Tales From A Multi-Culti Life: The Not-Black Black Family

Belton Family Photo: The Sisters and Mr. Smart

A five-year-old Snob’s rules for blackness:

  • Everyone in my neighborhood is “black”
  • If you are married to a black person you are “black”
  • Everyone in my family, no matter how light, is “black”
  • Everyone at my school is “black” unless they say otherwise

When I was a child I knew very few white people personally. White people were fantasy objects to me. Something one only saw on television or leading a classroom. I lived in an almost exclusively black world with my parents, sisters, neighborhood, classmates and church. My family was also almost exclusively black. While I had some relatives who could pass, I was told, emphatically, that they were black as well, so in my little head anyone in my family was black no matter how they looked.

This included my Aunt Judy.

Aunt Judy is married to my mother’s brother, my Uncle Marvin, and they live in Chicago. They have three children, my first cousins, Kelly and Peyton, and another much older son, Doug. I still remember staring at Kelly’s portrait hanging in the foyer of Granny Snob’s home as a kid and marveling at how much lighter she was compared to me and my sisters. When I finally met them all one summer in Arkansas at Granny Snob’s home I naturally assumed that everyone, Aunt Judy included, was black.

I think I was 10 before my mother informed me that Aunt Judy was, in fact, a white woman.

More after the jump.

But she was a member of my family, I thought! And my uncle, my mother’s brother, was obviously black. Wait? Did this mean my uncle’s adopted son Doug was white too? But he calls Granny Snob, Granny? I was confused. But Kelly and Peyton weren’t white. How could you be white and be members of my mother’s family? This did not add up in the “rules of blackness” I’d created in my head.

Even though my mother reiterated that my aunt was in fact, not simply “light skinned” as I’d assumed wrongly, it took me some time to understand that my aunt was not like my father’s great aunts who were ghastly pale with long wavy hair, or that she was not like my cousin Kelly, and just very fair, but an actual, living, breathing white person. The next time I saw her I found myself staring at her wondering how I could have been so wrong.

She didn’t look black at all.

Now I laugh at this. My cousin Kelly reads this blog, so this is probably her first time hearing this story of how I had no clue her mom was white and that my mother had to remind me that she was not just really pale and that Doug was not just really pale, but that you can be part of a black family and not actually be black.

As I grew up, I would encounter other biracial and multiracial families and it stopped making my usual assumptions, which I did with nearly all mixed race couples, that the white partner was just “really light skinned.” As a kid, this was how I made it fit my world view of only black people being with black people and white people only being with white people. Intermixing had not occurred to me at a young age and I would make this mistake a few times before it would sink in. I eventually “got it,” but there are some things that never go away.

To this day I still joke that everyone is black until they tell me so. And even then … I still might be suspicious. Two of my best friends are German-Dutch-Irish red-heads and I lovingly call them my “sisters” and joke about their racial backgrounds even though it is pretty obvious they are as white as white can be. But … you never know? This is America. I’m convinced a lot of white people have a lot more black in them than they realize.

Even if they just “married’ into the blackness like my aunt.

27 thoughts on “Tales From A Multi-Culti Life: The Not-Black Black Family

  1. I am considered fair skinned..although I would say I am tan LOL… Growing up, I had a hard time distinguishing between who was just fair skinned and who was white…usually I just assumed they were Black, just light skinned, like me. My father has similar stories. He grew up during segregation. When my grandmother took him to the movies and took them to the "colored" section, he questioned her. He thought that his fair skin meant that he was white and allowed to sit with the other people that "looked like him." I have heard many stories like this, across all generations.

  2. haha lol well its true though u never know what kind of ancestary people have! i would love to do one of those DNA tests where they tell u all ur ancestors. hopefully id get something cool and exotic lol. i still remember the first time i saw a black person..i grew up overseas and id only seen black ppl on tv. then i was on the bus one day, i was real little, and i saw a black man in a business suit hurrying off some where. i turned my head to watch him go in wonderment..like WOW i thought that only existed on tv!

  3. I know this has nothing to do with the post but I wanted to mention that I love the pearls and hat on the woman holding the car door in the photo. Sigh, I wish I could wear hats like that on a regular basis.

  4. I had something kinda similiar happen to me but I was a teenager. I grew up in New Orleans. My whole family is light, my whole world was Creole (god I hate that name, mainly b/c of Beyonce and others who want to be anything but black – granted there are true creoles off the coast of So. Carolina and that’s their race…I’m babbling so onward). Anyways, to my point. My world was light-skin blacks (creoles) with straight or curly hair. So I move to Houston only to discover that some of these light-skin, curly-haired blacks were actually hispanic! I can’t tell you the number of times people automatically speak to me in Spanish. Talk about confusion. In N.O., even those with last names like Martinez and Sanchez were black people. So now, since I’ve been Houstonized, I assume these people are hispanic or white. When I tell hispanics that I only knew one Hispanic (she considered herself Spanish) in N.O., they are amazed and somewhat insulted that people who look like them consider themselves black. LOL. I’m not one for labels b/c they are so deceiving and I don’t like being boxed in. My son who’s tan had a hard time grasping that he’s black – his skin is tan, and just about everyone related to him is tan – so there.

  5. Brandi, I too am from New Orleans, and a light-skinned Creole. I had the same experience when I went to college in Philadelphia. People who I thought were Black, were in fact Hispanic. It also took some time to get used to everyone assuming I wasn’t Black, that I was either biracial (Black/White), Puerto Rican, or Domincan. This experience, and opinions on Creoles similar to yours, actually had a lot to do with me getting my M.A. and making them my thesis topic. I could be "very New Orleans" and ask: What’s your last name? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up?….but I won’t LOL

  6. Hey NOLA – In the Black in America post I said that I’d like to read your thesis – and I mean it, lol. When people tell me they want to read my thesis I never believe them.Funny about the Dominican thing, we were just there last month and everyone thought we were Dominican. Yes, that’s very N.O.! I love "Who’s your people?" I can tell you that I went to a private grammar and high school uptown but grew off of gentilly.

  7. "Wait? Did this mean my uncle’s adopted son Doug was white too? But he calls Granny Snob, Granny? I was confused. But Kelly and Peyton weren’t white. How could you be white and be members of my mother’s family? This did not add up in the "rules of blackness" I’d created in my head."This is EXACTLY how I felt the first time I met my best friend’s mom in second grade. Katie’s skin was brown and darker than my highlighter complexion, so if I was black, I KNEW she had to be black.We went to her house after school one day and I finally saw her mom — a freckled, red-haired women was green eyes.BLEW. MY. MIND.It took a while for my seven-year-old self to comprehend what was going on… until Katie’s mom made the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’d EVER tasted. Then I didn’t care anymore.

  8. Brandi, I responded to you on the other post…I grew up in Gentilly and went to high school uptown LOL

  9. @Brandi and NOLA, a slightly off topic, but still on topic question. Did New Orleasn not have many Mexican and Central American day laborer immigrants before Katrina? I was struck by the fact that I saw NO obvious Latino immigrants caught up in the madness. I know that many other southern cities east of NO have mad Latino immigrants. Even way up here in New York, there’s Mexicans everywhere now, adn it’s been that way for about 10 years. El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) seems damn near half Mexican at this point. Please educate me.

  10. Now on topic. I was shocked to find out that there are black people who don’t have *any* whites or Latinos who’ve married into their extended families. I’ve grown up with more than a few on both sides, adn that always made me think it was normal, until I discovered that apparently it’s far from ubiquitous.

  11. @Scipio Africanus:New Orleans had a Latino population before the storm, but I think it would be kind of safe to say that they were not very visible. Most of our Latino population consisted of Hondurans, Venezuelans (I actually know a fellow grad student who studies this, he would have way more insight than I would). You are correct, we got a wave of Mexican immigrants after the storm who came for work as day laborers and such. There are a lot of strong opinions on their growing numbers, from Blacks and Whites in the city. We have never really had a "Latino section" in the city. Latinos are known to reside in certain areas, but not like a Spanish Harlem. They do not make up the majority of the population that reside in this specific area, they just really happen to live there.

  12. Excellent post, Snob. This reminds me a lot of my family. Like NOLA and Brandi, my family hails from New Orleans and there is often mass confusion when people see my medium brown sister and I with our relatives. I remember going to a family reunion when my sister was about four and when we got in the house she got real quiet, her eyes got real big, and she started nervously chewing her fingernails. When my mom asked her what was wrong, she nervously (and loudly) exclaimed, "Who are all these White people?!". Comedy.

  13. You have a lot of old family photos, Danielle. Some many in my family have been lost or destroyed. What a pity.

  14. Married to a 2nd generation Cali Jamaican girl, I am often trying to explain the difference between her and my own experiences with race growing up. I, from Newport News, VA, often mixed with white people via my mother who was very cosmopolitan but understood the difference between stranger white folks and friendly white folks. When my white godmother took me and her white daughter to the pool on a nearby AF base, I was OK until I saw all the other stranger white folks splashing in the pool. I refused to get in it. To this day, it breaks my godmother’s heart that I had somehow learned such a lesson despite an almost entirely integrated upbringing. But that’s the South.I was just back for a week last month and I was staggered by the number of interracial couples, babies and tolerance I met. Just 20 years ago, I was being warned by my dad not to flirt with white girls in North Carolina because it could cause trouble.

  15. Beautiful Snob,WOW! Just WOW!!! Does this mean I AM a "black guy" after all???!!! Did the ex-wife (yean folks, like I Married her; ya know, made the ultimate commitment to her. Too bad she didn’t …) and now my very brownie kids gave me my own, totally legitimate, completely usable "Black Card"?!This is GREAT news! OK girls, now you can go out with me an’ know you with a "black guy". All those uncomfortable feelings can now vanish! You don’t have to give excuses to your friends and family now …Thanks Beautiful Snob! I think ya made my, like, Year … or somethin’ …

  16. Its strange that I had never considered myself bi-racial or even Multi-racial for that matter. I have just always considered myself black. My grandmother and her sister both have sandy brown hair and hazel eyes but both of their husbands were as black as Miles Davis. My grandmothers brother, my great uncle actually was an officer in germany during the war and fell in love and maried a young german girl, my great aunt. So my family gatherings always consisted of people of different complexions and I just figured that black people came in different colors and were able to speak different languages. The street I grew up on was an international stew, one of my best friends had a Puerto Rican dad, and a Dominican mom, my other best friend had a Jamaican Dad, and a Chinese mom, and my other best friend had a Father from Guyana, and a mom from Belize. When me and my friends were together, we all looked like we were related, same skin complexion, same wavy hair. It wasnt until I was much older that I realized, not all black kids grew up the way that I did, surrounded by so many races. I often wondered if I would ever find a mate that had been through what I did. I ended finding my dream girl…..and it just so happened that she is one of those Crazy New Orleans Creoles. My wife’s brother is married to a girl from Spain, and my wife’s sister is married to a guy who is Chinese and Caucasian. Needless to say, my two girls will probably grow up not realizing that not everyone is black, regardless of their skin complexion, just like their Dad did

  17. This reminds me of the author Angela Nissel (s/p). Her mother is black, father white. Her mother said when she met her dad, she thought he was simply "light-skinneded" because they were the only white folks in the neighborhood!

  18. My husband jokingly calls my family the "Rainbow Coalition", like the people Scipio Africanus described he grew up without any white people in his extended family. And was a little shocked to meet my two white Aunties and 9 mixed cousins at our first Thanksgiving together. I think I pretty much always knew my white Aunties were indeed white, but I they always fit in with our family so it was never a big deal. Of course I wasn’t born when they married into the family so the beginnings of those relationships could have started out very different from the mature relationships I viewed. I should ask my Dad about that sometime.As an aside I will never forget going to Nashville for my mixed cousin’s graduation from Vanderbilt, she was introducing me to her friends on campus and one guy said, "That’s your cousin? All this time I didn’t know you were black, I thought you were Spanish."

  19. Danielle, I love looking at old pictures and I love the old pictures you post of your family. Do you mind telling us who the people are in the picture and how they are related to you? The all look really sharp!

  20. Oh, yeah I thought the same way too about Aunt Judy until I realized the truth, don’t feel bad. Great article Danielle, love ya 🙂

  21. When I was little my father introduce to be a man whom is very light skinned, w/ blue eyes.He told me the man was the last of his siblings. It wasn’t they were dead they had just disappeared by passing. In the 30’s they weren’t calling home.

  22. My grandmother was light and her obgyn did not know she was black until he told her a racial joke and she chided him about it, but what is interesting is I teach and perform bellydance and a lot of my adult students who are black, did not know I was black until wayyy later when I probably had a rant about racism. Never mind all the Charles Bibbs and LaShun Beal art I have all over my house and the Delta paraphernalia. That also happened when I taught a dance club at a middle school and the girls after I told them I was black left school and I overheard them say, "She’s not black, she just tried to talk like us." You would think graduating from two HBCU’s would not have me ebonically deficient. Oh, but white people absolutely know what I am, there is no confusion there. Unless I am performing and then I am Asian Indian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Somali, you name it…. never Black, not in the bellydance world.Interesting article.

  23. White – as in pure? As in "not contaminated by blackness". I find difficulty in digesting the difference between her and those who look *very* similar to her but consider themselves black. Perhaps when the purity of whiteness is no longer held with such high regard, we will begin to see the wide spectrum of "race" – that it is in fact a continuum.

  24. This is so funny!!! I grew up as in Detroit where African Americans are all complexions from extremely dark to very light. When I first started University in New York I just assumed that all the Lationos were African Americans with light complexions until I got to know them better. It is humorous to hear that others have had the same experiences although they may come from different parts of the African-American community or diaspora. As a clearly identifable African-American (no questions asked), I only hope that we all take the time to celebrate the diversity of complexions and beauty no matter what the skin color or background.

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