Has a White woman ever touched your hair without permission? It happens to me more often than not. They want to know, “Is it real? Is that all your hair?” Yes, and please stop petting me like an exotic animal. “Ohhh, mixed people are the most beautiful. Don’t you think?” No. I don’t. I think beauty is a social construct. I actually don’t say that, but I sure as hell am thinking it. The thing is, I’m being paid a compliment, and the person paying the compliment doesn’t know they are fetishizing me. But how do you explain to someone who subscribes to mainstream ideals of beauty, all the racialized nuances of what they are saying?
The mulatta has historically been the subject of much fascination for centuries. The iconic female figure of racial ambiguity has represented the exotic “Other” – an object of male fantasy in which mixed race women are reduced to their body parts. And the danger in exoticizing us, is that we are reduced to objects to be admired, or even conquered. It is in this way we dehumanize and further oppress mixed race folks, which only adds to the complexities of racism. All women of color have been exoticized and fetishized in various ways, but this story is mine, and so what you read below does not exclude others from having had similar experiences.
I am half Black and half Italian. My honey-colored skin and curly hair give me a certain kind of privilege in the world. I am perceived as being more attractive than my darker sisters because our society has engrained in us the insufferable idea that lighter is beautiful, and somehow more valuable. This prevailing hegemonic cultural attitude has perpetuated competition amongst Black women for centuries, with dark skinned women getting the short end of stick. I have been praised, exalted, and envied for something I was born with, rather than something I earned, and I struggle with it daily.
My mixed race identity has always been a bit complicated. Having been called an Oreo by Black classmates in grade school made me insecure. I struggled with what it meant to be described as Black on the outside and White on the inside. I quickly discovered that I was perceived as thinking I was better than they were because I talked like a White girl, and that made me the enemy. My acute sensitivity and inherent shyness were no help to me. I was not quite sure where I fit in.
As a college student I tried to fit in with my Black peers, who I wanted to connect with, especially living on a small, mostly White campus. And I began to make friends until Black guys started asking me out instead of my dark skinned sisters. And I was not any smarter or more charming than my counterparts. Rest assured, I was made to feel special because of my light skin and “good hair.” I felt a lot of guilt about this, but also reveled in having the male attention I’d been denied as an awkward high-school student. I yearned for those friendships, but valued being attractive to men much more at that time in my life. And I didn’t fully understand the implications of my choice until later in life.
I remained angry and confused about why I held privilege over women with darker skin and kinkier hair than mine. And despite the fact that I am half Black, to voice my frustration to Black women who were darker than I, felt dangerous and patronizing. I feared sounding like a White person who says, “I have lots of Black friends!” Which of course, is incredibly racist, because it implies that someone who has tremendous privilege (White people) can understand the oppression of others (people of color). And they never will. Just as I will never know what it’s like to live in a world that sees dark skin and kinky hair as third rate – undesirable even.
And so when people pay me a compliment that alludes to my mixed race, I am polite, but indifferent. Because what they are really saying is that I’m beautiful because I’m just different enough. I’m Other. Though it may not be intentional, this type of fetishizing feeds into racism by reinforcing western beauty ideals that say to be too brown is overly exotic, and to be too pale isn’t exotic enough. And thus I am left with the feeling that I am somehow racially superior in many ways, yet I belong nowhere. I have been systematically reduced to an object of societal fascination.
I have also had the experience of White folks not seeing me as a Black woman. They have “otherized” me, which somehow gives them license to test out their racist theories about people of color on me. I am often shocked at how bold they are. It’s as though my light skin blinds them to the fact that I am a woman of color who has experienced oppression. And so it falls upon me to school them. To tell them that I am a Black woman – that Black women are as diverse in skin color as we are in culture, and that all of us are valuable.
Recently a co-worker made a comment about how nice my skin is. She asked what I do to take care of it. I told her, and no sooner did another co-worker come up and say, “It’s that Italian genetics working for you.” I said, “Actually it’s my African genetics. Haven’t you ever heard the saying good black don’t crack?” I said it jokingly, but really I meant it. My point is that people are so reluctant to ascribe any value or beauty to my Black side that I have to check them. It’s as though being half Italian (White) has won me a VIP pass. And I love my Italian culture very deeply. But it doesn’t require defending.
The problem is that many folks are not as interested in celebrating my Black side. They don’t want to know that my mother is a Ph.D. and tenured professor who grew up in the projects of Boston, being called Black and ugly. They are not interested in knowing how intentional she was about making sure I understood the implications of the unearned privilege I was born with as light-skinned child in a highly-educated, middle-class family. They do not understand how I struggled to find my identity in a culture that demands we choose sides. I’m lucky. I’m not too brown and not too white. I’m just right. I’m exotic.
But, who am I really? I’m the daughter of a socially conscious interracial couple who have been married 43 years. I’m a writer, a feminist, and an activist. At age 39, I’ve settled into a life that includes a progressive White husband from South Dakota, and a diverse group of friends who are committed to having discussions about race, oppression, and sexism. I am a lover of food—everything from the collard greens and spaghetti I grew up eating, to the tasty concoctions I prepare in my South Los Angeles kitchen. Phrases like, “Chile, please” and “Andiamo,–dai!” roll off my tongue in equal measure. I have found peace and purpose in my life as a Black woman who speaks Italian, wears her hair natural, and challenges the status quo. I have the kind of balance that I’ve always wanted, finding strength in my mixed heritage, and making sure to use my privilege to highlight injustice in the world. I’m not an object after all. I’m just one human being trying to make a difference.