A few years ago, I found out I was black. For most black folks, their blackness would have been self-evident, part of who they were from the moment they were born. But for me, this girl in a white body, who had always identified as white – or more correctly had not consciously identified as anything since so much of American society sees whiteness as normative, not racialized – this information was new, a new way of seeing myself, of understanding who I was in a world.
It was also something I could forget, put aside, take up when it served me. I never pulled a Rachel Dolezol, thank goodness, always being sure to say I identify – and am identified – as white, but I still can pick up this black identity when it suits me and shelve it when it doesn’t because it doesn’t reside in my body.
No one touches my hair when I’m out in public. We don’t do that to white women.
I’m still praying, thinking, working, talking, listening through what it means to be a woman whose ancestors were black, whose ancestors “passed” and became white, whose ancestors chose whiteness – for what I can only know to be powerful, necessary, safety-filled reasons – and so chose that identity for her. I will probably be building up and tearing down these ideas for the rest of my life. I’m okay with that.
How could I not be okay with carrying the weight of questions when I only carry blackness for the strength and gift that it is? I don’t carry the weight of the segregation, the oppression, the dismissal. I don’t carry it with the stereotypes about intellect or athletic prowess. I don’t carry it with the assumption of criminality or promiscuity. I don’t carry it with any of the awfulness of things that come from other people and are laid against black bodies.
So today, in my own white body that courses with the blood of courageous, flawed, gorgeous black men and women, I speak loud this question – Fellow white people, what burden are you laying against our black brothers and sisters? What prejudices? What assumptions? What misguided responsibility for racism are we placing on their backs?
And will you join me in shifting all of that weight onto our own bodies? Will you stand with me as we accept the fact of racism as OURS to mend? Will you let your black brothers and sisters lean into you with their burdens, let them slide some of that heaviness onto your shoulders? Will you?
I hope so, I pray so because when we white people shoulder this burden, when we lift it onto our own white-clad bodies, we can sometimes put it aside. That’s not possible for our friends who walk in brown, yellow, black, or red skin. . . Not ever.
It wasn’t possible for my ancestors, and so they took up whiteness as their shield. The least I can do now is put my own body out as a shield for those who do not, could not have that choice.
I honor, respect, even understand my ancestors’ choice. But what a shame they had to make it.