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.
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.