My skin is somewhere between caramel and yellow. My ex used to describe it as going from Mexican to Middle Eastern to lighter than him, a natural redhead. It was always a comparison of how dark I was compared to his pale, ghostlike skin.
I didn’t realize anything was strange until after a conversation with my current boyfriend, a dark-skinned man of West African descent. While jokingly trading stories of our most awkward hookups and encounters, he offered a tale of being praised for his blackness, and then promptly being called daddy. He concluded with a final punchline “She was a white girl so she must have been confused.” As I got over my fits of laughter I tried to push through my own story.
“He told me to say I wanted to have his white babies.”
Laughter faded from the room as quickly as if the ceiling fan had captured it. My man looked at me and said somberly:
“That’s really fucked up.”
Uncomfortable, I acknowledged that it was, and the fact I had stayed with him for years after that made it worse. We could both relate to the pain of being the objects of “jungle fever” by well-meaning paramours. We empathized with each others’ experiences and acknowledged our shared struggles as Black people however different our complexions were.
I didn’t question it until other people began to. Members of his family saw pictures of us together on Facebook, and were amused that their boy had a persistent habit of dating white girls. I laughed extremely hard when I first heard this over the phone, picturing myself as the perfect complement to his Yale education. Of course he would be dating a white girl, he should be as romantically successful as he is academically.
Growing up in a small, rural town in North Carolina and dating a white guy made people perceive me as Black in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Back in my days living in North Minneapolis in a Section 8 housing district I was considered “white.”
I spoke “white,” didn’t go to Black church (I’m Muslim), tried to make my long hair pressed straight, and tied it with ribbon instead of beads and rubber bands. I hated to be called white. I was painfully aware that the lack of pigment in my skin was the dream for the illegitimate children of slave masters, the nightmare for Black mothers, the stain on white family trees.
Remembering this sparked anger at being called white once again. I expressed my indignation and my man assured me he had attempted to explain to his family the fact that I was mixed: part Latina and part Black and part “other.” But it didn’t matter; my light skin only means one thing and that was its color. It was closer to white so I was white. “They always thought I had a thing for white girls.” He sheepishly stated.
I grimaced at the thought, a common fear for Black women.
“Why does it matter? You know what you are,” he asked.
The summer before my junior year of high school my ex and I were buying sandwiches at a local shop and struck up a conversation with the owner. Small town businesses always have time for small talk and the subject of my race and his whiteness always made conversation.
She was so inspired by our young love that she gave us a free sandwich, with promises for more if we returned. I was delighted to receive positive attention rather than the stares we usually received. Aside from the race difference, he was generally known as a wrestling and football jock and I a quiet bookworm. Positive attention was few and far between.
The opposite is true of my man now. Though we elicit the same stares wherever we go: getting froyo, dancing at parties or even grabbing a meal in the dining hall, the attention is almost always positive. People will remark on how we are a beautiful couple or call us stunning. I can’t help but wish to be left alone.
I suppose it’s because in our picturesque appearance I am the “white” one this time, the daring one who dates a dark skinned person despite the stigma of doing so. My man is seen, to the general and colored community, as having the ultimate prize, a beautiful light skinned woman on his arm. I am the trophy, not the trophy winner.
Some part of me thinks I’m crazed, tainted by the hypersensitivity that plagues our campus and race relations today. After all, how could anyone mean anything negative when calling my man and me a beautiful couple?
I don’t want to be the light skinned Black, non-Spanish speaking Latina or the white girl with no white blood to speak of.
by Sarah Pearl Heard