The thundering echoes of boots on the wooden floor of our home in Coronado jolted me awake one morning last summer. It was June 12th, eighteen days after George Floyd’s murder, a horrendous crime that ignited a passionate rage amongst African Americans across our nation. The hulking and somewhat intimidating man standing in the hallway was a proud U.S. Army veteran, an ex-drill sergeant, and national guardsmen who had seen combat in Panama. One of the most stoic, educated, and eloquently spoken men I have met in my life, my father, Sgt. R. Stewart, who also has to face the truth of what being a black man in today’s society is really like. My mother, an intense albeit anxious woman, is white, making me their proud biracial son.
However, over the previous few weeks, I was beginning to struggle with the fact that for years I had entirely suppressed my true thoughts, feelings, and emotions regarding my race and ancestry. My paternal grandfather is biracial himself, and we had never entirely discussed why he looked “more like me,” while all of his siblings were black. I then proceeded to ask my father a question that would fragment my view on racism and even my existence. “How come I’ve never heard of a great grandfather on our side of the family?” He paused and pondered for a moment. I could understand he wanted to deliver his answer carefully yet unabashedly. He responded, “Your great grandfather was a white traveling salesman who raped your great grandmother while conducting business in New York City.” This meant I was a fourth-generation byproduct of a rape by a white man who utilized his privilege to take advantage of a black woman.
Becoming aware of my actual family history compounded by the recent events in our worsening political climate thrust me into internal conflict. As a biracial man, do I begin to distance myself from the “white” part of me, ostracizing a pertinent half to what makes me whole as a unique human being? Or do I continue to educate myself on these controversies encompassing us, and as a black man feel guilty for taking a lack of action? While despite having experienced a level of fluidity in my racial identity over time, our society’s crushing reality is there is no fluidity when considering the social, economic, and political meanings of race. However, I also believe that there is no such thing as a race because race only becomes significant in “socially constructed” realities such as ours, where privilege and oppression have long reigned supreme.
A “socially constructed” reality is a structure determined by how human beings have interacted with each other over thousands of years. Sociologists, anthropologists, scientists, and philosophers agree that race is a physical characteristic that has since become more relevant in society but is not fact. While this is not to say that skin pigmentation variation does not exist, in a country such as ours where privilege is organized according to race, I, along with other biracial people, have felt compelled to assign or label ourselves into specific groups that withhold the most inherent advantages. For example, while attending elementary school, because I never looked like the stereotypical “light skin,” I would often find myself in awkward or subtly racist situations. Classmates would study my face puzzled while guessing what race or ethnicity I am, hearing everything from Arabic to Mexican to Iranian. Then their mouth would sit agape with gasps squeaking out when I would relay to them that I’m genuinely “just black and white.” “But you don’t actually look black,” they would reply. I remember the naivety so painfully obvious to see at such a young age.
When it came time to take standardized tests in the classroom, I would cringe filling out the “Race” section of the personal information form. I was a decent test taker and always an inquisitive student, but you could only choose one race you best “identified” as. I often relented and alienated my “black,” side choosing to fill in the “white” bubble so the proctors grading my test would not be surprised by my successes. Historically blacks have consistently performed worse than whites in standardized tests due to certain specific socioeconomic disadvantages, and I was embarrassed and fearful of what others would think. Would the exam proctors believe I had to overcome being black first before succeeding in a public-school environment?
I was in eighth grade when George Zimmerman executed Trayvon Martin and slowly became cognizant of how privileged “white” people are. Attending a predominantly white school in an affluent community, I had grown closer to the few multiracial and black fellow students. Since I was a “light skin,” who shared more of my fair-skinned mother’s complexion, I was almost expected to “act” how I “looked.” This included chastising my wear of hoodies, beanies, basketball shoes, and other fashion significant to our culture. Whenever I found myself rebelling and becoming more comfortable in my biracial skin, I would be reminded that “I’m not entirely black,” and that “I still look white.” I began to become ashamed and insecure, cursing my mother and father for “making me mixed.” I felt self-conscious about my racial identity and what that meant, even more, important to who I am as a human being.
When it became advantageous for me to be black, I was now completely “black” to my fellow peers and high school administrators. Excelling on the track while sprinting the 100-meter dash, I was “lucky I was fast because I was black.” When the tensions were high in the locker room after losing a football game, and I angered a teammate, now I was suddenly “a n*gger.” Reporting to the school office (to be punished) the following Monday after the fight, I was labeled by a former principal, “big, black, and intimidating.” Unfortunately, I am not the first victim of this ignorance. Another way to observe our reality’s constructed nature would be to study how throughout history, the definition of race is riddled with inconsistencies.
In the 19th century, U.S. law identified African ancestry as black, by a standard known as the ‘one drop rule,’ wherein in contrast to achieve Native American status, you had to have at least one-eighth Native American ancestry to qualify. Sociologist Adrian Piper argues that “it was mostly a matter of economics. Native Americans could claim financial benefits from the federal government, making it to white’s advantage to make it hard for anyone to be considered Native American.” In both cases, racial classification had little to do with objective characteristics, such as skin pigmentation and everything to do with preserving white power and wealth.
Now it’s February 2021, Black History month, and also the shortest month of the year. I feel optimistic because I know that each day, week, month, and year that goes by as individuals in this society, we have an opportunity to evolve past our flawed perceptions and beliefs we have retained due to our “socially constructed” reality and grow. I still believe it will take years of unlearning but at the root of our problem with race lies a severe lack of understanding. A quality that was never objective cannot be significant or therefore “exist,” if we do not shape the fabric of our nation around it. Due to this exact reasoning, I have finally begun shedding the self-loathing that resulted from years of subjective beliefs and expectations fueled by society. I have hope that we will all be able to come together as one singular loving race, the human race of the future. After all, whether it be your biracial grandfather you love, your spiteful neighbor, or an influential role model, we all sleep under the same stars at night.
— Jacob Stewart is a proud “Army Brat”, graduated from Coronado High School and currently attends San Diego City College. His passions include music, film and writing. He is a future Screen Writer and a strong LGBTQ+ Ally. JacobRCS@yahoo.com