By Kylee Roberts
“But you’re black, right?”
“Is my skin the color of my converse?” I pointed down. A rhetorical question, but of course it was challenged. This wasn’t exactly playground chatter for 9-year-olds, but nothing, not even the kids playing around us, could stop the conversation. Before then, I had never thought about it. But as I’ve continuously been asked this question, I can assure you that unlike wine and cheese, it does not get better with age.
“No, but like, you’re black.”
I still don’t get it. They still don’t get it. I think we’re all a little lost.
I attended an elementary school with a privileged group of children from Greenwich Village. The only difference I saw between my friends and me was my height — I had tree trunks for legs — and the products we used: them, a simple ponytail holder and maybe a fun hairband; me, four different braids and smoothed back edges with cream and multicolored clips. But I wasn’t “different.” Everyone seemed to treat me like I was just like them. Like I was “white” — the same as everyone else. I had exactly one black friend (the only black girlfriend you could have at my school), and she was the minority due to her dark-chocolate skin. Mine, a mere caramel.
“Where are you from?” a friend asked one morning on the bus we took to our middle school. At this point I’d gotten asked this question a million times over. So I recited the origins of my four grandparents because the answer, “America,” was never enough. My grandfather on my dad’s side was from Maine (Irish, apparently), and my grandmother was from Panama. My mother’s father was from Turkey, and her mother was from Algeria.
“So you’re African? Algeria’s in Africa,” he laughed a high-pitched, brace-face, privileged-white-boy snicker. He found it funny that I had relatives from the second-largest continent. As if my family was currently skipping naked around a fire, yelling in tongues. I’m African? I had to think about it for a second.
I mean, I wasn’t from Africa — I was born in the NYU hospital in Manhattan, not far from the school we both attended.
“Yeah I guess,” I scoffed with an embarrassed tone (an embarrassed tone). I was quiet for the rest of the bus ride and from then on reluctantly told people that my grandmother was from Algeria when they asked. I was, admittedly, more ignorant than this “friend” I had.
There was enough about myself to be analyzed. I knew I was tall, I knew I had a large forehead, and I knew that pajamas, which I wore to school more often than not, were strictly for my bed to see. My heritage was the last thing I wanted to talk about because it was the one thing in my life I was unsure of.
On November 25, 2014, I arrived at my high school well before anyone had come for classes, only a few days before Thanksgiving break. I set up two white posters, each blank, one for people to sign and the other titled “Share Your Thoughts.” The night before, my Facebook newsfeed was a united uproar of sadness and anger. The grand jury decided not to indict Officer Ben Wilson in the deadly shooting of Michael Brown.
I only had two classes that day, so I camped out by the signs and filmed the crowds, dressed in all black. They looked at the posters and signed their names, wrote inspiring comments and quotes, or talked to me about why they cared. I knew that no one has a good reason for being shot, and I knew for sure that no one should be shot for being black. I was disturbed and confused, and I wanted to know how many of my peers felt the same. But I still thought: This couldn’t have just been a black thing, right?
“It can’t die down!” one kid who sat next to me on the floor of the narrow hallway said into the crowd. The students of color who came to observe talked to me about their personal experiences with police oppression. But there were only a few of them, otherwise they were all white. The kids I chose to sit with — who I always chose to sit with — were white.
The signs stayed up, but less people paid attention to them on November 26. Then Thanksgiving break came and went, and people stopped recognizing them at all. The posters were gone when I returned to school after Christmas break.
Is it possible to be a national tragedy at the wrong time?
Or did these people simply not care?
The summer after my senior year, I started thinking about braiding my hair. It was a way to quicken my morning routine, which usually consisted of five minutes figuring out what I’d do, then finally deciding on the usual: slicked-back bun that made me look like a bald potato. The constant molding I forced upon my hair — to be straight against its tight, natural curls — stunted the growth and volume I wished to have. I started researching photos to see if I could even sport the look:
Search: “Light skin girl with box braids”
Results: Photos of Zoe Kravitz and random white girls with blonde and color-dyed fishtail braids. A hairstyle that I could never attempt with my short, thin afro-of-sorts.
When I finally got the braids later that summer, I felt uneasy about my appearance. And the uneasiness was constant. Right after my cousin had spent 10 hours weaving in the synthetic hair, I wanted to rip it all out. I went to the bathroom and stared at my pale, uncovered scalp. I wore a hairstyle worn by so many beautiful people I did not identify with but needed in order to protect my hair. I was overwhelmed. Standing there with a staple piece of black culture connected to my head (a head full of uncertainty when it came to who exactly I should identify with), I didn’t know how to feel.
My friends said I looked Great! Fab! Wow, you look so fierce. Rihanna? I like your … dreads? Wait no, not dreads.
My brother said, Hey Whoopi Goldberg.
By the end of my first semester of college, my hair was out of its intertwined state, and I got a new question.
“Did you cut your hair?!”
I still don’t get it. They still don’t get it. I think we’re all a little lost.
When I came to Ithaca College, my friends were a mix of races. We were majorly students of color — we weren’t colorless — but most of us were surrounded by white kids all our lives. As college freshmen, we wanted to fit in, but it was hard.
One night we made our way to an off-campus party; I’d gotten the address from someone I knew in case nothing else worked out. Nothing else worked out. So, we walked up the steel stairs to the side door of the house. Fetty Wap’s voice ricocheted off the apartment walls, and once we opened the door, steam pushed its way toward us from the thrusting bodies inside. Caramels and chocolates and other colors you rarely saw on campus.
“Well, I guess this is where Tommy Roch puts all the kids he doesn’t want to deal with,” my friend laughed. The 2015 school year brought up heated issues between the college’s administration and students of color invested in IC’s Black Lives Matter Movement.
“Wow, it’s an ALANA party!” another one of my friends said as we still stood on the outskirts. And we laughed together, quickly turning the other way to go back down the stairs. Walking away from the idea of being involved with people who looked more like us than any others we usually hung out. I quickly roped up my hair into a ponytail before the humidity could affect it too much. At that point in the school year I had been flat ironing my poor strands every time they showed signs of curling. A second generation Indian boy, two half-white, half-black kids, one white girl, and one racially confused girl walked away to campus. Where we were safe — away from unfamiliarity.
“I was never really affected by any of this because I have lighter skin,” I said hesitantly. “However, I have younger male cousins who are darker than me, so I get scared in that way.” I was writing a piece on how the Black Lives Matter Movement was affecting our campus. The student sitting across from me in Ithaca College’s pub whom I was interviewing had played a large role in the movement.
I was intimidated, and this comment was something I thought I needed to make. I wanted the meeting to be more conversational; I wanted to relate. But, in truth, this comment was the first I’d ever made aloud about how the movement affected me at all. From a half-white, half-black family, I thought she would be able to see where I was coming from. That she would feel the same halting disconnect I’d always felt.
“If this situation affects those you love, it is directly affecting you,” she said abruptly, shutting me down. Hard.
Then she turned to her phone. “‘Re-Claiming Blackness’ will be a showcase that redefines what it means to be black through art,” she read me the Facebook event description, urging me to go. It would educate me, show me the connection I’d been missing growing up. It’d show me that, despite being raised in a household where the color of my skin was not a dinner-table topic, I had deep roots in black culture — whether I could feel them or not.
So, after unconsciously (but semi-consciously) ignoring the uproar of the past semester, I found myself in the front row of my first Black Lives Matter event. In high school, surrounded by a sea of white, I felt more comfortable, more willing to bring in those poster boards honoring Michael Brown. But here, at IC, surrounded by students so ingrained in their role as POC, I felt muted.
“I’ve met God and she’s black,” a poet spoke, standing up from his Djembe drum and stool and moving to center stage, surrounded by students and faculty alike. The words sunk in more than they had before. I knew that quote. The first time I saw it was on a sticker posted on a city lamppost. It was funny to me — I grew up knowing God was an old white guy with a beard. I would think, He’s like Santa! But now, She was black. She made life, she was cherished, and she was beautiful the way she was. Black.
I started to wear my hair naturally — all kinky curls — no heat required, just cream. Proud.
The following summer I was an editorial intern at an alternative art and fashion outlet. It opened my eyes to gallery openings, free wine, and a larger group of creatives in New York City. I met so many young black artists, teenage models, photographers and writers, and I suddenly felt something. I liked them, and I knew that I wanted to be as confident as they were.
“I love your hair!” I pointed to the long, blonde, loose-curled dreadlocks with pink highlights that lay against one girl’s toffee skin. I immediately texted my cousin asking when she was free to braid my hair.
No matter how much I straighten my hair, dress to the norm, or deny a culture that my grandparents came from, it’s still a part of me. I may not be black in tone but I am, by culture, the culmination of my ancestors and their struggles. It does directly affect me. But I’m also me, and I’m from a different time and place and, well, it’s a process.
I still don’t get it. They still don’t get it. I think — I know — we’re all still a little lost.