My Black History

I look White. Due to the structural racial inequities embedded in American society, I have benefitted from White privilege. And I have a Black heritage.


Grandpa and his boys

My father had a White mother and a Black father. He grew up in the 1950’s, when such marriages were forbidden in many states, and he was treated and categorized by society as a Black man. He has combatted racism his entire life, and raised my brother and I to do the same. My mother is White and Jewish. I am a product of multiple histories of struggle to resist marginalization and disenfranchisement.

Most of my life, I have largely been silent on my background except for telling friends and colleagues, and instead focused on  being a “white ally,” or someone who actively supports anti-racist work, which many in the movement believe must be lead by those who are most marginalized by racism. There are two factors that have led me to choose this role. One, an acknowledgement that claiming one’s Blackness may lead to deny other people of color that have suffered from structural racism the opportunities that have been created to equalize the playing field. Two, what I’d call  “Rachel Dolezal-phobia” that most White-looking people of mixed-race heritage have: a fear that  I’ll somehow seem like a ‘fake’ person of color when I seek to claim my Black heritage.

Yet, something has changed for me around how I want to talk about my identity, especially in how I want to talk about my identity when I work with an almost all-White student body of pre-service teachers. I don’t know if its the ways in which I hear many White people talk about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or the flood of discussion on race in education that has emerged as a result of it. Or maybe just my age (turning 40 this year).


At the Virginia farm with Uncle Elmer, circa 1950

I think it’s time that I shared my Black history and talk about my identity as a mixed-race person of color. Why do I identify as a person of color when I look White? It’s complicated. But, when a White person confides a racist remark to me and I take it personally, I know I am a person of color. When I cried tears of aching relief and joy at watching Obama’s inauguration in 2008, purely in awe of the generations of racist violence we overcame as a people, I knew I was a person of color. When my father and I visited our family land in Virginia, passed down to us through a family line reaching back to former slaves that had been given the land as a token of guilt by their ex-slave owner, and his car was towed away on a street in which there was ample parking, simply because they “needed more room for other customers,” I was reminded that I am a person of color.

I don’t think I’ll ever come to a satisfying conclusion of my identity, particularly in relationship to race. And I’ve come to learn that this is a good thing. My greatest privilege has been my ongoing inquiry into my own identity, which has helped me to develop a richly complicated view of people and the world. While this critical lens has helped me in academe, I think it’s time that I share this lens with my students.

Here are a few things I’ve decided. First, to tell my complicated story and identity to my students. Maybe it will help trigger some complex thinking about race and identity for them, and maybe there are a few students who are trying to come to terms with their own identity that it may help. Second, share my stories of my Black history to help my White students understand what racism and marginalization looks like and feels like. I wonder if, coming from a person that looks White, the “threat” they feel in examining their positionality in a structurally-racist society may lessen. Third, be clear about what white privilege is, how to understand it, and how to take an anti-racist stance.

I welcome discussion on this post, however, please speak from your own perspective and experience and make this a generative space for discussion, working to develop greater understanding of each others’ points of view.



4 thoughts on “My Black History

  1. This is such a profound and deeply intimate response to the discussion on race. I appreciate that you have openly voiced dialog on this issue. I began my own search into my identity as an African-American starting with my graduate studies at Arcadia University last spring. The culminating project I completed enabled me to embrace who I am more fully. I share that sense of pride more willingly with my children and my students who represent a very diverse group. In doing this my hope is that I can instill acceptance, hope, and unity for the next-generation. Thank you!

    • Willeena – Thank you – this means so much coming from a former student! I only wish we had been able to spend more time exploring this discussion when you were in my class. I’m so glad to hear that you had a chance to do so through your thesis project – please do share it with me if you feel comfortable – I’d love to read it!

  2. It took me a while to find time to read this, and now that I have I am grateful to you for openly sharing an unrecognized dimension to your experience in the world we share; I wonder if this is how Tim Wise ended up speaking at Arcadia some time ago?? We have such complicated relationships with race in American society; to call it part of the “fabric” seems cliche, but I do not think we will ever be able to separate ourselves from the concept, because to do so would be to ignore our own history, and miss the very relevant connections in which we have come to identify our particular struggle, a struggle which seems to have spread as much as Democracy and Western civilization like a contagion across the world, making the human race like a virus on this planet. Nonetheless, our humanity is at stake when we address race, because to do so allows us to explore our sense of compassion and permits us to examine our own ignorance, and to embrace such torturous struggles is to begin the process of evolving our very consciousness as a people. I do not mean to sound too mystical, but as a teachers we are involved in sweeping back an ocean of ignorance every day, in every classroom, but there is a certain devotion and meditation to sweeping, if you do it for a while, and to do so is to gently push others as they will, towards a kind of enlightenment. Your gentle, determined push in this article is to open others to an inner journey for which we should all root you onward, if only because selfishly it is our own journey as a nation, perhaps as living people, and we are like bicyclists in a pack who are drawn faster in the direction of something much more positive by the efforts of the lead rider. Thank you for leading.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful words Sydney – I do think sharing our own stories may be the best way to see the ways in which so many issues intersect in our lives and connect us all.

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