What does it mean, to feel like your skin is never really the right color?
The other day in a grocery store in West Oakland, a man slightly darker in color than my dad told me I had beautiful skin. I had spent a few days in New Orleans, baking without sunscreen in an attempt to make myself browner, more obviously colored. He asked me what I was, and I told him I was mixed, somewhat simply, with black and white. He went to give me that handshake that white people don’t know how to do, and I was terrified of doing it wrong, of betraying myself as not enough of what I had told him I was.
He wanted me to get involved in some sort of training to become some sort of financial something, a way, he communicated, for me to make upwards of $10K a month. I had stumbled through describing what I do for a living, the way that I find myself doing often to strangers lately. He wanted me to jump on a conference call with some woman whose name I forget, and after taking his number, I texted him my name for some reason, intrigued about making that much money in a month, but afraid of him a little, for the way he insisted without listening that he knew what was best for me, and was only here to help. I was afraid to say yes to him, and to say no to him, the same way I am afraid of my dad.
Later, I had only gotten halfway through the grocery list I keep on my phone, and I was bent down in an aisle full of soup cans and instant mashed potatoes and ramen noodles. I heard a voice behind me, and I turned to see a police officer, with a soft face and a soft stomach and a hard uniform. He appeared to be addressing me, when he said “Ma’am, you’ve been 86'ed from this store, for shoplifting. I need you to come with me.”
Obviously he had made a mistake, and I told him so. But he led me forward, to the front of the store, where he told me another officer would need to identify me, and if I was who he thought, he would need to handcuff me and take me to the police station. I went to get my license out of my wallet, and he waved for me to put my arm down. “I don’t need to see your ID, I need an officer to ID you.”
By this point, we had gotten to another police officer at the front of the store; he looked at me and smiled in the way of people who know they have power over you. “I haven’t seen her since the incident.” The other officer turned back towards me. He seemed ready, like he was in the midst of solving a mystery. I reached for my wallet again.
“I’ve never shoplifted from this store before.” The other officer smirked harder. The first officer turned his soft face toward me. “You haven’t ever had two women come up to you in this store and accuse you of shoplifting?” I shook my head, searched my mind for memories that didn’t exist, anything that would explain why they didn’t trust me.
“When’s the last time you were here?” They both stared at me. I guessed at two weeks ago, and the second officer, the smiling one, said, “Yeah, that’s when it happened.” He looked towards the door then back at me. “Do you still have that blue bike?” He said it the way someone might say checkmate in a competitive chess game.
I own a pink and black bike, but definitely not a blue one, and so I only felt marginally guilty when I told the officer in a clear voice, “I don’t own a bike.” I couldn’t see their faces very clearly anymore because the room was getting bright and cloudy, too bright and cloudy for me to see very well. I don’t know what possessed me to say it, but I reached meekly for the car keys in my bag and said, “I drove here in my car, do you want to go outside and see my car for me to prove it?”
The second officer’s face fell a little. “You own a car?” I nodded, hard. He blinked a few times, never took his hands out of his pockets. “You can go back to your shopping.” The room felt hot, my heart skipped.
“So does that mean I’m not the person you’re looking for?” The officer with the soft face nodded. The smiling officer was smiling again. “Yes ma’am. This was a case of mistaken identity. You can go back to your shopping, and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
I picked up my basket, shivered, walked through the store back to the aisle with the ramen noodles, felt like every single person was staring at me. I wandered to the aisle filled with cereal and breakfast foods, paced back and forth three times as I tried to think of which cereal I wanted to buy.
Had I been wearing the wrong clothes? Does shopping for ramen noodles make me look too poor to buy my own food? Was the fact that I was more especially brown relevant? Did I look more black? If so, that had been what I wanted, what I was working towards by spending more time in the sun.
This couldn’t possibly be racial profiling, right? I had been in a store full of black people and with two black police officers; me, the mixed-race girl always forced to prove her blackness to people of color, my suffering never poignant enough, never as direct and as severe as suffering faced by black girls who can’t hide behind white features, who can’t call their skin color a tan. And yet the term popped into my head anyway, and I felt guilty, dirty, like a white person trying to compare the time they had to wait in line to the time a black person was refused service entirely.
I finished my shopping, tried to smile really hard at every person I saw, wondered how many of them had faced experiences like this, had not been trusted when telling the truth, had been forced to acknowledge that it was their word against a police officer’s, and that racism occurs even amongst black police officers, in a majority black city, in a grocery store without a single white person in sight. How many of them thought that I was the white person in the store?
I’m reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race for a women of color book club I joined a few weeks ago. Here’s a quote from it:
“There isn’t anything notably, individually racist about the people who work in all of the institutions [our black man] interacts with. Some of these people will be black themselves. But it doesn’t really matter what race they are. They are both in and of a society that is structurally racist, and so it isn’t surprising when these unconscious biases seep out into the work they do when they interact with the general public.”
I wasn’t surprised to read this, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to read it even before what happened to me in the grocery store. I’ve read countless novels, biographies, articles, poetry, about the black experience in the United States. I’ve learned that there exist differences, grossly misunderstood differences, between racism in differing regions of the United States. I’ve heard about the talks black parents have to have with their children about law enforcement, and I’ve thought about having to have that talk with my own children, though I have no idea what they will look like.
But I am continuously surprised at my own experience. I was surprised when I found Youtube videos condemning people who cruelly bring mixed race children into the world, with no regard to their inability to develop any identity, caught as they are between multiple races. I was surprised to learn that New Orleans had a name for people who are a quarter black: quadroons. I am surprised when people believe that I am black, and when they don’t. I am surprised to find mixed-race people completely omitted from discussions about the morality of interracial dating. I was surprised in the grocery store in West Oakland, when I finally understood what it feels like to have the odds stacked against you, to have a police officer completely unconcerned with your well-being, though you haven’t done anything to give him that impression.
I feel like I’ve been let in on a horrible sense of understanding. I feel the ability to empathize, at least a little, with the tragic truth of the black experience with law enforcement. I don’t know why it happened, why I was brought in to this understanding, and that is what’s the hardest part. I will never agree with the idea that mixed-race people have no ability or right to formulate their own identities between the hard lines of race. But I will admit that it is really difficult, as difficult and isolating as it is beautiful and interesting.
For those of you who have read this and who do not already know: I am embarking on a project of my own chronicling the mixed-race experience, and my journey through it. Please reach out with any questions, suggestions, reading materials, or if you have your own story to tell, as I would love to hear more and incorporate you into this project. You can reach me in the comments of this post, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org