I’d never encountered race as an issue on my campus until one Saturday night, when I left a party with a white man.
He was a senior, and he seemed nice enough. He was certainly good looking—tall, blue eyes, sandy hair, strong build. I felt almost honored that he was attracted to me. I thought I’d struck gold for the night.
Once we arrived in his apartment, we settled into his living room and made unimportant small talk before he leaned in and kissed me. I thought everything was going fine, but after a moment he paused, tilting his face away from mine so he could look at me more clearly.
“Hey,” he said. “What are you?”
“What am I?” I repeated, and I think I even laughed a little. “What do you mean?”
“You know,” he said. “Like, what are you?”
I’d heard that question hundreds of times before, and usually it didn’t bother me all that much—perhaps because I felt like it shouldn’t—but in this context I felt a twinge of discomfort at the inquiry.
So I deflected the question, but a couple of minutes later he asked again. “C’mon. What are you? Like, where are you from?” “Massachusetts,” I replied. “No, no, I mean what ethnicity are you? What race?”
Looking back, I probably should have stood my ground. Told him that my race wasn’t relevant, maybe even explained to him why it was vaguely offensive that he should care to ask me such a thing. But having to clarify your existence to people for their own personal validation is invariably exhausting, and so I eventually gave in to his demands out of sheer annoyance.
“Oh,” he said, after I’d finally given him an adequate response, and an inexplicable look of satisfaction passed over his features. “I’m so glad you’re not all black.”
Not all black. A phrase so innocent and awful that it manages to perfectly epitomize the mentality that quietly plagues our world. I wasn’t all black; I was dark enough to be exotic and ambiguous, but light enough to escape the tainted chains of looking ethnic. Such a mindset exposes the cruel truth of Western society: even though we spout rhetoric maintaining that black is beautiful and desirable, it is still inherently more valuable to contain less of it.
But I am just as white as I am black, and yet I could never answer caucasian to a question about my race without controversy, not because it is untrue, but because white is clean and pure, and one visible drop of foreign blood negates the right to claim it. Plessy v. Ferguson is still alive and kicking in our perceptions of race today.
In that moment, as I sat in that strange man’s unfamiliar apartment, still dressed in the outfit I’d been so excited to pick out earlier that night, I felt raw humiliation and shame. Not for being black or multiracial or white, but for following this man home, and for letting him make me feel so powerless and small with just three words.
“No, no,” I remember he said to me, as I gathered my things as quickly as I could manage. “I’m not racist—I like black girls.”
And that was an impeccable vocalization of another quiet problem that plagues women even on a campus comprised of over 50% minority students. With white ideals of beauty ruling the West as the gold standard, having straight hair or a small nose or thin lips while still boasting darker skin results in those who are diverse being cast aside into a niche where their race is fetishized instead of properly celebrated.
So when you say “I like black girls,” it sounds as though you feel you are unique in this mindset, as if liking us is an exception instead of the rule. It makes it seem as though we are not entitled to traditional levels of attention or allure, so when you do give it to us we should be pleasantly surprised. Thankful. Grateful for the favor you are doing for us.
But no person of color ever feels this way. To be reduced to the kink in our hair or the pigment of our skin is just as demeaning as being told we are unattractive—in fact, it’s remarkably the same thing.
Don’t get me wrong. Shower me in flattery and adoration. Tell me that you think I look nice, or that my hair is pretty, or that my skin is glowing. Just don’t say I look good strictly because I do or don’t adhere to whatever cognitive schema in which you have organized me. And if you tell me you like black girls, please excuse me for not taking it as a compliment.