February is Black History Month. I wanted to write a piece that honors what it means to be Black in our country. But I cannot do that with any authenticity, because I am not Black. Being both a woman and a Jew, I do have some idea of what it means to be marginalized, to be discriminated against, to be judged – and I know how important it is to give people a voice.
One of my dearest friends, Sharon Robinson, is a Black woman. I asked Sharon to write this piece for Portrait of an Adoption, because she can tell you better than I ever could what it means to be Black in America. This is her story and hers alone. I am so very grateful that she has shared it with us.
By Sharon Robinson
I am a Black woman. And I want you to notice.
I spent a good portion of my childhood trying to convince people I was Black. My schoolmates constantly challenged my identity, using my “good hair,” “light skin,” and “proper English” as evidence against me. Living in Gary, Indiana as part of an affluent family didn’t help my case, either. My father was an orthopedic surgeon, and my mother obtained a Master’s Degree in Mathematics. Three of my grandparents were college educated.
Instead of being proud of my family’s education and success, I was embarrassed by it, resentful that it was just another barrier between me and my Black classmates, making acceptance that much more difficult. In order to fit in and, more importantly, to survive, I became a master of code switching — before that was even a term — becoming fluent in both Ebonics and Standard English at a very young age.
It is so ironic that the part of my identity I desperately wanted my classmates to acknowledge is the first (and sometimes only) part that others see. My parents understood the importance of enrichment, so I participated in many academic and extracurricular activities. An unforeseen side effect of these opportunities was that it became my responsibility to enlighten the majority of other people on all things Black.
From music tastes to hair styling tips, I became their guru. No question was off limits. Sadly, these were the well-meaning people. Others were just cruel and hateful. Yet, no matter how offended I was, I mastered the art of keeping my composure so as not to be cast as another Black girl with an attitude.
One summer, my sisters and I participated in a summer tennis camp in Munster, Indiana, where a few of the White boys relentlessly fired tennis balls at me for sport. At one point, an eight-year-old White girl turned to my younger sister and said, “Be a dear and fetch my racket.”
As a teenager, I participated in a residential program at Northwestern University. Roommate assignments came in the mail about a month before the program, and I wrote a letter to my roommate from Kansas introducing myself and gently letting her know that I was, in fact, Black. (I had already learned by now that it was MY responsibility as a person of color to make White people feel comfortable around me). In her response letter, she wrote, “Oh wow. I’m glad you told me. I have never met a Black person before.” This was the same program when, during our group photo, one of the participants looked at me and started singing, “One of these things is not like the other…”
In 2000, I lost my daughter at twenty weeks gestation. I was on the maternity floor at Prentice Hospital, and the doctor had just told me there was nothing they could do to save my baby. Naturally, I began sobbing uncontrollably. The young White nurse asked if she should get my “boyfriend” (who had stepped into the hallway to call my parents). I was currently a pediatric resident at Northwestern – a resident who was wearing a wedding ring, because that man in the hallway was my husband.
Experiences like these made me resentful that people saw me only as a Black female rather than a tennis player, talented student, or grieving mother. I vowed that my children would never have to endure these horrible experiences. We decided to raise our children in Evanston, one of the most liberal, diverse communities in America. Surely they would be protected, right? Wrong. The reality is, despite where you live, how educated you are, or how much money you make, one thing will never change. We are Black. And my girls noticed.
At the age of three, my daughter cried to me that she hated her hair, begging for me to make it look just like Sleeping Beauty’s. At age six, she came home from her first day of tennis lessons, threw her bag down in disgust and said, “Do you know I am the only Brown person in class?” Little did she know that this would be the first of many times that she (or her sister) would be the the “only Brown person.” Dance classes, academic enrichment classes, soccer teams, and swim lessons were soon to follow. Despite my vow to protect them, my daughters had become “tokens,” just like their mother.
My initial reaction was devastation. I wanted so desperately to shield them from the burden of being the “only one,” and I had failed.
That’s when I realized I had it all wrong. My most important job was to prepare them for these situations and to teach them how to be role models despite their young ages. As a family, we began to candidly discuss the challenges and the privileges of being the only Brown girl in the room.
“Robinsons Represent” became our family mantra. My girls learned that being “as good” wouldn’t cut it. They must work harder, practice longer, arrive earlier, stay later, smile bigger, speak louder, BE BETTER. As women of color, we are representing not only ourselves but Black women that aren’t afforded the opportunity to represent themselves.
It’s not always fair, but it’s our reality. It is a huge responsibility and, at times, it sucks. Just ask Beyoncé, who is under unprecedented criticism for acknowledging her heritage. However, these experiences are what give us the grit and determination to thrive despite the odds.
I won’t kid you. Being a Black woman is exhausting. At times I find myself looking around a room, feeling as though I am invisible, drowning in a sea of faces that look nothing like mine. Sometimes it is so hard to muster the strength to have a voice and speak my truth, knowing that everything I say is not only a reflection of me, but of every Black woman in America.
However, no matter how tired or frustrated I feel, I will forge ahead. I will sit in a conference room full of White men and speak with clarity and confidence. Because my most important job is the one I never asked for, never pursued, never anticipated. My most important job is to represent.
I started off as a little girl in Gary, Indiana, desperate to confirm my ethnicity. Then, I wished everyone would notice anything but my skin color. Thanks to my life experiences and my beautiful, Brown daughters, I have now come full circle. I know you mean well when you say, “I don’t see color.”
I know you want to believe that you can transcend racial bias and stereotyping by believing we are all the same. But we are not. Let’s not pretend that we are. Instead, let’s embrace our differences and learn from them. That is what makes us special. Just like I wanted my classmates to see me all of those years ago, I want you to see me, too. I am determined, resilient and fierce.
I am a Black woman. And I NEED to you to notice.
Sharon Robinson grew up in Gary, Indiana. She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University and went on to attend Indiana University School of Medicine. She completed her pediatric residency at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she served as their first African-American chief resident. She and her husband, Keith, live in Evanston, IL with their two daughters, ages 11 and 9.
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