Excerpted from a “Local Spin” column, originally published Feb. 21, 2013.
Growing up in mid-Carmel Valley, I was an obvious member of a tiny minority. I grew up a child of mixed race, Black and white, in a home with two white parents in a small, affluent area of predominantly white people. At Tularcitos Elementary School, I was the only Black child I knew of; at Carmel Middle School I only encountered two Black kids – a brother and sister; and in high school at York, there were about 10 Black students in a student body of 220. York was consciously diverse.
It didn’t matter that I was biracial, because I was a person of color surrounded by whites. That made me Black. It reminds me of the one-drop rule – the classification around the 1900s that any person with one drop of “Negro” blood was Black.
It was often assumed I was adopted. In fact, I have a similar background to President Barack Obama. I was raised by a white mother who had been married to my Cameroonian Black father, then my mother and I moved back to the U.S., and from the age of 3, I was raised by my white stepfather [Weekly Founder & CEO Bradley Zeve].
My skin is what the French-speaking Cameroonians call cafe au lait – coffee with milk – and my hair is a hybrid, too, with long ringlets like corkscrew pasta. In grade school I was aware I was different and sometimes I wished my hair was straight like the other girls.
I only remember hearing directly racist comments on rare occasions, though I wonder if I didn’t recognize racism at times. Throughout school I was the target of certain mean kids. Middle school, and especially high school, isn’t for the weak. I look at it as a fact of life, ultimately a rite of passage.
Once some boys on the bus taunted me, calling me “Michael Jackson.” Another time there was a comment about my skin color. I competed against Carmel’s teams in field hockey, soccer and track and was often on campus for football games and other events. There was a group of mean girls who regularly tormented me with insults or threw things at me.
One time I was at a Carmel High football game to watch my then-boyfriend play. One mean girl looked right in my eyes and said loudly, “That’s the ugliest girl I’ve ever seen.” I shrugged it off, but it’s something I’ve always remembered.
I realized how limited my racial experience in Monterey County was when I moved away to attend college. I attended undergraduate school in North Carolina, graduate school in Chicago and worked in Washington, D.C. for two years. These culturally diverse cities with larger Black populations helped me realize the impact growing up with little exposure to a Black community had on me. I was an outsider in my circle of white friends, who considered me to be Black. In my circle of Black friends I was considered white because of my lack of a Black experience.
I realized I didn’t know who I was at all.
I wish I’d had more Black influence and Black culture during my childhood because I wasn’t easily accepted into the Black community in college. I was perceived by them as elitist and as someone who rejected my Blackness, when that wasn’t the case at all.
When I have children, I want them raised in a family where there are others who look like they do. I want my children to grow up with an education about race, with a full understanding of who they are. At my own family functions, sometimes there are more than 20 people in a room, and I’m the only person of color. I don’t feel as connected as I’d like. I find that I enjoy attending family events with friends who have Black or biracial family members and I’m not the only one who’s different.
This value is reinforced by other biracial friends I have who experienced the culture of only one race in their childhoods. We share a feeling that something is missing, and constantly have to prove that we belong in both groups.
Growing up in Carmel, where there are so few Blacks, it was an oversimplified matter of Black and white. In the cities of America I met Blacks from all the tribes of Africa, from the Caribbean and all over America, and discovered many nuances of diversity within Black communities. With a little help from my friends in support of my personal journey, I was able to come into myself as a Black person.