By Brianna Suslovic
The chubby white boy who always sat across from me on the afternoon bus used to ask me if I was adopted. I remember awkwardly pushing forth a laugh, pushing his shoulder playfully. “No, of course not! My mom says we look just like each other!”
Yet in the pit of my chest, I knew what he was really trying to ask. Why didn’t I have my mother’s pin-straight blond hair, fair skin, or blue eyes? It clearly didn’t matter to him that we have the same smile or the same rounded cheekbones. He was confused about why I didn’t racially look like the lady who waited for me after school every day, standing at the edge of my driveway with a hug and a kiss.
Let me put it out there now: I’m mixed. I’m half-black and half-white, and yes, my white mom is my biological mother. My parents split when I was very young, and I’m proud to have an amazing single mother who raised my brother and me all by herself, without child support or familial support. Despite the clear love that we shared with our mom, so many of our peers from the primarily white suburbs of my hometown couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a multiracial family.
In elementary and middle school, I quietly longed for the straight hair that most of my friends had, hair that could be fashioned into neat French braids and side ponytails. Meanwhile, my frizz had a mind of its own. My hair remained natural––a decision made by myself, with support from my mom and her black friends who did my hair. However, on the few occasions where I showed up to school with straightened hair, the reactions from teachers and students was eye-opening. My hair, whether chemically-straightened, flat-ironed, or blow-dried, attracted so much more attention when it finally conformed to the unspoken standards set by my classmates, their moms, and the mass media filtering into our middle-school minds.
By the time I reached high school, I was tired of everyone dancing around the color of my skin and my mini-fro. I started to openly identify, for the first time, as half-black and mixed. Prior to this, I avoided the question of racial identification just as much as everyone around me. My community was diverse socioeconomically, but lest we forget, no one wants to talk about race in America. Since no one directly asked me about how I racially identified, I let people make their assumptions about my identity—something that I regret in hindsight. I was raised singlehandedly by a white woman, but with exposure to a variety of cultures and identities. I never felt underexposed to black culture, but as a young adolescent, I felt afraid to identify as something that I had been conditioned against.
The true shame to me is that I was afraid to identify as black because blackness was something to be feared and shamed. Even in my supposedly liberal upstate New York community, black students remained separate from white students in the hallways, the buses, and the cafeteria. They had a sense of solidarity that I distanced myself from, afraid to acknowledge that we shared an identity, a skin color, a genealogical and historical past. In my mind at the time, there was only one way to be black, and that involved conforming the blackness being constructed and performed by those around me. I was the well-behaved, serious and studious girl—or as a friend once said to me, the “almost white” girl. My blackness had forced me to become a bridge, making my white peers feel more comfortable by acting like them, “almost white” but not quite. I was implicitly conditioned out of identifying with my blackness because blackness was never explicitly framed as something positive in my community growing up. Despite this conditioning, I was often the only non-white, non-Asian student in my honors and AP classes—if we were discussing something about race, all eyes would turn to me. Reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in an almost completely-white English class was trying, to say the least.
As I finished high school and entered college, I discovered black feminism and womanism. I also came out as queer. Growing up with an incredibly admirable and strong single mother, it was always easy for me to identify as a feminist. I saw the importance of gender equity and inclusivity, but prior to age 18, I hadn’t encountered any major critiques from within feminism. I had heard of Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan; I thought that was all there was to know. Clearly, I was wrong.
As I read Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, and bell hooks during my first year of college, I underwent a personal transformation. I was no longer afraid to love myself wholly. I had been holding back my love for my blackness because loving it meant acknowledging it fully. I realized that being black and being queer were not things in opposition to each other, and I learned that there are so many different ways to be a black woman. My blackness was integrating itself comfortably into my identity, finally. I grew to understand how women like me had been erased and excluded from the feminist movements of the past, how the “waves” theory completely ignored the work of low-income women and women of color.
My black feminist possibility models have taught me to think outside of mainstream narratives inside and outside of feminism’s boundaries. Thanks to black feminism, I have pushed myself toward a better understanding of my own blackness, the way that I express it, and the way that I situate myself in black communities and black spaces. Largely born from my process of feminist growth, my racial self-identification process has been guided by the voices of those before me—those who gave me the word “intersectionality,” those who wrote poems about black lesbianism, those who dared to challenge the systems of power and oppression that work along multiple axes of identity, those who proclaimed that “feminism is for everybody.” Perhaps most importantly, I learned that my identity is not something to be shaped by others, nor is it my responsibility to mold to others’ expectations: as a queer woman of color who is now proud to identify as such, I can express my identities as I experience them, in solidarity with other members of each community that I belong to.