Growing Up Beige

Growing Up Beige: Appropriating the Struggle

I remember one day back in college, sitting in the computer lab with one of my friends.

She got frustrated suddenly, and when I asked what was wrong, she points to her screen at some girl’s Facebook page.

“I used to be good friends with this girl in high school.”

She continued on about their friendship and why they were no longer close.

They used to go to concerts all the time together, rock and metal shows with mosh pits and all that. The girl was biracial, half black, half white. In high school, she wore her hair straightened, wore skater clothing brands, and was wholly ignorant to black culture. The Facebook page I was looking at, however, showed a curly-haired girl, with post after post of shared news stories of gentrification in the city, think pieces on race, and general politics. Something had clearly changed since high school with this girl, and my friend wasn’t buying it.

The most recent of her postings was an article talking about the last high rise projects in North Philly. I can’t really remember the opinion of the piece, but the girl shared hers along with the article link. And whatever her stance was, it pissed my friend off.

My friend lived in that area of town. She shared her frustration over how article apparently oversimplified the issues, and how this girl was not only misguided in her opinion, but also had no business speaking on matters she didn’t understand. Then came her biggest issue about this girl, and at that point she said something that has stuck in my mind ever since.

“I can’t just take this off,” she said as she extended her arm and rubbed her brown skin.

Hearing that struck a conflicting chord. I simultaneously empathized with my friend’s rage, and sympathized with this girl’s identity struggle.

I am understanding the beige area, as I’m going to coin it, as the space in between these two feelings.

I am black.

I haven’t always accepted that, and I was kind of allowed to deny it, so I did. I can claim blackness, and I can just as easily renounce my race when it inconveniences me to be so. And honestly I found it to be an inconvenience for most of my life.

While I still struggle with my past upsets over my racial identity, I recognize and admit that I’ve been wrong and severely misguided. Injustice seems a whole lot more important than my pride and hurt feelings, and I don’t want to exploit this racial loophole as some kind of advantage anymore. It’s not one. I’m paying for my ignorance now as I try to work backwards seeking a foundation I didn’t think I needed for years.

What I don’t want to do through this process is to fake a hardship that I didn’t suffer through. What I don’t want to do is speak out of my backside about issues that have never pertained to me. I’m black, sure. But I don’t share or even know all black struggles, and I’m not going to act like I do. I will not and don’t need to appropriate the struggle in order to join the cause.

And I’ll join by speaking what I know, and learning and supporting what I don’t. My issues as a light-skinned Black American aren’t going to be recognized as real struggles to some. I get it, but I don’t really care. It’s my only vantage point, and I think as many shades of the Black American perspective that can be shared, should be shared and respected. We need to understand where we’re all coming from so we can collectively work towards one direction for the better. Colorism is maintaining division and distracting us from moving forward. It’s more complex than that, yes. But we have to start somewhere.

I want to hear perspectives and connect with different views and more insights, so you’ll find mine here, piece by piece.

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Growing Up Beige: Black People Scare Squirrels

My mom loves telling this story about when I was a little girl walking with her through Fairmount Park.

We’re walking through the park, I was about 4 years old. A squirrel runs by as we get near.

“Mommy, you scared that squirrel.”

“Yeah, squirrels are scared of people. They’ll run when we get too close.”

“Yeah okay, but you scared the squirrel.”

“Me? You didn’t scare it too?”

“No.”

“Well why did scare the squirrel?”

“Because you’re brown.”

Yeah guys, from the mouth of a four year old, black people scare squirrels. Wait, it gets worse!

“So I scared the squirrel because I’m brown?”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t scare the squirrel?”

“No?”

“But you’re brown too…”

My mom says I looked confused.

“No, I’m beige.”

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^Brown^

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^Beige^

So where do squirrels draw the line in their discrimination? My mom investigated further.

“So who else is brown? Does your Gran Gran scare squirrels?”

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“No.”

“How about your uncle Elliott?”

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“Yes.”

And from those separate ends of the spectrum, my mom asked about people closer and closer to my complexion, and she discovered that squirrels then started discriminating based on hair texture. Relatives with straightened hair were beige, those with curly or kinky hair were brown. This was me at four years old.

I used to share that story as a joke. It was funny and crazy how prejudice I was as a kid, and completely untaught to be so. Shocking, but comical. Kids say the darndest things, right? I told the story to a couple people sitting at the bar at my cafe one day. Peers, fellow 20-somethings. White. Typical coffeeshop types. I got a reaction I had never experienced before. It made them sad. They shook their heads in disbelief.

“To think that there are children growing up to see their own race as bad, scary even, just in their innocent understanding of their world…heartbreaking. This is where we are, sad,” one of them said to me.

They understood the underlying sinister cause of a child to have such a worldview. I guess it was one thing to understand the forces at play in your society, to understand the concept of racism and institutionalized racism. But to actually apply that to personal accounts isn’t something they’re often privy to. It had never occurred to me either until that moment, honestly.

I haven’t grown up to be much different in my understanding of the world since four years of age. If anything, I’ve gotten worse. A simple internalization of the imbalance of my world turned into confirmations through negative experiences that maybe this imbalance is justified, and I’m happy to not associate with the receivers of the short end. I’m beige, and squirrels don’t fear me. I can walk through the park peacefully.

I’m going to share more memories and stories of growing up beige, because I didn’t think it was something anyone would find relatable, but maybe it is. I’ve felt bad not following through on my promise of a piece about Michael Brown when I posted Java and Jokes on Hold two whole years ago. I didn’t forget. When I sat and tried to write, I just didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t feel like my feeling upset was legitimate, because I’ve never associated with the black community. Would my beige words matter? Would they seem sincere? Why did I suddenly care, really? From what perspective do I write this? Am I angry or upset enough? Wait, this kind of stuff happens all the time? I didn’t know. I might as well be a white person trying to care, because I never felt so outside. Rather, I’ve never felt uncomfortable being outside. I was entering a point in my life that I never imagined reaching, 

The point where being beige became unsustainable. 

And I don’t know which way is forward. But I have to figure it out, and I invite you on the adventure too.