Written by Ryan Ross
Back when I was in college, I was getting a ride home from a party with a few other people in the car. Near the end of the car ride, somebody asked me for a cigarette and before I could respond, I heard one of the girls in the car say “Ew. Cigs are for nigs.” Almost immediately, a deathly quiet descended upon the group and everybody looked at me. For a second, I was tempted to let it go — I usually do in these situations. But in this particular moment, I decided to make the girl feel as uncomfortable as possible in the next 5 minutes before the ride was over.
So I did.
“Um…my father’s actually black, so that’s sort of impolite to say around me.” Thus began what I like to call “The 5 Stages of Realizing He’s Not Bullshitting When He Says His Dad’s Black.” It usually goes something like this:
Me: My father’s black, so I’d appreciate if you didn’t use language like that.
Closet Racist: Hahahahahahaha! That’s so FUNNY! You’re too much. (Stage 1)
Me: No, I’m serious.
C.R.: Oh, shut up. (Stage 2)
Me: (After a moment’s silence) Okay, you don’t have to believe me.
C.R.: Wait…are you serious? (Stage 3)
Me: (Getting annoyed) Yes, I’m serious.
C.R.: Shut up. You’re such a liar. (Stage 4)[I look to one of my friends who’s met my father]
Me: Hey, what race is my dad?
Friend #1: Black.
Friend #2: Yeah, he’s totally black.
Friend #3: He’s not black. Don’t worry, he’s just
fucking with you. (Friend #3 is a dick.)
C.R.: I knew you were lying. (Stage 4, continued)
Friend #2: No, his dad’s actually black.
Friend #3: Yeah, I was kidding. I’ve met his dad. He’s black.[I say nothing at this point. I simply study the Closet Racist, relishing the forthcoming moment of dawning comprehension.]
C.R.: Oh. My. GOD. I’m SO, SO sorry. I was just kidding – I’m really not like that at all, I swear. I was just trying to be funny. (Stage 5)
Sadly, I usually never say that last part. I always want to, but after a lifetime of dealing with this, I’ve found it’s usually just best to let it slide off my back than to harp on it. Besides, I don’t look black — in my worst nightmare, I always imagine the Closet Racist going on the offensive about how I tricked them, and all of a sudden, it’s my fault for looking so damned white. So instead, I usually give the offender a one-time pass. (I should also mention that there’s typically a Stage 6, wherein the offending party either a) doesn’t talk to me for the rest of the night, so great is their shame, or b) goes out of their way to be extra-friendly to me, as though I’ll write them a letter of recommendation at the end of the evening to my black brethren.)
Now, you may be inclined to think that all this has left me bitter and jaded towards the state of race relations in America; however, this isn’t entirely the case.
Admittedly, it is disheartening that such attitudes still exist but are largely simply well-concealed. And I do find myself analyzing every statement made by a stranger for any racial overtones to determine whether they’re just waiting to become more comfortable around me before they inevitably spew their racist vitriol. More than that, though, I find that being biracial while still looking white gives me a rare, unfiltered glimpse into the true personalities of others. But to be honest, part of the reason why I love being half-black with my particular skin tone is because I can choose when not to proclaim my heritage as it suits me.
I know it sounds completely reprehensible that I would use my heritage as a means to an end. I’m sure to some people, I should wear a dashiki and a kufi, announce my racial background from the highest of mountaintops, and in doing so, educate the masses about the beauty of Black Culture. To which I say: FUCK. THAT. Now, I’m fiercely proud of who I am and where my family is from, and I truly believe that the divergent backgrounds from whence I came have helped shape me into a more well-rounded and tolerant person. But if you think I’m going to willfully subject myself to the casual bigotry that my father faces every single day solely by dint of the color of his skin, you’re out of your goddamned mind. As far as I know, whites are still the majority in this country and until that changes, I’m not rocking the boat. (Of course, if blacks become the majority, then the dashiki and kufi may well come into play.)
That doesn’t mean that I publicly shun my heritage; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
I embrace my heritage 100%, but there’s a line between embracing it and just inviting hatred and bigotry to your doorstep. For example, if I’m in a setting where I’m the only non-white person in the room, and the discussion becomes racially charged, I can A) make a scene, or B) say nothing and just file their attitudes away for future reflection. Usually, the easier option is B. That’s not to say that I won’t ever defend myself if I feel the need, but I’ve long since learned that if I made a scene every time someone made an off-color (no pun intended) remark about race, the pool of people with whom I could spend my time would be substantially limited. Therefore, I do a simple cost-benefit analysis: Am I going to be interacting with these people frequently in the foreseeable future, or is this an isolated incident? Simply put, is saying something going to negatively impact me in the long run? If it’s the former, I’ll usually bite my tongue and let slip later on that my father is black (this usually does the trick as far as stopping the comments). If it’s the latter, I have no compunction about explaining my heritage (see the 5 Stages outlined above).
By the same token, I sometimes (okay, often) use my heritage in situations where it creates an advantage for me. For example, when I was applying to colleges, I wrote a long essay about how the person I admire most is my father. He grew up in the fifties and sixties, and as a result often endured more than his fair share of racism. (A “fair share” of racism should be zero, in case you were unsure about the exact figure.) This essay detailed his struggles in overcoming obstacles in his life, and how his perseverance made me realize that there is nothing one cannot achieve if they are properly motivated. Sounds touching, I’m sure, and it should — I meant every word of it. But that doesn’t mean that I was, nor am I now, oblivious to the fact that a story about the son of a black man overcoming his struggles (and in doing so, inspiring his son) is exactly what the powers-that-be want to see from a college essay. The fact of the matter is, people love a feel-good story about someone triumphing in the face of racial adversity, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to capitalize on that.
You may think me morally bankrupt, devoid of any dignity or human compassion. I respectfully disagree. I view it as a compromise – in exchange for having to navigate the countless awkward exchanges like the one I detailed in the beginning of this narrative, as well as constantly being on my guard for any potential racist behavior, I get to reap the benefit of the so-called “white guilt” that still exists in this country. Hey, I’ll take it.
So whatever happened to that girl from the story earlier? Well, after the quiet descended on the car, followed by the 5 Stages, we had arrived at my apartment. I went inside and thought nothing more of it. That is, until a week later, when I received a typed letter from the girl in the mail reiterating how sorry she was for disrespecting me and offering to apologize to me in front of all my fraternity brothers to atone for her mistake (which doesn’t make sense; there were exactly 1.5 black guys in my fraternity). And what did I do? Did I smile knowingly and shake my head, then turn and walk into the sunset, knowing that I’d done my part to reduce racial intolerance in this world?
Nope. I laughed my ass off, showed it to my white friends, and hung that shit on the fridge.
About the Author: Ryan Ross is a freelance writer and Master’s student at The New School in the Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism program. He lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée and their dog. You can find more of Ryan’s work at his blog: www.ahopelesscynic.com