My name is Ben O’Keefe and I am a “Halfrican American.” It’s a term that one of my fellow mixed-race friends, Adriana, and I have affectionately come to define ourselves by. It seems like such a fitting proclamation. It serves as an ode to both “halves” of my racial identity. But, that identify is one that has been a hard fought battle to discover.
Growing up I didn’t think about being Black—I didn’t think about being White either. Coming from a bi-racial family, I was simply raised to see an absence of color. My White mother taught me that “we are all just people" and refused to allow us to identify as “Black.” To my mother we were “chocolate.” My Black father was not around to raise me with any sense of our shared racial identity. In our predominately White community, I had very little exposure to my Black heritage, or the culture that one half of my body belonged to. Or did it belong to it? And more importantly: Did I want to belong to it?
As much as my mother longed for me to live in a world free of the barriers of race, a colorblind world was not the reality. We in fact live in a society in which race very much still fuels the subconscious bigotry of many. A country in which our Black President inspires some, but terrifies others. But still in my naivety, I continued to live my life undefined by the racial descriptions of our society.
My innocence was lost the first time that I noticed that I was being followed through a store. With hard-earned chore money in my pocket, I remember proudly searching the shelves. When the store clerk confronted my brother, cousin, and I for allegedly stealing I remember standing in shock. My rose-colored glasses were shattered. I began to see, all around me, how people's views on me were shaped by tint of my skin, and how that impacted my life. One night while I was on a jog through my neighborhood I noticed a blonde girl jogging ahead of me. She looked back and started to run faster. Terrified that someone was following us I started to run faster as well! It took me a good minute to realize she was running from me…I was listening to Adele and bothering this woman could not have been further from my mind All she knew was that I was a Black man, and therefore I was to be feared.
One of the of the few things that I remember my father saying to me as child is, “You are a Black man. Never forget that.” I didn’t know what that meant at 7 years old, but at 17 years old—after being run from in the streets—I did know what it meant.
And I didn’t want to be a Black man.
And why should any young Black boy ever look forward to growing up to be a Black man? When the image of a Black man is tainted by so many negative connotations in this country? When Black men and boys are routinely abused for no reason but the color of their skin?
I reached an existential crisis. I didn’t want to be denied employment opportunities because of my skin color. I didn’t want to be stopped and frisked. I didn’t want people to lock their doors as I passed their cars in the parking lot. I didn’t want to be gunned down in the streets. Being a Black man made me a target and I didn't want any part of that.
When people started to ask me about my cultural background I would simply say, “I’m Italian.” I ignored a major part of my identity, because as far as I was concerned I was a White man. And I wanted to be treated as such.
I continued to live in denial of my own race until February 26, 2012. On that day, a vigilante named George Zimmerman stopped Trayvon Martin for the crime of Walking While Black. The nation would learn that it was a crime punishable by death. I sat in front of the television and cried as I stared at a boy that looked like me. I stared at a Black boy, who was gunned down for being Black.
It was that day that I became a Black man.
So many people try to convince themselves that we live in a post-racial society, but we don’t. Or they do as I did and try to escape their own connection to race as a way to protect themselves from the pain of racism. Being Black is challenging, but it is not a sentence. I've come to accept and understand the beauty, the joy and the resilience of my people in the face of our great struggles. I am a proud biracial man, but I am also a proud Black one.
When I hear about the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I feel a sense of responsibility not to hide from my race, but to do the work to change the conditions for people who look like me–to challenge the right of police, state and local governments to legally abuse and destroy our lives. There is no shame in who we are, but there is pain. So long as that continues, I can imagine that other mixed-race individuals will struggle with what feels like a way to 'opt-out' of being Black…until the world taps them on the shoulder and reminds them that it simply does not work that way.