"You don’t look anything like your parents; you must be adopted."

essays

williamsNot Just Black and White
Angela Awolola

Angela is a registered nurse with a specialty in intensive care. She is married to a wonderful man and has two daughters. One daughter is a freshman in college, and the other one is in diapers. She has returned to school to pursue a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing. She is currently taking classes at West Los Angeles College and California State University, Dominguez Hills. She states: “Although working full time, taking 12 units, and being a wife and mother is challenging, I believe with focus and determination we as humans can do anything. Therefore, never give up on your dreams, no matter how long it takes you to get there, [because] the journey is half the fun!”


I was eight years old when a schoolyard acquaintance, during recess, made a wide-eyed observation. She stated: “You don’t look anything like your parents; you must be adopted.” To which I answered, “No, I am not!” She then stated: “You have to be adopted; you look nothing like them [your parents].”

Until that moment I had never realized how different I looked compared to my parents and the other children at the school. I am of mixed race, the intercultural child of an English woman and a Nigerian man. We emigrated from England to the United States in 1975. I never thought about the difference in my parents’ ethnicities–white and black, European and African–until that day in the schoolyard. Throughout that day I thought about her comment. I realized she was right; I looked nothing like my parents. Overwhelming feelings of fear and sadness filled my little body. There was only one other child in the school who looked similar to me, and he was adopted. This fact may be how the schoolyard acquaintance came up with her conclusion.

The walk home from school that day was a long one; my parents worked, and I was a latch key kid. Before my mother got home, therefore, I had sufficient time to work myself up into quite a state of teary-eyed anxiety. The fear that I did not originally come from my parents and that my entire life as I had known it was a lie loomed over me like a death sentence. As soon as my mother came in the front door, I yelled at her: “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME I WAS ADOPTED!” She asked, in her pronounced British accent, “What on earth are you talking about?” When I told her about the schoolyard conversation, she began to laugh. She then spent several hours proving to me that she and my father were, in fact, my real parents. She showed me photos and my birth certificate. She hugged me and answered all of my questions. She explained how genetics worked and that genes were the reason that I looked different, not because some other people were my biological parents.

Although there was no longer doubt in my mind as to whom my parents were, that day changed the way I viewed myself and those around me. All of a sudden the way I looked, the result of my mixed race and culture, seemed to matter. British and American and Nigerian and African American cultures are very different. Some of the cultural differences at my house included these rules, imposed by my parents: television was limited to a half an hour a day, and to a program selected by my mother. Sleeping at a friend’s house was unheard of; you slept at your own home in your own bed. You never borrowed clothes or loaned them out. My parents never wasted food; we used and ate everything. There was never mayonnaise in our ’fridge; we used butter. You sat and ate using proper etiquette. You never drank from anything other than a glass. And you did not discuss private issues with others in public. And never did I hear my parents say a disparaging comment about other races or cultures. I was taught if you do not have anything nice to say, then just keep quiet. These cultural differences were often at odds with the cultural norms of my friends. This fact sometimes created friction between my parents and me. I wanted to fit into American culture, not my dual English/Nigerian culture.

It was not until I was in the sixth grade that my school started to bus minority children in from the inner city. I remember attempting to talk to a group of African American girls who told me to get away from them, calling me a “high yellow,” and although I had no idea what that term meant, I knew from the tone of the comment that it was not meant to be nice. I could not understand why they did not like me. We were all Africans, or so I thought. As a child I was unaware of the long history of skin tone segregation among members of the African American community. But I knew instinctively that the girls’ rejection of me had to do with the way I looked, so that summer I had my hair braided in an attempt to appear more black. During that summer, while at a Caucasian friend’s home, the Caucasian friend of her older brother called me the “n” word. I did not know the meaning of the word, just how pejorative it was—a white person calling a black person this word—but when her brother came to my defense, I knew it was a bad word. I felt anguish. I thought I would never be able to be completely accepted by either of my races, black or white. Clearly, I wasn’t black enough (“high yellow”), and I wasn’t white enough (I was the “n” word to some whites). My friend could not console me, although this particular friend’s parents were English immigrants, however, so we had a cultural bond, if not a racial one.

Other taunting racial slurs I started to hear often in the schoolyard from both Caucasian and African American kids were Oreo, Zebra, and half-breed. The knowledge that I was different racially, culturally and physically made me feel isolated. Although I knew what my cultures were, I did not know what race I belonged to. It felt as though I did not fit into either race, black or white. The schoolyard taunting made me unhappy at school. I recall telling my mother that I hated who I was and wished I was never born. She said, “Don’t be silly; you have the best of both worlds!” However, it would not be until I became an adult that I would agree with her.

During my second year of junior high school my best friend became a girl who was half- Hispanic and half-Caucasian. We discovered our mutual and powerful common bond: being mixed-race children who had difficulty being accepted by and fitting into one racial group or category. We had both experienced bigotry and hatred from both sides of our races. Although I had family support at home, to have the acceptance of one’s peers at this developmental stage was more important than anything in the world. My bond with my new friend, her complete and absolute acceptance of me as someone worthy to be a friend, helped me develop an appreciation of who I was, not as a race or culture, but as a person. As I developed emotionally and grew physically, so did my understanding of cultural identity and race. At this stage I was accepting of all that I was, and concluded that I was both black and white, with an English/Nigerian cultural background.

For this reason, in the summer before high school, I refused to fill in just one box on the school registration forms: my race. Up until then I had always marked “Black,” even though I never felt accepted in the African American community. In those days the African American category did not exist. The choices were White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Other. So from then on I checked “Other.” However, this categorization still made me unhappy; I felt that a person should be able to mark more than one category for race if doing so seemed appropriate. So before turning in my registration form, I wrote on the form: “Get real! It’s the 20th century!!!” I also put lots of exclamation points just below the “choose one race” question. By this time in my life I had grown tired of trying to morph myself into different styles and behaviors in attempts to conform to other people’s ideas of who I should be so they would like me. I had finally begun to appreciate who I was. If people did not like me for who I was, then that was their personal issue, not mine. Today I am a happily adjusted adult. I do not feel the need to fit in. I am very comfortable in my “mixed” skin. I have a diverse group of friends from various races and cultures. My mother’s belief that I have the best of both worlds now rings true to me.

Culture and race are two different aspects of an individual’s being. For example, people from England and people who have an ancestral English heritage, but are 10th generation American, have a completely different culture even though their race is the same. And Africans from any country in Africa have a different culture than African Americans even though they are all Africans. “Race” is the label for your genetic makeup. Of course, this aspect you cannot change. In my opinion, culture is based upon adaptations our forefathers made to their surroundings that enabled them to proliferate. As living circumstances changed so did aspects of their culture. These adaptations are expressed in the form of ideologies and behaviors that are group-specific, depending on group origins. The group’s ideologies and behaviors are passed on from one generation to the next. Sometimes the beliefs are no longer relevant to current circumstances. Your cultural heritage is meaningful and important to where you came from. However, I believe it is also important to update your cultural ideology and adapt to your current surroundings. This adaptability will enable you to progress to where we are going: We are becoming one people, human beings.

We are now living in a global society. Ethnocentric beliefs and intolerance of others based on race or culture are no longer in line with the population makeup of most communities. Inter-racial relationships have become more common and not such an anomaly. Just look around when you are out. It makes me happy to know that the children of these “mixed-race” couples will see many other children just like themselves, which may lead to fewer feelings of isolation among them, and to less of a need to discount one race or culture in an attempt to make another like them. Children are not born with specific beliefs about race and culture. These are things they are taught. Children mimic the good and bad behaviors of those around them. With the intertwining of different races and or cultures, new forms of races and cultures will emerge. Maybe there will be less fear of the unfamiliar. And hopefully, a progressive culture with an emphasis on mutual respect and appreciation of all people will become the dominant cultural ideology.

It is always amazing to me how many times complete strangers ask me, “You are mixed, aren’t you?” It seems they want recognition of their visual observation to determine if their conclusion is fact. My standard answer is: “Yes, I am Nigerian and English, but basically I am American.” This statement explains my cultural background. The race aspect is already implied: I am black/white. I answer in this fashion so race is not perceived as defining who I am, and thus I attempt to make the idea of race less important than culture. Culture can bring us together; it’s the one thing that we can change for the better. These days when an uninformed soul asks me, “So which race do you identify yourself with?”—yes, people really ask this question!—my answer is clear and simple: “I identify myself with both races, but the most important race to me is the human race.”