"My racial identity, deconstructed"

Monday, April 24, 2017

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

This piece was originally published on The Daily WRAG.

When you look at me, what do you see? Given all of the information that you have received over your lifetime, what are your immediate thoughts on who I am, based on how I look?

Racial identity – how you see me and how I see myself – is influenced by so many factors, but one of the most significant influencers is how your family perceives race. And, of course, if your family perceives race at all.

My mother was one-fourth White and three-fourths Native American, a member of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia.* I don’t think my mother actually thought of herself as Indian. She thought of herself as Black. During the early years of the 20th century, her family had claimed “colored” when asked their race by the US Census taker. Why? “The colored people were being treated better than American Indians,” according to my full-blooded, American Indian grandmother. Well, in the racial pecking order of this country that was probably true, but in my mother’s world, the “colored” kids didn’t treat her very well.

From the Black community, she learned that light-skinned Black people were perceived as uppity, as thinking themselves better than the browner members of the community. She and her siblings were bullied as kids because of the color of their skin. She promised herself that she would not have children who were light-skinned like her. So, when my father, a chocolate brown-skinned man, entered her life, little did he know that after an assessment of the quality of his character, he got a leg up because of the color of his skin. At a time, when light-skinned Black people received a level of preferential treatment from the White community, my mother made a clear decision that went against that sense of privilege and reinforced her sense of who she was.

Now, as an adult, my sense of race continues to be influenced by my family – now by my children.

My commitment to using my professional platform to promote racial equity was born when Trayvon Martin was killed. My son was roughly his age. AJ could have been Trayvon. Every day, I feel that my son’s life is in jeopardy. He is 23 years old, squarely in that 18-25 year old age range when Black, young men are perceived to be the most dangerous.

My stepdaughter is bi-racial – Black and White, but it is clear that visually many people think she is Latina when they speak to her in Spanish, which she doesn’t speak. Growing up she felt like an outsider. Her three children, who are three-fourths White and one fourth Black, are unlikely to know that feeling, but the outside world will tell them that they are still different. They call me Nana, but I suspect that when I’m out with them, folks think I’m the nanny and not their Nana. At ages 7, 5 and 2, they don’t know that yet, but they will.

My family is an amalgam of peoples. You may not know – truly know – who anyone is racially by the typical visual cues. But, we are all treated a certain way based on who you think we are. That is reality. That is the unconscious bias that shapes how we are treated and how we treat others. The tough job is unlearning all of the associations and prejudices that go through our minds in the blink of an eye. I’m trying, what about you?

*The Chickahominy Tribe has yet to be recognized by the US government primarily because it made a treaty with England, not with the forming US government, but that’s another story about racial bias.