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Through thick and thin: The true color of my skin

A well-intentioned someone once told me that if I insisted on straddling the racial fence, I deserved to get poked by it in the nethers. Ouch.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Astro, and I am the lovechild of an interracial union between a White woman and a (mostly) Black man. The nice word for it is mulatto but I have been called much, much worse. There’s a particularly nasty little word that comes to mind that begins with the 14th letter of the alphabet. I’ll wait while you count that out… Yes, that word.

The interesting thing about being mixed is that I was borne into a world that required, or at least expected, for me to choose between my heritages. When I refused, I was cast off by both sides. I was, and still am, simultaneously hyper-aware of my star-crossed lineages and intentionally avoidant of them. This created a myriad of problems as a child, including some rather interesting identity crises and social faux pas.

I had conflicting information being delivered from either side, both of which are equally part of me, and neither of which are complete. Black people wanted to know why I acted so White all the time, and White people would make “subtly” offensive comments like “you’re so articulate for a Black boy”. It was not uncommon for some pompous White church lady to extol my mother’s bravery for adopting a little Negro boy, because my White God-fearing good Christian mother couldn’t possibly be canoodling with a Black man and having children with him, right? That would be uncivilized. I hated those ladies.

Now, keep in mind, I was raised in Texas, where racism is alive and well and in-your-face, and people don’t even know how to spell politically correct. This made my move to Seattle in 2007 an interesting adjustment, as I had never been exposed to White Fragility in the way that it exists here in the Pacific Northwest.

Allow me to give you an example. Last Summer, I had the pleasure of attending a weekend retreat for scholars of a program that shall remain nameless herein. At one of the workshops that weekend, an expert on emotional intelligence (EIQ) was discussing the intersection of race and EIQ and was being challenged by a lovely young Black woman about some of the information being shared with us. That expert literally burst into tears and had a massive breakdown about this conversation in front of the entire room, saying something about how Black people always misunderstood her. She cut the class short and had to leave to collect herself, much to the shock and chagrin of the event organizers. And did I mention she’s a college professor and an expert on dealing with emotional conflict? That’s awkward…

I do not share this story to disrespect her, because I, in fact, think she is a lovely person. Rather, I say it as an example of the too oft reaction that well educated, well meaning, (supposedly) emotionally stable, self-aware, non-racist people can have when accused of being anything less than perfectly sensitive and anti-racist by a person of color (I should mention here that being non-racist and being anti-racist are not the same thing). They crumble into little balls of guilt and shame right before your eyes and tell you you’re being outlandishly cruel and hurtful.

Then there are those personages of Anglo-Saxon descent that like to assure you that they don’t “see” color, which is even more offensive to me than being an outright racist. News flash, honey, everyone sees color. I get it, and it’s fine. It doesn’t mean you need to focus on it, as though the color of my skin demanded your acknowledgement, somehow thereby providing you absolution for a crime you didn’t even commit. Why the need to wave the “white flag” around with such vigor and paranoia (yes, boo, paranoia)? Who told them they were the White Devil?

Oh, Black people did. Damn.

Although, in a general sense, I very much appreciate that our White allies are standing up for their People Of Color neighbors and striving to be more sensitive, sometimes it goes too far. I do not appreciate it when a White person tries to tell another White person that they are taking advantage of me without having even consulted me about how I feel. I’m literally standing right there, and this person is making decisions for me without my consent. It smacks loudly of misogyny, because men have been doing the same shit to women ever since the first menstrual cycle. I don’t need you to tell me that I am giving away my emotional labor for free or that I am being covertly oppressed. More than likely, I already know that. I can tell my own story and speak for myself, thank you very much, and I would appreciate it if folks would allow me the basic right of doing so.

I think that my particular background, experience and social location give me a unique seat from which to view White Fragility. I am, more often than not, the only dark-skinned person in the room, because I tend to feel more comfortable in predominantly “White” spaces than the alternative. Some (both Whites and Blacks) have called me a betrayer of “my own kind”, saying that it’s unnatural for a person of color not to identify more closely with their Black heritage and culture. Which is interesting to me because I’m actually more European than I am Black, but my coloring doesn’t make that evident because I’m also part Seminole Native American (thanks, Dad), a famously dark Peoples who actually look African if you don’t know better.

I have my skin color brought to bear on my existence constantly. I cannot date a White person without someone getting uncomfortable or asking me if I was sure I wouldn’t rather date one of my own people. I am made to be the token Black guy in certain places, as if I represented the voices and perspectives of all Black people in these predominantly White spaces. “We just hired this new Black guy at work” is something I’ve heard said many times about me. Black folks don’t want to hang out with me because I don’t fit comfortably into their social circles. I don’t speak the same way as they do, enjoy the same activities, or feel comfortable in the same environments.

In truth, I would forget about my skin color and my straddling of the proverbial racial fence if I didn’t have persistent reminders of it lobbed at my consciousness and purview. I think people are often trying to be supportive and sensitive, but counter to their intention they only end up making me uncomfortable. I cannot recall a single instance when someone has ever asked me what ethnicity or culture I identify with; they just assume I must identify as Black. My question is this: Why do I have to choose in the first place? Is it not good enough for me to just be a member of the human race, and call it a day?

It’s interesting to me that people can be so preoccupied with how my rights are being taken away that they end up doing the exact same thing without realizing it and foolishly feel good about themselves when they do. I don’t need a White interpreter for my “Black experience”. What I need is for White people to ask, to listen, and to respect my expertise when I tell my own ethnic story or express my identity. We are finally woke enough here in the Pacific Northwest that we’re growing accustomed to respecting individual gender identity by asking for people’s preferred pronouns, and it’s about damn time. Why are we not doing the same thing with ethnic identity? Stop and think about that for a moment. No one knows what it’s like to be me better than me. Just showing me that you honor and respect me by asking first, and that you hear me by responding accordingly, is enough.

To my White friends and allies, I want you to know that I don’t blame you, hold you responsible, or want to punish you, for the racist pigs who screwed things up for all of us. Relax, we’re good. But it would be nice if you didn’t make assumptions for me about what race I am or what offends me. If you want to do right by me and other People Of Color, do as Dr. King alluded to in his “I Have a Dream” speech: judge me by the content of my character, and leave my skin color – and your misplaced guilt – out of it.

Astro Pittman

Astro is the Editor-in-Chief at The Seattle Collegian, the President of Seattle Central's Queer Cooperative club, a fully-professed Guard with the Sisters of the Mother House of Washington, and a self-identified Queer-Alien-Person-Of-Color. He has won awards for his journalism and community service work as well as for innovation in leadership and academic excellence, and is an active and outspoken advocate and activist for both the LGBTQ+ and recovery communities. He speaks regularly at events relevant to these causes, and works closely with his fellows to support these communities. Social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion are his banners, and his belief in the strength and resilience of all marginalized communities is the driving motivation behind his work and his mission: using the powers of journalism, self-expression, creativity, conversation and connection to uplift and foster acceptance for all peoples.

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