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An uncomfortable in-between: Being biracial during a civil rights movement

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Posted at 4:02 PM, Jun 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-27 16:02:33-04

Editor’s note: This is a first-person essay from a News 5 journalist. You can listen to a conversation with its author on the Voices for Change podcast.

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I am Black. I am white. I am both.

I’m finding it difficult to live through this civil rights movement as a biracial individual. That's not to take away from how difficult it is to be Black in our society—it's a different kind of difficult.

Much like my dual racial identification, I live two experiences at once. I understand what it feels like to be Black, and, at the same time, I don't.

I know what it feels like to be Black because I've been subjected to racism my whole life.

When I was just a few days old I was rejected by members of my white family who told my mother they didn't care to see me while referring to me by the n-word.

Until the age of 11, I lived in a diverse Akron neighborhood with white, Black and Latino friends and neighbors. Racism wasn't an experience I had in Akron. Then we moved to the suburbs.

My mother lives with multiple sclerosis and hasn't been physically able to work since I was a kid, so I grew up in Section 8 housing. My mom was approved for an apartment in the suburbs, and we moved immediately. Growing up in Green made me feel different.

In Green, I was one of two Black children in my grade. The other was a girl people said was my twin. We didn't look anything alike, other than having more melanin in our bodies than anyone else at school. Because we were Black, we were "twins."

In my first few weeks of fourth grade in a new school, I was teased for my hair and teased for my clothes. One of my two teachers called me stupid to my face and told me that my "Akron education was showing."

But in Akron, I was an honor roll student, a member of both the Peer Mediation board and Safety Patrol, took violin lessons and held the record for most books read in a school year. In Green, I was placed in a class with several students who were developmentally impaired because I "didn’t fit in."

I was treated differently than the other students. That continued throughout my childhood.

When I was 12, on the school bus, I stood up to a group of boys who were picking on me for my clothes again. In response, one of the boys called me the n-word. The bus driver gave them a verbal warning and chalked it up to "boys being boys."

As I grew up throughout middle school and high school, the insults and aggressions continued. From statements such as "you don't sound Black" to being called an "Oreo", it was always pointed out that I was different from white people, but I was also made to feel different from Black people. When I was complimented on my appearance, it often followed the word "exotic." I looked different, a “unique” blend of my white and Black halves. On more than one occasion I was told I was attractive "for a mixed girl" or attractive "for a Black girl."

No matter who I was with, I never felt enough. With white people, was I white enough? With Black people, was I Black enough? It never felt like the answer was yes, because how could I be when I did not have the full experience of either half?

While I’ve always been labeled by my Blackness, I have also lived with privilege. Not exactly "white privilege," but rather "light privilege," or privilege for having a lighter complexion than other people of color.

My younger half-brother, who is also biracial, has a much darker complexion than I do, despite being as equally Black as me. Sometimes my race is ambiguous. His is not. We don’t share the same experiences.

I don't get stopped by security while shopping. People don't seem fearful if I wear my hood up on the street. While I've had interactions with the police, I've never felt fear for my life during stops. My brother, on the other hand, has had police draw guns on him twice.

An officer threatened him at the age of 12, calling him “boy” and saying he would “throw him into the wall."

Later in his life, an officer reached for his gun on Christmas Eve while my brother was answering questions about a shoplifter who happened to be our neighbor. My brother was not involved. He was not a suspect. He was trying to help police, but his hands in his pockets as he kept them warm were deemed a threat, despite the officer making him stand outside the store during questioning.

While I am often subjected to a stream of racially charged and insensitive comments, my light privilege affords me distance from threats others, including my brother, face more often than they should.

"Can I touch your hair?" "Is it real or is it a weave?" "What are you?" "You don't even look Black!"— All questions and statements that are divisive, but not life-threatening.

I am keenly aware of the vast differences in my life experiences, and right now I feel I must speak on the differences.

Living through a different form of racial disparity, as the fight against racial injustices sweeps the country, I find myself more vocal than ever. Whether I like it or not, I am in the middle of a battle for equality. I feel both obligated and motivated to use my voice to speak up for my Black family and friends. I feel both obligated and motivated to use my voice to educate my white family and friends. I feel responsible to serve as a middleman and to use my dual identity to encourage change.

So I will continue to use my voice to speak, to teach, to try to give a better understanding of what one half of me lives every day to those who live as my other half does. I will continue trying to use my perspective living in an uncomfortable in-between to work towards a true equality.

I feel that I must do my part, because I am surrounded by two sides, and I always will be.

I am Black. I am white. I am both.

Camryn Justice is a web producer at News 5.

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