Seeing Race Beyond Black and White

I see race everywhere I go. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Black child of the South, and seeing race was a means of ensuring my survival, or at least improving my odds of it. Or perhaps it’s because living in Texas, being a Black woman married to a white man, and having three biracial children all makes me sensitive to the ways racial history plays out in the present.

Either way, when I travel somewhere new, I tend to experience it through the lens of race. I notice how integrated the spaces are, how people look at my skin, and whether our multiracial family is viewed as a curiosity.

So when our family spent a few days in the San Francisco Bay Area this week, I couldn’t help but notice how different my experience of race was there. Our family was simply one colorful spot in a multicultural, multiracial landscape. In nearly every space we entered, we saw a mixture of Asian, Hispanic, Black, and white residents. Though some neighborhoods were more diverse than others, no matter where we went, we saw people from varied backgrounds eating together, surfing together, hiking together, laughing together, or simply living alongside one another.  In one neighborhood we visited in San Francisco’s Mission District, you could get a halo-halo from a Filipino restaurant, a pupusa from a Salvadoran stand, and a slice of pie from a pizza shop all on the same block. Every time we turned a corner, I expected to see, finally, a completely homogenous neighborhood, but when lines separated racial and ethnic groups, they seemed incredibly porous. Race was a tapestry with distinctive threads that constantly crossed and intermingled. It felt very different from the dichotomous understanding of race I absorbed as a child.

Growing up, I understood there were stark lines that separated Black and white in the Southern imagination. To me, Black and white sat on opposite ends of the universe, a gaping space dividing them. They were opposites in the same way small opposed large or up opposed down. 

The idea of this Black-white duality stayed burrowed in my mind despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary: I had close friends with Native American, Hispanic, and Asian backgrounds, and my parents took time to expose me to cultures beyond my Southern rural one. Still, race to me was mostly about Black and white; I didn’t yet know that race was really about the lengths whiteness has taken to uphold itself and also to determine who can and can’t hold power.

A story my father told me as an adolescent helped me begin to understand this. 

When my parents first looked for land to purchase in rural North Carolina, my father told me, they met with a potential seller. He was a kindly old white man who loved Bill Clinton and spoke easily with my father. The man was ready to sell, but he had one question for my light-skinned father:  “You ain’t Indian, are you?” If he were, the man intimated, well, the land may not be for sale after all. 

When my dad told me this story years later, I was perplexed. I didn’t know there were ethnic groups that racist white people liked less than Black people. But once I opened my eyes to this reality, I could see it wasn’t all that uncommon. I could see, then, white people who smiled at me and grumbled about Mexicans or tilted up the corners of their eyes to make fun of Asian people. For them, Black wasn’t the opposite of white – every race was.

I’d like to say I made this realization and was changed forever. But I wasn’t. I had to face my racial myopia when I was an English teacher in Texas preparing students to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I gave some background about the context of Jim Crow in Alabama, the state where the story is set, showing photos of the time period that were literally and figuratively black and white.

When I paused for questions, I saw a hand go up in the air. It was one of my Mexican American students, a studious girl who rarely spoke in class. 

“How were Mexicans treated back then?” she asked.

I was embarrassed that prior to that exact moment, I had given the question little thought when considering my lesson for the day. And it wasn’t from lack of knowledge; I knew Texas and the South seemed particularly interested in separating Black and white people, but I also knew that other people of color were on the receiving end of discrimination. I thought back to a 100-year-old man I once interviewed who was a lifelong Texan of Mexican descent.  He told me about storefront signs that said, “No Mexicans”, and about taking sandwiches to work so white people wouldn’t ridicule the burritos he preferred to eat for lunch. These stories existed, were part of the history of race in the South and in Texas; yet, I had neglected to include them in my lesson for the day because they didn’t fit within the Black-white narrative.

Deconstructing and examining this narrative is difficult. It involves untethering a deeply lodged muscle memory, like when you move to a new house and find yourself turning down the streets that lead to your old one when you aren’t paying attention. 

Maybe that’s why driving up the streets of San Francisco brought all these memories to the fore. The roads were unfamiliar, windy, and hilly with unexpected turns and exits. I had to pay attention. When I did, I saw the roads were lined with multicolored houses that stood side by side, so close they seemed at times to sit upon one another. They weren’t perfect houses. Many showed the stress of being weathered by their surroundings. Others weren’t houses at all, but tents buttressed by plywood and tarp.

I saw them all, and then I wondered how much I didn’t see in the land of my birth.

5 thoughts on “Seeing Race Beyond Black and White

  1. San Fracisco sounds like a wonderful place. I’m so grateful that places like that exist and that y’all go to have such an affirming experience.

    Thanks for the rest of your blog entry, too. It’s quite thought-provoking.

  2. Irie, makes one give some thought about moving to San Francisco! Great piece. As usual. Best wishes.

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