By Melanie Boysaw, 15, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies
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Melanie wishes people would try to see her for who she is inside.

I am half black and half white and race has been a big part of my life.

I was in seventh grade when people started to get curious about what I was. Most kids assumed I was mostly white with some other race. I didn’t mind that they asked me about my race, it was only when people didn’t believe me that it bothered me. They’d say, “Seriously?” or “No, you’re not really black.” I’d answer with “Why would I lie about that?” But when people did believe me, it gave me a sense of pride. It was as though knowing I was part black made them see me as more than just that 5-foot-11 girl. It made me more complex.

That year, I made friends with a diverse group in my PE class. There was a Hispanic girl, an Armenian, another girl who was half black and half white, and two black girls. The two black girls were what everyone considered typically black—they listened to rap and dressed “ghetto” in baggy pants and tight tops.

Our teacher didn’t make us do anything so we’d sit around for most of the two-hour class. At least once a week, my two black friends were upset about their parents. One of them hated her dad and the other one didn’t like her mom’s strict rules. If I said I was sorry or tried to help, they’d say “You wouldn’t get it. You’re so lucky, you get everything you want.” I didn’t understand why they said those things because outside of class, they knew very little about me. I wasn’t rich and I didn’t get everything I wanted.

They would talk about artists like 50 Cent and Eminem, but left me out of the conversation. They also said “You’re such a nice little white girl” because I didn’t cuss and followed the class rules, like running all four laps instead of one. I never understood why being nice made me white, but after a few months it seemed as though anything I did was automatically not the black way.

I was being judged by people who knew very little about the real me, once again. But this time because I wasn’t black enough instead of when I was younger and I was considered too black.

My grandfather didn’t want to meet me

Illustration by Liza Escobedo, 17, Washington Preparatory HS

Growing up, my brother and I never saw our grandparents from our mom’s side. We knew that our grandmother had died of leukemia before I was born, but our grandfather was still alive in Dallas. Once or twice my mother, who is white, explained that my grandfather grew up in the South in the early 1900s when most white kids were taught to be racist. She said he didn’t want to meet us because my brother and I were half black.

One day when I was 7 or 8, my mom told us that our grandfather was very sick. She said he wanted to meet us before he died. I asked her if we could go, but she said no. Later that night, I was watching TV when my mother called me into the dining room. She had me sit down at the table with a lit candle and dimmed the lights. I was confused. What was this candle for?

She said that her father cut her off after she married my father, who is black, and she had to work for everything she had. He didn’t even come to her wedding. That taught my mom that you have to depend on yourself before all others. She said the candle symbolized her father and everything he had put her through, and that going back to Texas now would be like touching the flame of the candle. She asked me if I really wanted to touch the candle’s flame.

I was lost. I understood that my grandfather was raised a certain way and I couldn’t completely blame him because of that. But I couldn’t understand how something as trivial as skin color could make someone not want to meet their own grandchildren. How could he know he didn’t want to meet me, without knowing anything about me?

Shortly after that, my grandfather passed away. I was a little sad because it finalized that I would never meet him, but I didn’t cry. My mom attended her father’s funeral in Dallas, but we weren’t allowed to go.

My parents got divorced shortly after my grandfather’s death. We saw each parent an equal amount, switching houses every day and trading off weekends. 

In the beginning of eighth grade, I changed a lot. I went from wearing basketball clothes to jeans and T-shirts and from listening to whatever was on the radio to listening only to rock. I changed the way I dressed because my mom made me stop wearing basketball clothes. She said “Don’t you want to dress more feminine?” Also, my friend questioned why I listened to rap so one day I listened to the lyrics in rap music. They were singing about partying, drinking and women. Everything was so pointless. My friend introduced me to new bands, like Green Day and The Killers. I couldn’t believe the difference. They sang about love, loss and finding themselves. I had never listened to music where I could feel the artist’s emotion and I loved it.

I was still the same person, but people started assuming I didn’t want to be black. Kids began to call me names like whitewashed and Oreo. I didn’t know what those meant, so I didn’t care. But after being called whitewashed a couple times, someone finally explained that it was “When someone is black but acts white.” I laughed it off because I knew they were kidding.

But when it got to the point where I’d hear those words almost every day, it started to bother me. Whitewashed was just a word, but it suggested I was ashamed of my black heritage. I would get a little angry inside, but I never went off on them. I didn’t see the point in arguing with them because it would only cause problems. But at the end of eighth grade, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I was talking to my Asian friend, who is really into rap and wearing Rocawear and Baby Phat, and she brought up, once again, my race.

“Melanie, why do you act so white? Are you ashamed of being black or something?” she said.

“No. I don’t act white or black,” I said. “You can’t say that every black person should act one way and every white person should act another. Just because I don’t act ‘ghetto’ doesn’t mean I’m not as black as someone who does.”

“OK, but most black people act that way.”

“How do you know? And even if that is true, it doesn’t mean that because a majority of black people act that way, that I have to. There’s no ‘acting white’ or ‘acting black.’”

“Whatever, you know you’re whitewashed.”

“How can I be whitewashed if I’m half white?”

She shook her head and walked away.

I felt proud that I stood up to my friend. She stopped calling me whitewashed for a while and opted for Oreo instead until I asked her how I could be black on the outside but white on the inside if I was half white. Then she ran out of names and stopped for a while.

In ninth grade, kids made fewer comments directly toward me, but began to make jokes about race. Every day someone made a dumb joke about race. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the n-word being thrown around or someone joking about how all black people steal, how Asians can’t drive or how Mexicans are alcoholics.

One day, I was sitting on a low wall with my friends before class when two of our guy friends started to jokingly argue with each other. One was Mexican and the other was from Bangladesh, next to India. “Why don’t you go blow up a building?” my Mexican friend said to my Bengali friend, even though he’s not even Middle Eastern.

“Why don’t you go mow a lawn?”

“Are you going to blow up the school next, Al Qaeda?”

“Go sell some oranges.”

Hearing others turn racism into a joke when it has been such a real thing to me, just isn’t funny. Instead of just making fun of me for not being black enough, they were making fun of an entire race for something stereotypical.

What’s bad about stereotypes is that they limit people. Even if a person makes fun of their own race, it just makes it more acceptable for anyone else to say something. It makes it difficult for people to break out of what they are supposed to act like and just be themselves.

My famiy gives me a unique perspective

Even though being biracial hasn’t been easy, I would never want to be one race. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the two sides of my family. My mom’s family is small—it’s just her brother and my mom’s friends, who I call my “aunts.” I know they care about me because they take me to basketball games and help me with school work and any other problems I’m having. My mom got re-married about three years ago. My step-dad’s family is a lot bigger and they put a lot of importance on being a big, happy Irish family.

I don’t get to see my dad’s family that much because they live on the East Coast, but when we get together it’s always fun. They are really loud and talk a lot and there are a lot of them. I last saw them for my dad’s wedding in July. A lot of people I never met from my step-mom’s family came up and talked to me. Being with people who were so friendly made me feel at home.

I like who I am. I’m not just half black and half white. I am Melanie. I play basketball on my high school team and a club team. My friends and family are important to me. Music is important to me too because it helps me deal with things. I listen to mostly rock or “screamo.” One of my favorite artists is the Christian band Underoath because as a Christian, they help me lead a clean life. But if you just see me as half black and half white, you’re missing everything else that makes up me.