Black Outside, White Inside
In early January, 1989, a young, white couple gave birth to a healthy, black baby boy in a Boston hospital. There were questions, of course. Who would not wonder how something like this could happen? Cheating wife, or something else? The father of that baby boy didn’t doubt his wife’s word that she was always faithful to him, that this boy was his boy. She offered to do a DNA test so no doubt would remain in his mind, but he declined. Her word was good enough.
Two years later, in August, that same couple gave birth to a white baby girl. At least, she was white for a little while. Her skin grew darker over the years, never as dark as her brother’s, but it was apparent that she was different from her parents. She never truly questioned her skin pigmentation; however, it was always at the back of her mind.
That girl is me.
In 1948, South Africa’s Nationalist Government enacted segregation laws that pushed this country into an apartheid era. Many legislative acts made it against the law to have interracial marriage, interracial sex, and kept whites and blacks segregated not only in public places but also in communities. In 1955, a controversial baby came into the world of apartheid South Africa which would cause debate on whether or not a person would be considered black because their features were black. This baby was Sandra Laing, a black baby girl born to white parents. Everyone in the Laing family before Sandra was white, but due to a biological oddness, Sandra Laing inherited a pigment from a distant, unknown black ancestor that had lay dormant in her family’s genetics for generations. At first Sandra never really questioned her skin color until she went to an all-white school at an early age. There, she was discriminated against and forced to come to the realization that the color of her skin meant everything in a country of segregation.
Like Sandra, my brother and I went through life never really being accepted by the white community or the black. We were different, that was the only thing we could be positive about. Although segregation in the United States has long been abolished since our coming into the world, and interracial marriages and origins became widely more accepted, my brother and I still faced difficulties when it came to the color or our skin.
“Are you adopted? Did you mother cheat on your father?” These questions, although seemingly innocent, have been the backbone of insecurity for me. I believe my parents are my real parents, but I never could understand why no one else would believe me. “It’s a recessive gene,” I would say in hopes that it was true.
For Sandra’s father, proving that she was his daughter meant the world to him. He pushed and pushed for her to be recognized as white, and soon after their second child was born (light skinned, but darker than his parents, with black features) a new law came into effect stating that a child’s race would be classified the same as their parents. Sandra was white, according to the government.
Genetics have proved the possibility of children having skin color that differs from that of their parents. It only takes a random mixture of genes to produce the outcome of skin color, hair color, and eye color. A historically all white family may have had unknown ancestors whom had dark skin, just like an all-black family may have had an unknown ancestors with white skin. When two white parents carry genes from dark-skinned ancestors then there is a greater chance of their children coming out mulatto, or darker, the same can be said in reverse. The more black or white genes the parents carry the more likely their children will come out with a different skin color.
In 2010, a black couple gave birth to their third child: a white, blonde haired, blue eyed girl. It is more common for black couples to give birth to albino children, however in this particular case the child is not albino. It is possible that the wife cheated on the husband but the likelihood of the child coming out blonde, blue eyed, and white, would still be odd. No matter what people may try and speculate, cheating is rarely the case in situations like this one. This baby, like me, is the outcome of genetics. However, growing up in a family that looks different from you will always be challenging.
It is hard to describe the feeling of isolation as anything more than feeling like you are in a box separate from the rest of the world. This box is impenetrable and cramped. Outside of it, the world seems safe and secure but as soon as you leave the comfort of the box, you realize that the world isn’t as safe as you initially thought. However, sometimes you do not purposely put yourself in this hypothetical box; society does this for you.
Although going through life with a skin color that differs from your parents’ can be challenging, I feel like it is even harder on the parents. Especially the father. As the case was with Sandra’s father, the skin color of his daughter was so important to him that he constantly fought the government in classifying her as “white” and when she turned her back to white culture, he turned his back on her. My father, luckily, never put any emphasis on our skin color. He has always loved my brother and me no matter what, but I often wonder what he might have gone through. Like me, he is quiet and keeps his feelings to himself, so there is very little that I know about him when dealing with the subject of our race. I’m sure there have been moments where people have put doubt in his head, where he felt the ridicule of others just as we all have, but he has dealt with it in such a way that has made me feel like I am not different from him or my mother at all. It is everyone else who puts these doubts into our heads, and, like him, I will ignore it or prove them wrong.
However, I sometimes wondered what my life would have been like if my skin stayed white. Would it have been easier? Would I have accepted my black-skinned brother as easily? I can’t be so sure. In High School, I am embarrassed to say that I hated the color of my skin. The teasing of children became all I could think about. My focus became on “being white.” I wanted my skin color to change. My black friends would say “you are not black,” while my white friends would say “you are not white.” What was I then? If not black, if not white, was I some sort of mutant freak that would never be accepted into society because I was different from everyone, including my parents? I began to think my brother had it easier. He was born black and took the role of “being black” easily and was accepted by the black community without question. It wasn’t until later on that I found out he never spoke of our parents and that the accusations of adoption had hurt him, emotionally. The majority of his friends assumed that we had one black parent and one white. Some even assumed we were adopted without question. It became my “duty” to inform everyone that my parents were both white and that my brother and I were not adopted. If they could not understand that, or refused to believe that, then I would isolate myself from them.
The challenges my brother and I faced differed from that of the rest of our family but we never felt isolated from them. Our aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins have all accepted us for who we are rather than the color of our skin. I wish the same could be said for Sandra and her family. Although she reunited with her mother, her brothers refuse to have contact with her. If my family did not accept me, I don’t think I would be as comfortable with myself as I am today.
It was not until I reached college, however, that I began to accept myself for who I was: black skinned, but white. To my surprise, when I explained my situation to others at college, they accepted it as easily as if I told them the sky was blue. Did age bring wisdom? Or, were people from my town just ignorant and cruel? Either way, I was happy with my situation, although still oblivious to the exact reasoning behind it. I knew that genetics were the cause but I had no idea if anyone in my family was every dark-skinned.
My mother has always been a fanatic of learning about our ancestry. I used to think it was because she wanted to find an explanation for her two black children, but now I know it is just her curiosity and her eagerness to learn about the past that drove her to do this. I am glad, though, without all of her hard work I would have never known that my pigmentation is not from an ancestor in Africa, but from an ancestor from the Portuguese island of Madeira. Emanuel Gonzalves, born in 1805, escaped Catholic persecution by stowing away on a ship destined for Mohegan Island. Only 13, he picked up his life and moved it to Friendship, Maine, where he changed his last name to “Francis,” which is my mother’s maiden name. There is little we know about Manny, as he forever was called, for he was a secretive man. There are no pictures of him (that we know of) but he is described as “swarthy” in appearance. What we do know of him, is that his mother’s name was Jaswin. Her name suggests that she is from India, however there is no way of proving this. If she is from India, it would explain my appearance, and perhaps would give me more insight on Manny’s own appearance.
It all comes down to science. Science proves that there are genetic traits that lay dormant in people for generations, and that these dormant genes can pop up unexpectedly. Usually, these genes will only have a small effect, such as a variation of eye and/or hair color, but once in a while they can have huge effects on skin color. Sometimes, the question will come up about my brother being darker than I am. The answer to this question is simple: He was born first, so he got more of those genes. This could also explain why my own skin color was white when I was born. Perhaps my body’s melanin is ultra-sensitive to sunlight, causing it to change my pigmentation through the years. The only real way of knowing is lots and lots of scientific tests which is something I refuse to put myself through.
One last big question that I am always asked is thus: What will your children look like? At this I often laugh because to be honest, I don’t know! It all depends on who you end up having children with. For example, my brother has a son with a white, blonde haired woman. His son is a bit lighter than me, but he seems to be getting darker as he gets older. I doubt that he will ever be as dark as I am because he has less of the gene that my brother and I carry. As for my own children, I have no real preference for how they turn out. I will love them endlessly either way, just like my parents endlessly love us.
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