I was wearing my best polo shirt, baggy jeans, and gold hoops on the first day of high school. It was the perfect outfit for a ninth grader at the large New Jersey school I should have been attending, surrounded by all of my childhood friends, but a terrible choice for the suburban New England high school in which I had just been enrolled. Everything around me was ratty; tattered Red Sox hats and well-worn t-shirts, corduroy pants with the hems dragging on the floor. I couldn’t understand my math teacher’s accent (“How many pahts in a quadrahtic equation?”) and there were no people of color in any of my honors level classes; all compelling evidence that I was never, ever going to like it there.
By lunchtime, I had garnered the pity of a few humanitarian types from my morning classes; presumably they had watched enough teen movies to know that sitting alone on the first day at a new school was a social death sentence. They asked if I wanted to join them for lunch and I accepted, trying terribly hard to overlook the fleece vests and Birkenstocks worn with socks. They showed me around the pizza line, navigating through the tater tots section and finally directing me towards the chips and slushies and fruit snacks. They then led me back to a table filled with chirpy, welcoming girls all wearing what looked to me like camping clothes.
I hadn’t even had time to start eating when a figure approached the table. She, like me, had on a designer shirt large enough to fit a football player and had her curly hair gelled to her head. Unlike me, her skin was a beautiful caramel brown complimented by various shades of brown lipstick and eye make-up. She did not address anyone else at the table and they did not address her, the divide between them long ago established and uncrossable.
“Do you want to sit here or do you want to sit with us?” she said flatly, pointing to the only table in the entire cafeteria filled with brown faces, now turned and watching me expectantly. I looked from the table across the room, filled with the school’s only black and Latino students, to the table I was sitting at, filled with young white women, and then back to the pretty eyes of the woman standing impatiently at my side. It felt like hours passed, but not due to any uncertainty. This moment should have been pregnant with identity crisis, the crescendo of my “check one box only” aria, an anguished melody of a lifetime of picking sides in a world that never quite made enough space for me. But in fact, I only paused to reflect on a complete lack of conflict.
“Thanks so much for letting me sit here,” I smiled at the girls around me, their eyes growing large with confusion as I picked up my bag and my tray. “I will see you in class.” It wasn’t that they were offended as much as dumbstruck. “Is she ‘Spanish’ or something?” they seemed to ask silently, watching me follow my emissary across the linoleum floor to a world they would never know.
“My name is Jasmine. What’s yours? And where are you from?” she spoke quickly and with the practiced half-interest of a senior. I answered her questions, immediately gaining points for my origin and then just as quickly losing them for my good grammar and freshmen enthusiasm. She quickly introduced me to the students at the table, who pushed aside plastic trays and plates of steaming carbs to make room for me, and then she sat as far away from me as possible.
I would never know if her intervention in my lunchtime seating arrangement was purely charitable or simply a racial hostage situation that required decisive action.
And while I continued to sit at the “black table” for the rest of my high school career, I never exchanged so many words with Jasmine again. I would never know if her intervention in my lunchtime seating arrangement was purely charitable (Let’s make sure the new girl feels comfortable on her first day!) or simply a racial hostage situation that required decisive action (All the people of color must sit together – I’m going in!!). Was she helping me fit into my new school or was she just a vigilante enforcing separate but equal school dining? Either way, I had already learned by then that invitations to claim my blackness would be rare but I could be white any time I wanted.
Still, I hated my new school. That night, I begged my mother for a way out. “Let’s move back to New Jersey! I could get a scholarship to boarding school! Maybe Aunt Stephanie would let me live with her and go to school there! Please don’t make me go back to that place! Pleeeeeease!”
But of course, she ignored me and I was forced to return to that school every day for the next four years. Despite my predictions, I slowly started to make more friends, to decode the accent, to settle into the new routine. I still spent a lot of time listening to underground mixtapes that I would pick up on trips back to New York, drawing in my notebook, and plotting my escape. But eventually, I got the attention of a young man at school and we started dating. With someone’s breath on my neck as I leaned against my locker, things finally didn’t seem so terrible.
My mother approved of our relationship; he was a sweet, hardworking boy and very polite. But one day on the way to school, she dispensed some unsolicited dating advice: “Don’t ever suck a man’s penis,” she said from the driver’s seat. “Only nasty white girls do that.”
Where families on TV talked awkwardly about the birds and the bees or getting your first period, my mother inserted only blunt declarations and universal truths with no room for argument. Years before, when my younger brother had left school crying because one of his classmates was calling him “nigger lips,” she had been clear and decisive: “Tell him you’re black. That’s why you have big lips. And if he doesn’t stop, punch him.” If I was surprised by her instructions, I was even more surprised at my brother’s execution: apparently that skinny elementary school kid was pretty capable of whooping ass during recess.
On the other hand, I seemed to lack the simmering aggression of my mother and brother and usually preferred to avoid these types of conversations at all costs. “Umm… OK,” I mumbled, pawing the inside of my backpack with sudden intensity, wishing I could put my head entirely inside and zip up the flaps. My mother, as usual in such occasions, turned up the music and seemed to forget completely what she’d just said. As we merged into traffic, she began singing along and any hope of clarification was gone. Perhaps she assumed that this was not the type of comment that would haunt me for years; perhaps she did and that was the whole point. Either way, I sat in a terrified silence until we reached my school, where I jumped out before the car had stopped completely.
“You’re black?” said one young white man I met during college, tickled by the revelation. “I thought you were just white trash!”
“That’s true. Only fast white girls do that,” said my lunchroom confidante, Bernette, munching on onion rings later that day. Before Internet pornography, these types of questions were settled in the cafeteria by the girl who had the most older brothers: “That’s the only reason why black guys like them so much.” This was precisely the kind of logic a fifteen-year-old girl could understand. Not only did this make intuitive sense (why else would black guys like them so much?), it was very much in line with what I had heard from my mother over the years.
It was never stated explicitly, but I realized many years later that one of my mother’s main goals as a parent had been to guide me safely through the dangerous waters of adolescence without losing me to the siren song of whiteness. She worried I was becoming “too nice” and “too eager to please,” code words for a white femininity she spent her whole life hating or coveting, probably both. Or maybe she just felt guilty since her genes had clearly taken the day off when the DNA office assigned me both blue eyes and pale skin. So even if she couldn’t lead me all the way into the lagoon of black womanhood where she would eventually take my half-sister, she was committed to making sure I had somewhere else to go other than the Isle of Nasty White Girls; even if it meant treading water somewhere vague and unnameable.
And tread water I did. To the chagrin of my boyfriends, I followed this advice until some of my peers started having children. And even then, it was with a fear and shame that would have made the Pope proud. The other parts of my mother’s secret curriculum seemed to succeed as well: white women were frail so I was raised to be tough. White women were prima donnas; I started working at 14. White women were dirty, so I was given enough chores around the house to earn the nickname Cinderella. And on and on…
But I also went to summer camp and the theater and ate artichokes. And most perplexingly, when outside of our house I was quite often treated as a white person. “You’re black?” said one young white man I met during college, tickled by the revelation. “I thought you were just white trash!” he hooted. So while thanks to my mother’s tireless effort, I was not turned into a stereotypical white girl, I wasn’t anybody’s black girl either. I was, and still am, undeniably beige.
One of my great uncles used to corner me at family functions and deliver a version of the same speech in low, urgent tones: “You know you would have been a slave too, right?” He would look me directly in the eye and pause to wait for a response, although I was never quite sure what that was. “They would have put you in the house, but you would have been a slave still. And it was the house slaves’ job to warn us in the field when something bad was coming. Don’t ever forget that!” As with my mother’s advice, these encounters were impossible to shake but also impossible to decipher.
I started telling people I was from Kazakhstan just so that I could walk away while they tried to scan through their mental atlas.
Mercifully, at some point race no longer required daily navigation, daily explanations, daily bouts of hyper self-examination. But there were moments where confrontation was inevitable, most notably in new cities and jobs (“If you black-white like Obama, how come you only so white?” asked a NYC cab driver). Normally these interactions were exhausting, leaving me with a dull, irritating anger that resembled boredom more than the type of fury that started schoolyard fistfights. By my early twenties, I was simply tired of explaining. There wasn’t any political reason or newly developed sense of self: I was just over it. I started telling people I was from Kazakhstan just so that I could walk away while they tried to scan through their mental atlas.
Right after college I moved to Washington, DC, the place once known as “Chocolate City,” hoping for some refuge from all of the questions. I lived in a black and Latino neighborhood in the northwest area of the city, worked with black and Latino young women in the public schools, and successfully avoided any interaction with the world of eager young white professionals with eyes on a political career. In fact, I rarely interacted with white people at all. But it was also the first place I had ever lived without a sizeable “beige” population, and I found myself surprisingly whiter than I’d ever been before.
One day, I set out walking up Georgia Avenue, a busy thoroughfare bustling in the middle of a sunny weekday. The city had the annoying habit of towing cars to nearby streets when they were not moved during street cleaning hours. It was a better alternative than impounding cars or getting an expensive ticket, but it was a pain to find out to where exactly the car had been relocated. After calling the dispatcher, I finally found my rusty beige Honda Civic waiting for me in front of a fast food restaurant and boarded up storefront.
I got in, unlocked The Club from the steering wheel, and attached the removable radio. As soon as I put the key into the ignition, I was startled by a police officer banging on my window, shouting “Get out of the car now!” I tried desperately to remember the tips from the last community teach-in on police brutality where I had taken my students. I rolled my window down a crack and tried to ask what I was being interrogated for, but she screamed at me with such a force that I nearly jumped out of my car directly into her arms, forgetting completely any of the tips the community organizers had passed out on wallet-sized cards. I was halfway out of the car when she grabbed me firmly by the arm, led me to the nearest wall and pressed me against it. I tried to shake my arm free, and she shouted at me again, “Don’t move!” Her fingers hovered over the handle of her gun.
“Am I getting arrested?” I thought dazedly. Of course one can see this exact moment a million times on TV, but until it happens in real life there is no way to anticipate how one will actually respond. I was significantly less articulate than I had imagined. I was also much, much more scared. I stuttered, “What is this all about? What am I being held for?”
“You’re the suspect in a robbery. Don’t move!” Before I could respond, she began shouting into her walkie-talkie. “Correct, I have apprehended the suspect, fits the description: tall white female heading north on Georgia Avenue.”
I barely heard the word robbery, immediately forgot that I was not supposed to move, that I was being arrested in front of a growing crowd of onlookers, many of whom seemed to be enjoying the show. Lights from a police car flashed, a second officer appeared.
“You have the wrong person!” I shouted. “I’m not white! I mean, I am white, but only half. I am pale now because of winter, but seriously my mother is black! Well she’s kind of light-skinned, a red bone you know, but she is definitely black! If you don’t believe me, look at my hair. If you just let me use my arm I can take it out of the bun, then you can see it better. OK, well, then look at the photos of my family in my wallet; I’m the lightest out of everyone! I know, genes are crazy sometimes, but seriously, look at me! You know I’m not just regular white! Look at me! Just LOOK!”
The police officer did take a step back to examine me closer, but she looked alarmed and confused as she did so. I suppose it was strange that my defense against a robbery charge was my blurry racial identity and not the more obvious argument that I had not, in fact, just robbed anyone.
“I’m not white! I mean, I am white, but only half. I am pale now because of winter, but seriously my mother is black! Well she’s kind of light-skinned, a red bone you know, but she is definitely black!”
“There’s just no way that could have been me! I’m not white!” The police officer was now ignoring me, perhaps preparing to call for a psych evaluation. Meanwhile the crowd had grown to a sizeable mass; some people looked concerned but most were laughing and seemed generally entertained. After so many years of police intervention and violence, it was obvious that it was amusing to watch a “white” outsider getting criminalized in the same way. It was also obvious that no one was going to come to my rescue and that quite possibly a video of my raving would soon end up on the Internet.
The walkie-talkie started cackling and the officer held it up to her ear. She mumbled some technical jargon back and then turned towards me. “You’re free to go. They found the suspect a few blocks away.” She quickly turned and trotted off with her partner in tow. I wanted to shout something as they moved away or make some kind of obscene gesture to their backs, but I just stood their dumbstruck, watching.
I turned slowly towards my audience, a shocked actor at an awards show without a prepared speech. A woman came up to me and asked if I was okay, to which I nodded mutely. A man came up and handed me his card, he was the trainer at a boxing studio just a few buildings down.
“You have to learn how to protect yourself. These cops don’t give a damn about anyone,” he said, giving me a fatherly tap on the shoulder.
And just like that, I had been a target of racial profiling and hassled by the police. This was exactly the type of black experience that relies entirely on the visual, that no kind of explanation can affect—it doesn’t matter how your mother raised you or what your background is—what will the police think when they see you on the street? In my case, they will think you are white but then look at you funny. Because that’s what it means to be beige.