In Defense of My Light-Washed Identity

What it means to be able to define my own identity

Light-Washed

To hide your light-washed 
identity became an art.

It hurt your ticking heart.
And pushed your beating
brain further apart.

White picket fences and
white painted homes
dominated your life.

You decided to hide your 
curly curls,
But you could never erase 
the colors from your face.

White forged your everyday
sights.

You were forced to see a
sea of whites, only.

Old pictures on your phone
remind you that you were
sad, all the time.

And that still kills you inside.

No one could ever know:
at night, warm tears formed—
and streamed down both
brown eyes.

You couldn’t scream.
Precisely because you
didn’t realize why you cried.

What does it mean—
to be Black and white?

The answer never came
in black and white.

For the longest time, 
you were unbelonging.

So you did a bad thing.

You forgot the part of
you that wasn’t white.

No one could remind you
to remember.

So you bought the
ironed white khakis.

And put a white 
mask on to hide
behind.

You fed yourself the white lie.

You wanted the picket fence,
So you chose stagnant white friends.

It took colors to remind you,
You chose the wrong life.

Nobody but you
knows otherwise:

You’re not white.
You’re not black.
You’re not white washed.
You are light-washed.

I am blessed to be mixed. To be half-Black and half-white. I am blessed to have a Canadian and British mother, and a Mauritanian and French father. I am blessed to have grown up in three vastly different countries: France, Tunisia, and the United States. 

When I lived in France and Tunisia, I was always surrounded by people who looked like me. If I hadn’t moved to Rye, New York (85% white and 1% Black), I would not be writing this piece today. Coming to the United States was the greatest challenge I ever faced, because for the first time in my life, I became “othered.” 

When I took my first standardized test in America, I remember scanning down the list of ethnicities on the scantron. Of course, the first box was “white.” Directly underneath that box was “Black/African-American,” and I would always check off both the white and Black boxes. To me, doing so highlights an American obsession with grouping “others” into “othered” categories. To implicitly remind non-whites like me that they are different. 

How can one reduce identity to a box? And for what racist purpose?

I know that American kids have been checking these boxes off since elementary school. These boxes are insensitive and tactless because they fail to account for the intricacies of being racialized. It can only be incomprehensible, despicable, and insulting to note that until 2000, American schoolchildren and census takers could only fill in one box. The state shouldn’t be in charge of guiding us into our identities, we should identify them ourselves and come into them in a bona-fide fashion, with no external nor governmental guidance. 

In America, the roots of these boxes go back to slavery and segregation. Following the ban of the importation of slaves via the trans-atlantic slave trade in 1808, white Americans came up with the “one drop rule” to embolden the domestic slave trade. The rule stressed that anyone with a single drop of Black blood was to be qualified as Black and to be sold (or kept) into slavery. It was in white people’s economic, dominant, and supremacist interest to Blacken slaves.

Conversely, white people forcefully assimilated Indigenous peoples. In an attempt to justify theft of their land, settlers enforced the assimilation or disintegration of Indigenous peoples, actively ensuring that these Indigenous peoples would be whitened (for example through inter-race reproduction and residential schools) and accepted into society once they were “civilized.” Similarly, in Brazil, the white colonial elites supported a policy of “blanqueamiento,” which encouraged the reproduction between lighter-skinned people so as to “whiten” the Brazilian population and ensure the unchallengeable subsistence of white dominance. As exemplified by the colonial practices of the “one drop rule” and the “whitening” of Indigenous peoples and Brazilians alike, white people have always attempted to define other people’s identity. 

Some of my friends in Rye, New York, have been implicitly complicit in these attempts to define my identity. I’d be standing in lunch lines, waiting for some awful food, when out of the blue, my closest friends would say, “you act so white” or “you’re the whitest Black kid ever.” In doing so, they would implicate themselves in committing microaggressive racism. They were saying that I was too white because I “articulated” my words. Because I did well in school. Because I lived in a wealthy suburban American town. Because I was friends with them. It’s almost like they were saying “don’t get too close to us!” or “you’re not Black enough!” American society has been conditioned into associating whiteness with excellence. Conditioned to box people into different categories so as to perpetuate constructed racial differences and white supremacy. When I became “too white” to white people, I implicitly became an insubordinate threat. So my white friends implicitly felt the need to remind me “not to get too close.”

Sometimes these were just snide comments, but to add fuel to a pathetic fire, sometimes they were compliments. As in the case of white colonialists whitening and “civilizing” indigenous peoples, if these comments were “compliments,” then I was “whitened.” Look at you, all civilized! Look at you, articulating your words like me! But as in the case of American slavery, if these comments were implicit warnings, then I was “Blackened.” Don’t get too close! You can’t talk like me!

American society has been conditioned into associating whiteness with excellence. Conditioned to box people into different categories so as to perpetuate constructed racial differences and white supremacy.

To my white friends, these comments were insignificant. To me, as a mixed child, they revealed and reinvigorated the deep struggles I had with defining my already complicated racial identity. White people were denying me the privilege of defining my own identity because they felt entitled to define my identity for me. Their words and actions were unfair. I never denied nor questioned their whiteness. And I never denied nor questioned their whiteness because American society has been constructed so that whiteness is the default, to preserve a legacy of colonial, slave-based, segregationist, white supremacy. 

One summer night in 11th grade, playing ping-pong, I called out two of my friends for saying that I acted too white. I don’t really remember how the conversation went down because I have tried to forget it, but I do remember being emotional, loud, and consistent with my words. I remember being told I was “overreacting” and “oversensitive.” I remember being frustrated that not even my closest friends could hear me. The worst part about it is that for years after, I was the one apologizing for that night. 

I painfully regretted speaking up in defense of my light-washed identity. I thought it was wrong of me to put my friends in such a predicament. I should have just shut up and taken their comments. After all, they could have been intended as compliments!

White people were denying me the privilege of defining my own identity because they felt entitled to define my identity for me […] I never denied nor questioned their whiteness because American society has been constructed so that whiteness is the default.

In retrospect, that moment highlighted the fact that I was hiding my Blackness, my négritude, what I call my light-washed identity. For a moment, I let those “other” parts of me seep out and speak, but in doing so, I reminded my friends (and myself) that I didn’t look like them. And so, I vowed never to defend my identity again. I thought that if I didn’t continue to put a white façade on, I’d lose some of my friends. 

I will never forgive Rye for not making me feel welcome when I first arrived. For making me not take pride in, but to hide my curls. One of my best friends once told me: “your curly hair looks like a bunch of pubes.” It saddens me that for a momentary moment, I was self-conscious enough to believe him. 

Another time, after telling my friend I’d kissed a pretty girl, he said “I’m surprised Rye girls would get with a minority.” At the time, I didn’t have the energy nor the confidence to speak up for myself. I am now 19 years old and attending college, and times have changed. I am no longer bound by the impenetrable, white, cultist bubble that is Rye. I no longer have to fit in in a white community. I no longer have to speak to please anyone but myself. 

Now, I know it is my moral responsibility to speak my emotional truth. To use emotional, thus true words to question and confront the words and actions of those closest to me. As I once wrote:

“If what I say is felt by so many who look like me, what we say is not unwarranted, because it can only be the truth.”

Now, I have the courage and independence to call myself “light-washed” in blatant rejection of the people calling me “white washed” or “Black.” I do not deny my Blackness, I am proud of it. I embrace it. But what I make of my Blackness is beyond personal. I have every right to say I am not Black because I have a problem with other people putting a label on identity. A label that can only be a white legacy of constructed colonial and slavery-based racial differences. Colonists and enslavers had no right to Blacken or whiten people to serve their own supremacist interests. You have no right to Blacken me. You have no right to whiten me. 

Tiger Woods calls himself “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, Indian, Asian) in rejection of people referring to him as “Black.” I am sure he came up with such a beautiful term because like me, he was tired of the narrative other people wrote for and about him. The point of identity is that it is intrinsic and unique to the individual. I own my own identity. We all own our own identity.

I wrote a whole poem to come up with the term “light-washed.” Writing a poem to define my identity sounds a whole lot better than checking off predetermined and pre-written boxes on a standardized test, a census, or a college application. Children are creative, and instead of making them check racist boxes before standardized tests, we should let them creatively define themselves. 

It can only be telling to note that once I befriended people who looked like me in college, it felt like a burning burden had been lifted. I finally wasn’t the “other” in the room anymore. I felt like I was free, like I finally had the space to breathe.

If I had stayed in a predominantly white community, if I hadn’t built deep friendships with people who look like me in college, I’d still be hiding my identity. I’d still be making race jokes to fit in. I’d still be laughing at other people’s race jokes. 

To hide who I am was the hardest, most dishonest, and dissonant action I ever took in my life. By making race jokes, I was attempting to bridge the distance between my Rye peers and I. And I can never apologize enough to the African and Black communities for poking fun at our wondrous, wonderful cultures to build deeper friendships, to feed the implicitly supreme egoes of American white people. I was just a child, but boy have I grown. 

What pains me the most about a bourgeois American community like Rye is that so many of my peers will go on never questioning their implicit racism. They will never break from the implicit or explicit chains of white supremacy because they will attend predominantly white universities, befriend mostly white people, join a mostly white frat without learning from the lived experiences of people like me. In the words of Césaire, one can have all the education in the world, but when his moral character, his racism, or even his privilege is questioned: “The petty bourgeois doesn’t want to hear any more. With a twitch of his ears he flicks the idea away. The idea, an annoying fly.”