My mother stops in conversation. We are waiting for her to sign Selamawit out of school. I sit with her, my four year old sister, in a blue wooden chair that wobbles, my knees level with my collar bone. In the corner sits a play kitchen. Plastic food litters the floor, the tables. Everything here is miniature. I feel like a giant. With us are two little black girls, sisters. Selamawit begins playing immediately with the girls, no questions asked, no introductions necessary.
“You can be the sisters, I’ll be the mom.” This comes from the older girl. She and Lama immediately fall into their roles and begin preparing and serving the food to each other. But the younger girl doesn’t understand how she could call someone like Selamawit, so apparently different, sister.
“Hey, he’s not a black sister, he’s a grey one!” Ignored, she tries again.
“He’s not a real girl.”
I’ve heard this before, though, in more convoluted ways. A study by psychology student, Astrea Greig, at the University of Hartford, points out that as a multiracial child it is common to experience “exclusion or isolation in which multiracial people are excluded due to their mixed status.”
It was strange hearing that idea come out of the little girl’s mouth, put so plainly, in the honest way that kids have. It was almost refreshing to hear it out in the open, instead of hidden beneath stares, or side comments, as these microaggressions so often are.
Yet, the fact that this little girl couldn’t even bear to call my four year old sister, in her pigtail and sundress, “girl,” initiated a familiar hollowness in my stomach, spreading too vast to fit in such a small kitchen space. The little girl calls my sister out as if she dare try to “pass,” as if she was caught in the act of pretending. There it was, an immediate dissociation between yourself and “them.” The black community, the white community – they notice the ‘other.’ You are not them.
What are you?
“He’s not a real girl.”
Suddenly I feel so out of place in this small kitchen. NPR calls it “racial imposter syndrome.” It is defined as a feeling of inauthenticity in some part of your racial or ethnic heritage, and it is reaffirmed again and again in encounters such as this one. Helen Seely, a biracial woman, enunciates the relationship between the mixed and the “unmixed,” “they have more of a claim to ‘blackness’ than I ever will and therefore have the power to tell me I don’t belong, I’m not enough.”
I want to take my sister’s hand and run.
Keep going until she cannot hear their scorn anymore. Until all she can hear is the ocean. When the waves crash against the shore she swears, “There are clouds in the water.” I’m amazed by her wonder. She sees the world like poetry. Water, reflected in sky, refusing to let the distance between them build boundaries. Blurring horizon lines so sky and sea share one body. You cannot put the ocean in a box. It will answer with tidal waves, pushing, and breaking, and rising, until everything is wet and soaking. And no one can tell the difference between themself, and the water anymore.
I know that I will not.
She will always feel the sharp line of distinction between herself and those surrounding her.
Instead I will teach her to be sure of herself, to look, defiantly back into the eyes that try to dissolve her with their stares, to take things lightly, laugh even when you don’t want to, hear everything and decide what’s worth responding to.
And still, I know that she cannot be immune to the discomfort her existence kindles,
but I hope that as she grows into herself, she will still laugh as loud, demand as much respect/authority, apologize for the right reasons, love herself unabashedly, and recognize her privilege,
because there are worse things that could happen due to the color of your skin.