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Growing up 'White'

  • 13 October 2020 / By Rachel Manigault
  • Kin + Carta Inside Kin + Carta

On Tuesday, we #PasstheMic to those with enriching perspectives to share their views and goals. Today, Rachel Manigault - Senior Manager, PSA PO & Business Intelligence shares her lived experiences and learnings with us.

Let me tell you my story.

I remember being a young child, waiting for my (white) mother to checkout at the grocery store. A woman wearing a chador came up to me and started speaking in a foreign language in an overly familiar way. I panicked slightly, thinking she was somehow going to try and take me away with her. 

 

Questions, questions

As I got older, I continued to have experiences with people who were curious about me. I remember the first time someone asked me where I was from. I replied that I was from Indiana. The person clarified, “No, I mean where are your parents from?” And again, the follow up question: “But where did their families come from?” Very confused, I said I didn’t know and everyone had been here in the States for a really long time. 

Now when I get that question, I know what it means. For the most part people are respectful and say “I hope you don’t mind me asking” to indicate that they’re just curious.

In high school, I remember people asking if I was Puerto Rican. And at my favorite Indian restaurant at college I noticed that all of the Indian workers kept looking at me. When I went to pay, the cashier asked if I was Indian. Just last week a man wanted to know my ethnicity, keen to say he thought I was Hispanic. 

Mixed messages

Can you choose your race? You can choose how you self-identify, but I don’t think race is something that individuals can control completely. My dad, who is mixed race, has often tried because he doesn’t want to be put in a box by someone else. He just wants to be and be seen as himself. I got the impression he was fighting against the concept of race itself by refusing to participate, with the statement: “I’m not Black”. 

We never really talked about race at all. I always understood that it was something that my dad had to deal with out in the world and not ever something that did or would affect his children. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where the grave impacts of race have continued to break through to the next generation.

Through recent talks, I’ve learned that many of us were brought up colorblind, oblivious to the fact that race was something that could still haunt us. For me, growing up in a white community, I was clearly not like my peers. My skin was always referred to as tan: “How lucky you are to have a natural tan!” “Is your skin tan in the winter too?” If the topic of race came up amongst friends, I would hear that they didn’t “see me as Black.” But I also had a childhood best friend that told me I couldn’t come over when her grandpa was visiting because he was racist. 

So, what am I supposed to be then? Black, not Black, non-white, a person of color? Sure, it’s one thing to just ‘be yourself’ and not worry about finding your identity. But, with what we’ve all witnessed recently, it can be VERY important to know how you present to other people and how careful you need to be in certain situations.

Looking back

When I look back I can see a resistance to identifying as Black. I could clearly witness that society believed ‘white was better’ by the way people treated or spoke about each other. There was no difference between me and my friends other than my perpetual tan. 

Although nothing was said overtly, I knew I wasn’t white whenever race was mentioned offhand. There was always an awkwardness that hung in the air during those kinds of conversations. Maybe that’s why I tended toward rule following or people-pleasing. I didn’t need another reason to feel ‘othered’. So, I pushed it all down; I buried it. It didn’t matter how I identified. 

What caused this invisible chasm? I believe it was growing up in a solidly white community until my high school years. The few prominent people of color within my community just seemed to reinforce the idea that ‘exceptions’ somehow occurred when a person assimilated into a white community and cut off close ties to their previous culture. 

But I still find it difficult to relate easily to others whether Black or white. I often don’t share the same experiences, knowledge, or culture as other Black people, but I can’t feel fully safe in the world or choose to pretend that racism and police violence are something I don’t need to worry about. 

Conclusion

But I couldn’t both be true to myself while also suppressing parts of myself.

So, yes. I am Black. I am white. I am both. And I am neither in entirety. I am only whole when both are present. But I also see that it is my Blackness that needs to shine more prominently. If only to show that Black is special. Black is desirable. And Black is something to be proud of. 

I also know that I’m just starting out on my journey and cannot properly give voice to so much of the pain and suffering that has and continues to occur. But I am working to discover more about what it means to be Black and all of the wonderful community, rich culture, and past that comes with it. And as we have all been witnessing, that past can show up as a burden carried in the present. What does it feel like to be alive right now and to hear the announcement that if you’re a Black or Brown person you need to make sure you get escorted home by a white person for safety reasons at the end of a peaceful BLM protest march? If you’re a white person, just sit with that thought for a moment.

And yet, I too carry the weight of privilege, even if only a portion of it is in the form of having grown up in that upper-middle-class family with access to good education. So, I must learn how to manage this with careful hands. 

I hope you will do the same as you realize your own privilege in this complicated world of so much unrealized potential.

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