I am mixed race — my dad is Jamaican, and my mom is Ukrainian. My parents divorced when I was six years old, so I grew up around my mom’s side of the family. As a child, I didn’t know my dad’s side of the family that well. I only saw them on special occasions or over the holidays.
In elementary school, I experienced racism for the first time. I didn’t know people could dislike someone for the colour of their skin, but this kid, Dustin, bullied me for two years. He told me that he didn’t like brown people, and that my skin looked like poop. I realize now that he probably overheard his parents talking like that.
Because I was always with my mom’s side of the family, I got teased for being an “Oreo,” someone who is black on the outside, but white on the inside. Some of my cousins from my dad’s side would call me “pale skin”. I grew up feeling really conflicted about who I was. I felt a lot of pressure to choose a side: I was either Jamaican or Ukranian. Because I was raised primarily by my mom’s family, I thought it was easier to identify with my Ukranian side. I wanted to be like my mom. I wanted her hair — it was always so long and so blonde. When I played with her hair, it shined and moved like light reflecting off water. I’ve always thought it was the perfect shade, not too brown and not too yellow.
In middle school, I always pulled my hair back. My mom tried to style my hair, but she never knew what products to use so it was easier to just tie it out of the way. I didn’t know what products to use either, so on the days when I left my hair down, I would use pounds of extra strength hair gel to harden my hair and stop it from getting frizzy. People in my class would touch it all the time and say it felt like Ramen noodles. Some people said my hair looked like poodle hair. My sister told me other kids would stick pencils in her hair because they would get stuck in her curls.
It was around this time that I decided I wanted to marry a white man. I thought that if I could marry someone white then I would never have to worry about my kids having poodle hair, no one would tease them about their skin colour, and they might even have blue eyes. Any trace of their black genes would wash out.
In high school, I started straightening my hair everyday. I cut my hair into a bob so that it would take less time to style in the mornings. People started complimenting me on my look. I think people tried to make me feel good by telling me things like: I don’t even have to tell people I’m black. They would assure me that I could pass for Spanish or some type of Mediterranean.
I liked my hair straight. I liked that other people liked the way my hair looked. I started getting more attention. One girl I used to work with told me her mom thought I was pretty for a black girl. Another girl asked my best friend if my sister and I had different dads because her skin is darker than mine and her hair was natural. She didn’t know I was mixed race, she thought my hair was naturally straight and that I was a white girl with a really good tan.
I didn’t look black. Back then that made me feel good.
Now, I don’t know how she could not see that I was mixed race. It makes me sad to think that I felt so much shame and self-loathing about my ethnicity. The only time people seemed interested in me being Jamaican was when we were listening to rap music or dancehall.
When I started university I was introduced to a huge community of African and Caribbean students. I started hanging out more with my cousins on my dad’s side (the nice cousins). I learned more about my Jamaican heritage and for the first time, I felt like I didn’t stand out.
I saw other girls who had hair like mine, and I started to feel more comfortable leaving my hair natural. I found out what products to use and how to style it. I still have my lazy days where I just tie it back but I feel good leaving my curls the way they are. People compliment me on my curls now. I never thought I would grow to like my hair or my skin. I always felt like I had to try harder to be pretty because I was mixed.
As I continue to get older and learn new things about life and myself, I become more accepting of the person I am. I don’t feel pressured to choose one side to identify with. I feel comfortable embracing both sides of my ethnicity. I stopped trying to please other people and I learned to be okay with myself. When I was 18, I fell in love with a man for the first time, not for the colour of his skin but because he was an awesome human being. People still tease me for being the black girl who rocks out to Britney Spears and Lady Gaga but it doesn’t bother me the way it used to. My taste in music doesn’t change who I am. I am black, and I am white, and I am happy.
Kay is a 24 year-old Communications student at the University of Winnipeg. In her spare time, she likes to write non-fiction pieces. She hopes to make one of her non-fiction pieces into a play. She drinks too much wine and she fills her coffee cups with energy drinks so no one judges her for downing a Rockstar at 7:30am. Pescatarian, cat-lover, glitter-crazy, feminist.