By Daryenne Wickliffe
Choice abounds in America. The options created by choice leave us with endless possibilities. Our options tend to fall into either/or categories; Apple or Android for your phone; Yahoo or Google for your email and trusted search engine; Twitter or Instagram for all the activities you want to share; coffee or tea, then, of course leading to the choice of hot or iced; sun or snow for vacation this year; the list goes on and on.
One of the oldest categories in our young country is race, presenting the choice of black or white. In history, the choice is still almost obsolete. Eleven months of the year, nine months if we are talking about grades K-12, the choice between highlighting white or black history, defaults to white. The creation of Black History Month was originally a week meant to stake out a space to choose black, highlighting “the Negro in history.”
Because the presence of blacks in history was still neglected in schoolbooks, BHM was expanded to a month in 1976. Power structures refused to teach black and white history simultaneously. In February, black presence in history is an option we can choose.
Various media outlets choose to honor black history, dedicating content space to it throughout February. For example, Snapchat offered a filter of a black leader, with dates and a few adjectives; magazines celebrated current black leaders, and even individual social media accounts dedicated their pages to recognizing lesser-known black leaders. But as the shortest month ends, Black History Month is on its way to storage for next year. Once February ends, so does the choice of black history, leaving school-aged children with only an extended European history course.
For me, there is never a choice between black and white. I am one of many biracial, half black, half white Millennials. My twelve-month calendar consists of a merged program. I have had friends who decide to make a choice, at least outwardly, embracing their black side more fully than their white side, only sporadically alluding to their white family members. I have never been able to choose one side over the other; I have always felt mixed inside and out.
My outward appearance, if you look closely enough, is a mix of both cultures, both of my parents. My white mom has round eyes; my dad’s are almond. I have one of each. My hair, curly and kinky, from my dad, has my mom’s texture, finer than you would expect. My athleticism comes from both parents, just like my intellect. Some things are different than you’d expect. My interest in alternative music and Dave Matthews inherited from my black dad; my R&B interest from my white mom.
It was easy for me not to feel the pressure to choose which race to identify with when I was growing up. The Silicon Valley middle and high school I attended consisted of lots of brown kids, white kids sprinkled in here and there. When I got to a college where black people made up less than one percent of the student population, I better understood the importance of recognizing black history and culture. My white classmates often saw me differently than I had always seen myself.
Once, two of my friends and I were talking about the three of us going out. I don’t remember the exact context, but one of them said, “us three black people.” I stopped him and said that I was half white. We went back and forth until finally, he said, “The world sees you as black. You’re black.” We laughed, but that has stuck with me, a perfect sentiment to the mismatch of my view of self and everyone else’s. My eyes were opened.
Academically, I began to understand why my view differed from my classmates’. I took sociology and history classes that were taught by open-minded and socially conscious professors. In one of my first sociology classes, I learned about binaries and how, since Bacon’s Rebellion, a black/white binary has existed in the United States. This binary presents race as a static idea, and creates a system of thought, where you are either one or the other. I understood then that, even though I saw and continue to see myself as mixed, as a unique blend of two races, many of the people around me cannot.
This way of thinking extends past my personal experience, to other races in the U.S. Many things from music to style of clothing are labeled “black” or “white.” To black friends I had growing up, I “talked white,” but to my white friends, I have “black hair,” or a “black taste in music.” If you are not black and you love rap music, you may have been told that you, “act black.” If you are not white, and love country music, you may have been accused of being “white-washed.”
The binary not only extends across racial groups; it pervades people’s attitudes about good or bad and even right or wrong, associating each adjective with a color. The arguments surrounding Black History Month stem from this binary system, the one I experienced on a small scale. The inability to see American history as one that is a multitude of pixelated colors leaves us with a mono-racial history lesson. Right now, Americans and too often those in the position to edit the misstep, to put it politely, see history as a sheet of white, colored here and there with splatters of red, orange, yellow, purple, brown, and black paint.
Many of us are aware of both sides of the argument. The continuing arguments for keeping it—it does provide at least a small platform for another generation of children to remember and learn about black leaders—and the arguments for abolishing it—black history should be taught year-round, or the more preposterous, that it is actually an act of segregation—fail to solve the main problem.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t see my body equally divided into white and black sections. I see a blend. Brown skin that is sometimes lighter, sometimes darker; hands and arms and feet and legs borrowed and recreated from my black and my white family members. And when I look at my eyes, directly in the light and up close, they are brown rimmed with green. My own thoughts are there, uniquely blended from my personal experiences; a blend of my two families, neither delegated to a specific month, existing—if you can stretch your mind to believe it—simultaneously.