by: Kristina K. Robinson
“So what are you?”
It’s a question that has dogged me my entire life. When I am asked, “what I am”, first, I try to discern the motive for wanting to know. I hate the question so it helps me decide; will I be frank or will I be as ambiguous in my answer, as some find me to be in appearance?
The first time I recall being asked the question out right, I was nine years old. I was attending summer camp at the University of New Orleans (UNO), which had a majority White enrollment. I was a talkative child and had always made friends easily. I didn’t expect that this experience would be any different. The first friend I made was a girl named Kristin. To kill time, before our classes started in the late afternoon, Kristin and I often ate lunch in the college cafeteria.
One day on the long trek across campus to the Chik-fil-A, it began to rain. Back then, I wore my hair in two long braids. Kristin wore her light brown hair loose. The rain made it hang in clumps and stick to her face. Soaked, we decided to duck for cover in a building until the rain slacked up. Kristin used the hand dryer in the bathroom on her hair. I remember watching her hair dry straight—not a ripple or wave.
Once Creative Writing class began, Kristin and I linked up with Liz and Sue, fraternal twin girls who were half- Korean and half-White. I found their Korean facial features and super straight, dirty-blonde hair fascinating. In my Theatre class, I met Beth Ann an older girl of eleven or twelve, who had already been on a date and who talked about going shopping in a way that seemed impossibly grown-up to me.
One day at lunch, Kristin began to plan her next party which her mom told her she could have before school started. Her last party had been just before camp began. Kristin had celebrated her ninth birthday with a skating party to which she invited her “boyfriend” Max. Everything was going great, she was having, “like the best party ever,” until Max brought all of his “fucking nigger friends. I mean what was his mom thinking?”
My mouth dropped open in surprise, yet nothing came out. In retrospect, I think I was a little too stunned to say anything. I had heard the word “nigga” plenty, but not “nigger.” Never like that. When class let out, I didn’t linger around the vending machines to chit chat with the girls. I didn’t show up early to camp the next day to eat nuggets before camp began.
This apparently had prompted discussion in my little social circle. It must have been a light-bulb moment for them.
“So, are you Black?” Kristin asked me as we walked into class. I had never been asked this question before. I remember thinking, even at nine, that the question was unfair. My stomach churning in nervousness, I decided on a partial truth.
“American Indian,” I answered.
“Cool,” Kristin said without further comment.
After class I hurried out, not wanting to talk. I felt ashamed of myself. I also felt lonely. There were no Black girls at this camp. There were no brown or olive girls, only varying shades of white and off-white—girls, who apparently, needed to know what I was before they could be friends with me. In my case, it wasn’t my skin color, it was which box? Are you one of us, or one of them? Most importantly, are you a nigger? I couldn’t tell my mother how I equivocated—she would have been so disappointed in me.
Later that day in Theatre class, my older friend Beth Ann told me she was Jewish and that her grandparents had been on Schindler’s list.
“You’re mixed right?” she asked. “I mean you can tell.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I stammered.
“That’s fucking cool” she replied. “That way if someone doesn’t like Black people you can always just say you’re the other part.”
“Lucky me,” I thought.
I am a third-generation graduate of Xavier University, the country’s only university that is both Black and Catholic. In college I met people whose understanding of race and Blackness, in particular, had been much different than my own. I had several conversations with boys and girls in the “conscious” clique at school. Many times these conversations turned into arguments. These arguments often centered on Ras Dav’s assertion that because of my appearance, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “Black” in America, and that because I was a “mutt” I was destined for confusion. He “educated” me about “house niggers”, “field niggers” and I let him know that there were fields full of yellow, red and white “Black” people, who chopped sugar cane in the fields of Louisiana— my family among them. I asked Dav if he’d ever been called a nigger or a black cockroach, straight to his face—I had. I wasn’t at all confused about who I was. I had learned over the years to more deftly deal with people like the kids at UNO.
Back then I was hurt by the things Ras Dav said. He didn’t mean to be harsh he said, but just like they had to understand and accept what White privilege is, I had to accept that gradations in skin color also mattered too. It brought me back to that moment with Kristin, that feeling of not having a place in any community. It was at Xavier that I began to contemplate in a serious way, not the validity of my Blackness, but the difference in my experience versus those of people whose racial appearance was not ambiguous at all.
I realize that my identity has evolved over time. My fondest memories are of childhood, before I wondered what I “was”. Then, I would have described myself as “dark”, relative to my family, or “ginger tan”, as my grandmother said. My hair was “good” she said because it was “heavy.”
If you asked me who my people were, I would have answered:
“My great-great-great grandmother’s name was Marguerite Pierre. The slave-master Duhe built her a house, set her and their children free— turned them loose into the world.” I would repeat what my grandmother told me: “We were flung in all four corners of the earth; therefore I have blood from all directions.”
I grew up with my grandmother’s stories about her father, Big Papa. Big Papa was a baker from Convent, Louisiana. He moved from job to job, taking his family from the river parishes of Louisiana to New Orleans to find more work.
“It was something because it wasn’t his coworkers telling on him. But, eventually, it would just come out he was colored and he’d move on. I worked one day like that at Krauss. But I couldn’t do that. Daddy and ‘nem had to, to make money in that day… I remember them people tryin beat the door down one time…”
My grandfather’s mother was Black and Native. His father was a blonde-haired, light-eyed man, son of a Black woman. Some people said he was a very fair skinned Creole. Others said he was a member of a prominent Jewish family. His true race, a mystery.
These dangling, split-off branches of my family tree are something I never tried to put a label on as a child. As you get older, people expect more concrete assertions. I am wary of definition, but I do know who I am. I reject the one-drop rule, not because I choose to negate my Blackness but rather because I reject unscientific, plantation notions about blood and the nature of humanity. Outside of White supremacist formulas, our identities are as unexplored as space. Race is a fallacy, yet it is the reality of our lives. What I embrace is my heritage, my history and my people. I am a daughter of Africa, no matter who my father is. I am one person that many peoples made, so sometimes, upon first glance, it is hard to define me. But I’m from New Orleans, so my accent is thick; and once I begin to speak, you know exactly where I come from.
I am a woman of color. I am a mixed race woman. I am a Black woman. No equivocation there.
Lifelong resident of the Crescent City, Kristina K. Robinson was born near the water in New Orleans, Louisiana. Currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at the University of New Orleans, Kristina has begun work on a collection of essays focused on race, class and shape-shifting. In the meantime, join her at Life in High Times where she muses on race, all things hip-hop, love, and sexual politics.