Growing up in a single parent home is difficult…growing up in a single parent home as a biracial black child, with your Jewish, Eastern European mother is layered with even more difficulty—it’s like missing a peace. Of course that’s not to take away from anyone else’s experiences, but I believe I had a somewhat unique challenge while wading through the issues of being raised by a single parent, as well as dealing with the nuances of my biracial heritage.
My mother loved me, I feel I need to say that right off the bat because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m bashing my mother or calling her out for bad parenting or something. I loved my mother, and even idolized her at certain points in my life…so this is not a story about a hateful mother-daughter relationship. And though we did have some tense points, that stemmed from other issues she dealt with in her life, none of which I think are relevant to my story.
My issue with how I was raised was not due to any malicious intent on my mother’s part, but more out of a complete lack of awareness. My mother, as a white women, did not know how to teach me how to be black or love and understand my black side. She did not know how to explain the subtle racism I would deal with, some at the hands of close family friends and peers, and she did not understand that I struggled with my identity, because to her, I was black…there was no question to her, again, I think this lends to her being naive at most. She couldn’t have understood that having darker skin color was not enough to bring me cultural acceptance, I needed to SEE positive examples of both sides of my race. I did not have those examples, and I suffered greatly through years of self-loathing, having only gained confidence recently.
I feel I need to give some background here in order to better explain how I was raised. My white mother and black father married and had myself and one younger biological brother. Other than that, I had an older white half-sister, from my mother’s previous marriage, and much later on, five younger adopted siblings, all of mixed race including Mexican and white, Mexican and Native American, black and Mexican, and full blood black. My parents divorced when I was around 5 years old or so, and I had only faint memories of my father during those times. We visited over the years, he lived in Texas, but I did not see him very often until after I had graduated high school, certainly well out of my formative learning years.
The importance of my family background probably tells you a little about my mother’s “color blindness” when it came to love. I know, I hate the word color blind as many of us who have immersed ourselves in racial constructs do. But I can’t think of any other word, because I really believe that she was naive in thinking that race, while acceptable to mingle, was not plagued by cultural differences that needed to be discussed and confronted, especially in a biracial child. For example, when I was younger, I was asked by a boy at school why I didn’t “like” him, and whether or not it was because he was black. I had been raised surrounded by my older sister’s love of 80’s boy bands, New Kids on the Block, Bon Jovi, Guns and Roses… I idolized her and the blond haired, light eyed white boys of the teen magazines. I was never shown black love, I had no idea how to be attracted to black boys, I even believed white people were a better pick at that age… In the 5th grade I had learned that white boys were cuter (see better) than black ones and I can’t even explain to you how. I went home and told my mom of the encounter, she was surprised when I brought it up and responded with “why wouldn’t you like a black boy, you are black?” She couldn’t know that I didn’t agree with her, that I rarely accepted being black myself and that I tried to be as least “black” as possible. I would tell people I was only half black, I would straighten my curly hair, I would surround myself with little white friends, and crush on the little white boys in class. So you see, I truly think she was “color blind,” but I also know that it was incredibly harmful to me and probably to many others around me.
By not acknowledging the other side of my race, by not teaching me about black love, black art, black education, and black minds, I was swallowed up by society’s negative portrayal of black people. I saw less in being black. I tried to stay out of the sun in the summer, so as to not darken my already brown skin. I dated white boys, I listened to classic rock, I laughed and agreed when white guys who loved hip hop told me they were “blacker” than I was. I even allowed people to mis-identify me as Puerto Rican or some other race…anything but black! And I made the most self-deprecating jokes about myself, from joking about not being allowed in a person’s house because I was black…to not being allowed to sit in the front of the car, or not being seen outside at night. I joked that I wasn’t THAT black because I didn’t “talk” black or “act” black. I fed into the preconceived notions that the only way to be black was to fit into stereotypical cliches. I had even experienced racism many times as a teenager, but because of the fear that came along with “pulling the race card,” convinced myself that I was just overreacting. All these actions I now see very clearly as self-hate, self-hate that was so incredibly sad and detrimental to my healthy growth from a child into an adult. I had been taught, or really, I had been influenced by no effort but society’s pressures, to hate a part of myself that I should have been taught to LOVE and to incorporate into my identity as a biracial person. So, you might be asking what changed, did my father pop back into my life to become that awesome example I needed? Did I get to spend time with my amazing Aunts on his side, all educated, strong black women that I could’ve learned so much from? Did my mother finally see my struggles and sit me down to explain to me how to love myself? Nope…I went to college and took a class that I can only describe as life changing.
Dr. Jerome Rabow taught a class called “Sociology of Race” at California State University of Northridge, and it opened up every single wound I had inflicted on myself as a youth. We read books on Latinx, Asian, Native American, and black culture, read stories and articles meant to open our eyes and create empathy to the struggles of other races, sexes, ability and cultures. We discussed alcoholism, drug abuse, and neglect in family units and how none of us were really alone in our experiences, because many of us had shared these experiences. One of the first articles I read discussed how we sometimes “paint” ourselves with the traits of the dominant, white race, in order to fit into society’s expectations, and we were asked to write a short paper on an experience in which we had “painted” ourselves. My first thought came to my hair, which of course I had worn straight and had chemically straightened, since high school. And in writing that paper, and presenting it to the class, I found myself bawling my eyes out in the middle of 30 some odd strangers, because the realization of my emotions and of my own hate were so strong. This was the beginning of my healing, but also, helped me to understand that much of what I went through could’ve been avoided had my mother been a little more aware.
If I look at myself now, I am reminded that I am a work in progress, like my mother had been before me, but perhaps I have a little more understanding of racial nuances than she did. There were things I didn’t know, that I do know now. As of now, I identify as a black, biracial woman, but I now feel identity is fluid, and can change with an open heart and an open mind. I have already changed so much in myself, I can only grow from here. In calling myself black and biracial, I’ve had people ask me how I can identify as both, and I tell them that I feel I must acknowledge my mother’s side, because it is part of my story, but that I am also black by my own admittance and acceptance, as well as how society sees and treats me. And I don’t wish to ignore either side.
My mother has early onset Alzheimer’s disease and has been suffering from the effects since around 2014, she can no longer speak, and was not really able to discuss the racial journey I went on to get to this place where I feel a bit more at peace. But, if I could go back and give her some advice…I’d tell her that she should have surrounded me with positive influences from both sides of my culture. I should have had regular interactions with black and white children, adults, etc. I should have visited black history museums, black art shows, black cultural appreciation festivals, read books with black heroes and heroines. I should have seen what amazing things black people were capable of. I should have been kept as far away from a chemical straightener as possible, I should have been told my curls were unique and beautiful, and been taught how to maintain them! If I’d had the chance, I would’ve told my mother that it was her responsibility, having brought a biracial child into the world, to have learned about all the things I was going to need to navigate the world…she should have learned that I was going to be a target for both subtle and direct racism, and been able to teach me to combat it. I don’t know if that would’ve changed the struggles I went through, I don’t know if I’d have dealt with the same issues regardless, but maybe, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard in learning who I was when I finally reached adulthood.
Still, she loved me, I never questioned whether or not I was loved, but it wasn’t enough to protect me from the societal pressures that, to this day, support white supremacy as the default in literally every facet of life. I can only hope that my story will be read by some concerned single, white mother(or father) of a biracial child, and she will do what my mother failed to do, and not only be mother and father, but be learn all she can about the missing piece of their child’s culture. Because if nobody is there to teach them how to love all parts of themselves, then they just might miss out on the incredible history that makes them so unique.
Rochelle Lott was born in 1983 in a suburb of Los Angeles, CA called Northridge to a white, Jewish, Eastern European mother (a naturalized citizen) and black, Texas native father. She was moved after around 5 years to Lancaster, CA where she attended elementary, junior high, and high school. Rochelle is the second oldest of 8 children, 3 biological, and 5 adopted and is very close with her family. She graduated from California State University of Northridge (CSUN) in 2008 with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with an emphasis in International Relations, as well as a minor in Gender, and Women’s Studies. In 2016 she returned to CSUN to earn a Master’s degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Leadership and Management. One of her many passions is research and “knowing” things and she is constantly reading new books, articles and expanding her knowledge, specifically in regard to race, history, and cultural relations. Rochelle likes to spend her liesurely time reading, playing soccer, going to the gym, and attending comicbook conventions with her family. She has recently taken her interest in education and knowledge into activism and is looking forward to making a small difference in whatever capacity she can. She also loves cheese and a her awesome dog Jake.