings’ time at Vassar College, where she passed for white; and the memoir Negroland by Margo Jefferson.
Thandi, narrator of What We Lose, reveals her internal struggle over her identity is perpetuated not only by her peers and family, but also by herself. Despite her status as an upper middle-class woman, Thandi explains her struggle with identity using the ultimate symbol of poverty - a homeless person - musing,
“I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe...Others may even envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.” (page 31)
As as a white girl at a party points out, Thandi’s light skin allows her to pass - perhaps not completely as a white person (Thandi mentions she is often mistaken for “Hispanic or Asian, sometimes Jewish” [page 29]), but as a non-black person. Although people with light skin enjoy white privilege on the street, amongst strangers in social situations, Thandi envies the camaraderie she perceives existing between people from the same marginalized community.
This community is something I often feel excluded from because of my light skin, although I will never be allowed into the white community because of my color. This contradiction appears to me as a series of locked doors, behind one of which is an identity I am still figuring out.
In Negroland. Margo Jefferson recalls, “Our cousin Lillian Granberry Thompson...was a few years older than my father and chose to live as a fair-skinned Negro, passing for convenience when she wanted to patronize white-only shops and restaurants; reaping the little rewards (deference here, flattery there) often granted her by brown-skinned Negroes.” (110-111) This sense of community is expressed in a shared mocking of white people who “fall” for a passing person of color, treating them much better than they would should they know their true heritage. But you are also edged out, either slowly or immediately, from your community when you betray them for the sake of white privilege, and the consequences are often irreversible.
I often think of my experience as being in limbo, caught between two countries, or two colors, or two races. Even without the issue of light skin, as a half black and half Latina woman, my identity is up in the air; but throw in the light skin, the sometimes cracked Spanish, and my natural born U.S. citizenship, and I have a privilege to compare against every setback.
Acknowledging that people of color fall across the spectrum of race, color, nationality, and identity provides a space and voice for everyone. Each experience is unique; none can be used to define another’s. I am looking forward to seeing more stories be told, and to continue to tell mine.
Celine Aenlle-Rocha is a writer and publishing professional from Miami and Los Angeles, currently residing in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She has degrees in English, Spanish and creative writing from Kenyon College, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia University.