Written by: Dalyah Schiarizza
I’ve only begun reflecting on what it means to be a woman of colour. For most of my life, it hardly even crossed my mind. I had an ignorance that protected me for so long until I came to a point in my life where that protection vanished. I find that I was socialized like a White person in an entirely White family. My brain was crafted in a way that shielded my understanding of the effects racism has had on my life, previously and currently. That doesn’t mean I grew up not knowing what racism is. It just means I had the minimal understanding that racism is wrong, but it’s essentially over, a thing of the past. It took me a long time to come to the harsh realization that racism exists in all facets of society, and it will influence my wellbeing, whether or not I’m aware of it. I say I wore white-tinted glasses for 18 years, and it’s just now that I’m beginning to navigate and understand my identity as a biracial woman. It’s taken me one more year to establish this partially nuanced understanding and how it has influenced my life.
I want to start at the beginning; I spent a large portion of my life in a tiny and predominantly White town. I was the only Black person in my classes and family, so I grew up exclusively by and around White people. I learned to see the world as a White person, but obviously, it doesn’t work like that for me. I didn’t even know the world would be different for me and; it took me a very long time to let it sink in. These white-tinted glasses acted as a double-edged sword. It was a form of protection that shielded me from recognizing a lot of microaggressions and isolation. Still, it was blocking me from understanding who I am and the culture I could have had. In hindsight, I now recognize that I was being denied the truth of what it means to exist in this world, and I found myself shocked and underprepared.
Throughout school, I usually faced a lot of racist jokes, suggesting I could run fast or that I couldn’t be seen in the dark. They would comment on how I probably liked fried chicken and watermelon or how I was “loud” and talked “ghetto.” My peers would make these comments and laugh at me. In those moments, they didn’t impact me because, for some reason, it didn’t click how my peers directed those jokes at me. I was the butt of their joke, and I was who they projected their narrow-mindedness onto. Often I’d just laugh it off since I didn’t get it was about me and likely because I didn’t want to seem so different from everyone else. I wish I understood and said something, so maybe I would have earlier understood who I was. I wish it clicked a lot sooner that what they were saying was targeted at me. I had white-tinted glasses on, I had a very underdeveloped understanding of racism and of myself as a racialized person in situations like this. For example, when they said I couldn’t be seen in the dark, I laughed because it was just an assumption, or that’s how I understood it. Exactly like how the White kids around me understood it as just an assumption. Now, I realize that what they were saying was targeted at me in a racist way.
Even in public, strange things would happen to me because people had racist assumptions, and I never realized it. There have been a few times when I’d go into stores with my friends or family, and there would always be at least one store employee watching me. Even if I’d have been to that store fifty times and nothing ever happened when I was there, employees constantly watched me. I didn’t realize it; I just thought that maybe they did it because I was young, I was freshly 14 at the time, but it never crossed my mind that they did it because I’m Black. I also remember being asked to leave my purse outside of a dressing room because of “new anti-theft policies,” but the staff asked no one else to do that. At the time, I didn’t understand why they had only asked me. I assumed that maybe the employee forgot to ask the others. I’d say these were a couple of instances where I had on my white-tinted glasses, and they blinded me from understanding these micro-aggressions.
Even though I wish I didn’t grow up with white-tinted glasses, I realize now that they were a form of protection. If I did understand that those kids were being racist and that store employee stereotyped me as a thief because I’m Black, what could I have done? Who could I relate to? Would I tell my teacher and there be a discussion about not saying racist things when only one person of colour is in the class? I grew up without a diverse community or friends of colour, but I never understood that either. I was granted protection from a lot of isolation and loneliness from actively realizing I’m the only one not like the people around me.
The most crucial part in my journey of realizing my identity as a woman of colour was when I lost my white-tinted glasses. Like many others, I was exposed to the well-disguised reality of police brutality towards Black people in May 2020 when the entire world watched the death of George Floyd. For me, that’s when my white-tinted glasses fell off and shattered in front of me. I was exposed to a whole new world, the reality that I needed to face as a woman of colour. A reality that has hurt me and will continue to hurt me that I was entirely oblivious to.
I was overwhelmed because when I lost those glasses, I felt dumb like I was missing information that everyone else had. I felt like I was an idiot for not knowing how extensively racism has impacted and will impact my life, especially in predominantly white spaces. I also felt invalid as a woman of colour because I did not know since I was never raised around Black culture. When people would ask me questions about racism and Black history, I had no clue how to answer them seven times out of ten. Those interactions were very invalidating, not because people asked me, but because I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to answer them. Those white-tinted glasses blinded me from the world around me. When I lost them, I had no understanding of myself because I only understood the world from a white perspective.
Another very detrimental impact of losing my white tinted glasses was how I became extremely anxious. I found myself worrying a lot more about the environments I was in. For example, I was worried that someone was watching me all the time or that people I saw had intentions of hurting me. This was not the case, but my brain panicked because the sense of self I had growing up was shaken, and nothing felt familiar anymore. Those glasses likely protected me from a lot of isolation as a kid, but they ruined me when I was eighteen. I was terrified and felt like a shell of myself. Based on my upbringing, half of my identity was underdeveloped and never understood. I only began to process that about a year and a half ago.
I can say I’ve made a lot of progress since losing my white-tinted glasses. I’ve reflected on my experiences and related it to the phrase “white tinted glasses” as a start. Now that those glasses and I have parted ways, it has created the opportunity for a valuable journey of self-discovery. I wish I could tell you that I have it all completely figured out, but I don’t. I am only getting started. One thing that was very important to me was meeting other people of colour, especially Black women since I never grew up around other people of colour. I want a sense of community because I don’t want to go through this experience alone. I’m not the only person who has dealt with anti-Black racism or is a woman of colour in primarily white spaces. It’s vital to have a community because it can help me rationalize my insecurities and questions about my Black features. For example, caring for my curly hair or how my appearance is often fetishized as “caramel.” That’s part of the reason I was inclined to attend some QWOCC meetings last year and write for them this year. I am starting to feel connected to other women of colour with similar experiences and backgrounds.
I have also realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed to learn and do so publicly and actively. In the past, I’ve felt very ashamed of not having the understanding I do now about racism and the Black identity. I deserved to have it, but it was never my fault because I was young and couldn’t control it because I didn’t even know what it was. Six months ago, I couldn’t imagine writing so honestly about one of the biggest obstacles in my life right now, but I am doing so unashamedly. Learning about what it means to be a biracial Black woman has become very important to me. I now understand that I have a unique positionality, but I want to know the nuances of my identity, too. How will my specific identity influence my future, and how has it impacted events in my past? My questions are not answered yet, but I am nevertheless very committed to discovering their answers. I know that there’s no 100% right or wrong answer, but I want to entrench myself in this and navigate these questions and find what makes the most sense to me.
My reflection on being a woman of colour has just begun, as my story has shown. It took me a long time to get to this point, but I am glad I made it and am excited to keep moving forward. I wish I were brought up around Black culture and people, so I didn’t have to live with my white-tinted glasses for as long as I did, but that process has made me stronger. I am more dedicated to learning and understanding it as an adult with an open mind to rationalize and connect the patterns between the institutions of our society and the events of my life. Every day, I am grateful I’ve lost those glasses because regardless of how scary it was at first, I can now live my life more authentically and experience and understand my reality correctly now.