I don’t look like my family.
My caramel skin and dark, curly hair stand out in the family photos next to my blonde-haired, blue-eyed cousins.
No, I am not adopted. I am mixed race, living with my white father in a rural town in western New York.
I was never uncomfortable with my running as a child. I actually didn’t know I was different until I went to elementary school, and my awareness then had less to do with the politics of being one of the only non-white children. in town, and more to do with how my frizzy hair would tie up more easily than my friends’ sleek blonde locks during our beauty salon recess.
But, as we get older, we inevitably split into cliques and groups of friends based on common interests. There are athletes, bookworms and stoners.
But there is also a group that you may remember seeing in your high school cafeteria: the “racially other” group.
As of 2021, the school district I grew up in is 2% black, 89% white and 2% mixed race, according to Public school review. And these black and mixed-race children often stayed together. They created their own clique, capitalizing on their shared experiences. Most of them were transferred to the district while in high school or were bused from the city as part of the Rochester Urban-Suburban program. They shared similar socio-economic backgrounds and family structures and spoke African-American vernacular English, a dialect spoken in many of their homes.
But I was different.
I am a heirloom from Hilton, NY. The Mullen family have lived here for hundreds of years. I even live around the corner from the house my father grew up in. But until about 20 years ago, this family tree was pristine white.
I grew up in an agricultural country in probably the first interracial hotbed the area has ever seen. But to the curiosity of many residents, my black mother was surprisingly smart. She served in the United States Army for four years and earned a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Brockport College. And, as many people would tell you, she “speaks white.”
The idea of acting in white has haunted me all my life, as if to say that wearing summer dresses, reading as a hobby, and playing tennis are racial characteristics. Growing up in a predominantly white city with two well-educated parents taught me the importance of being respectful, kind, and behaving smart, traits that are often mistakenly associated with whiteness.
But no matter how eloquently I spoke or how high I held my head, my dark skin was always the first thing my peers saw. I have always been “the black friend”.
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I have vivid memories starting in elementary school of classmates calling me names like “Oreo”, “Panda” or “Halfrican”. None of them are intentionally racist, but try to rationalize the concept of being mixed up for their own convenience. So I accepted it.
I let them insult me. I let them make black jokes on me. I smiled and nodded with every attempt they made to understand my “culture”.
But my culture was no different from theirs. It was the Hilton Apple Festival and the city’s firefighter carnival. My culture was of the sleepovers in the hayloft on my uncle’s cattle farm and the cries of “bow down to the city of cows” at the annual homecoming soccer game. I was no different from the kids I grew up with, I just looked a little different.
I started to take a stand against this unintentional racist behavior in high school. I have served on advisory boards where I guided the school administration on how to integrate POC students into school activities. I corrected people when they called me insults like “mulatto” even though they didn’t know it was an insult at the time. I have attended conferences to discuss race relations in schools. I have dedicated myself to changing the culture of my city.
I know the kids in my town were probably confused and uncomfortable with such an exotic and alien idea as loving someone outside of their own race, but there is no excuse for being racist.
Don’t call me “Oreo”.
Reilly Mullen is the managing editor and can be contacted at [email protected]
Reilly Mullen is the editor-in-chief of Spectrum. She has a double specialization in English and political science. She loves Dunkin iced lattes, arguing with frat boys, and shopping for cool shoes. A former editor of websites, reports and news, she writes columns about her chronic illnesses and the suppression of patriarchy.