When I see mostly White people in a social gathering, whether it’s a class, party or presentation, I do a scan. It’s thorough but quick. Are there any Black people? Are there any people of color at all? When the answer is no, I prepare. How am I going to let them know that I’m Black? Am I going to wait until someone says something and then “surprise” them? Or will I be confrontational? Will I say, “Hey, guess what?” as if I’m kidding — but not really?
Most of the time, White people think I’m one of them. My skin is light, often as light as theirs. My lips are plump and my nose is broad, but my features aren’t a tip-off. My hair is black, big and curly. If anything, that’s the tell. But even then, it’s usually: “I thought you were Italian, Greek or Middle Eastern.” In other words, not quite White, but definitely not Black.
That’s when the racism rears. Someone says something because they feel safe. They can speak freely. And they have support.
A few years ago, I was at a friend of a friend’s Super Bowl party in Queens. At some point, I made my way over to an assortment of snacks. I reached for the bowl of chips and listened to the chitchat of the three other snackers. A guy in a blue button-up with onion dip on his fingers mixed up the names of the football players on the screen. He laughed at his mistake. “Blacks all look alike,” he said.
“It’s true,” I said, smirking. “I keep thinking I see my dad on the screen.” There was a pause. As he nervously wiped the dip on his pants, I stood there watching him take in my skin, then moving up to my hair, my nose, my mouth. I saw the instant it dawned on him. I could almost hear the “click.”
“I was only kidding!” he stuttered.
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I have Black friends!”
Like that made it okay.
Another time, after an acting class a couple of years back, some of us went out for drinks. Four of us squeezed into a bar. The guy who had initiated the get-together decided an excellent icebreaker was a racist joke.
Before the punchline, I interrupted. “I’m Black.” The joke teller gasped. Another woman held a candle up to my face. “No way!” The two of them laughed. The other guy with us smiled and said, “You could totally pass as White,” as if it were a compliment. “Does this mean you’ve been with Black guys?!” the woman wanted to know. They all looked at me with googly eyes. I felt like an obscure art installation. I slapped money down on the bar for my drink, left and felt angry that I didn’t say more.
The jokes, comments and stereotypes always flow so freely. Sadness, frustration, anger and humiliation overtake me. Whenever I let people know I’m Black, I’ve ruined the moment. I’ve made everyone uncomfortable. Eyes roll. Heads shake. They leave and talk about me. Laugh at me. Avoid me. Make me the enemy. How dare I accuse them of being racist? How dare I be Black?
What these people never do, what I’ve never heard, is an apology. Not once have they owned their racism. No one has ever said, “I’m sorry.” I’ve also never had a White person step in. Where are the allies calling out racism? Would they only call it out if I were darker? If they knew they were being watched?
Even though I know how it will play out, I speak up every time. But it wasn’t always this way. While I never did anything to purposely be perceived as White, for years of my adolescence, I chose to stay silent about being Black.
I grew up in West Virginia. There were very few Black families around, and we were the only mixed-race family in our area. At 12, I made the first and one of the only friends I had in middle school; she was White. One day, she invited me to hang out at her house after school. The only catch was I couldn’t let her mom know I was Black, she said. If her mom found out, she wouldn’t let us be friends.
The more White friends I made in the next few years, the more common this became. “We have to pretend you’re White,” they’d say. “Tell them you’re Indian if they ask.”
“Okay,” I’d agree, wondering why that was somehow better than being Black.
“Don’t let your dad pick you up!” they would tell me, panicking. I never said anything to my parents. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. But there was always a sigh of relief when my White mom pulled up in the minivan. It meant I got to keep my friends.
In the seventh grade, I was riding home with my friend’s family after I had joined them in church. We saw a Black man and a White woman holding hands on the street. “That’s not right,” her dad yelled to us. “It’s disgusting.” I still feel myself cramped in the back of that station wagon, trying to disappear and wanting to cry.
Sitting around the breakfast table after spending the night, I listened as another friend’s family used the n-word. Didn’t they understand that I had been called that? Didn’t they know that it was a terrible word directed at me? But I was too nervous to say anything. I wanted to have friends. I wanted to be loved.
Then there were the times I didn’t “get away with it.” I was kicked out of more than a few houses, restricted from seeing friends and forbidden to date guys whose families didn’t approve. When I was 15, I took a 16-hour bus ride to Virginia to meet my boyfriend’s parents. His dad was chopping wood in the front lawn as my boyfriend proudly introduced us.
“Is she colored?” he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer before snarling, “Get her the hell outta here.” He didn’t look at me. I felt frozen. Even now I hate what I said when I finally found words to say; it’s what I had always been taught to say anytime I visited anywhere: “Thank you very much for having me.” As I turned and walked away, I realized what I had just done. That’s when I told myself that I would never again be in any situation without everyone knowing that I’m Black.
That’s why today, even though I can’t know if people assume I’m White, I can be assured that people won’t assume that for long. Never again will someone say something about me without knowing it’s about me. I’m proud to be Black. It’s a big part of who and what I am.
I might be camouflaged, but I refuse to stay silent in the shadows. I may be hidden, but I will be seen.
Sarah Doneghy is a writer, actor and activist. She lives in New York City.