Skin Deep

By Eleana Tworek

ELEANA 1: I haven’t taken a biology class in 10 years, but with the help of Google and a look at some old notes here’s what I remember about DNA inheritance. There are 30,000 genes in the human genome. We inherit our genes from our parents. In my case, from my dad, Joe Tworek, and my mom, Stephanie Patterson. 

[sfx: Dad “Hi,” Mom “Hello”] 

Because genes code for proteins. Multiple parts along the genome that code for the same protein can explain our traits. Like, why I have blonde hair, or green eyes, or why I’m an average height. I’ve never been good at biology, it’s partly why I’m a journalist. But I’ve always had a fascination with what I didn’t inherit from my mother

—her skin color. 

There’s something you should know before we move on with this story. I’m mixed race but looking at me you wouldn’t think that. My mom is Black and my dad is white. I look like my dad, I  got all the Polish genes. Here’s another thing you should know about me. I’m thinking about taking a DNA test. 

I’m Eleana Tworek and this is Telling True Stories in Sound. 

ELEANA 2: My whole life I’ve grappled with the fact that I don’t look like half of my identity. How can I claim to be a part of the Black community when appearance is so central to the Black experience? Yet my family doesn’t see it this way. They’ve tried to make me feel like I belong. My aunt, Bonnie, always tells me

BONNIE 1: Race is not real. 

ELEANA 3: Yeah I know it’s just like-I know but I’m say—when you look the way I look [laughs] huh? [you look the way I look and you have the family that I have it’s just um] what? [It’s hard! I mean it’s just hard!]

ELEANA 4: Having family and close friends assure you that you’re Black just doesn’t cut it. I want the numbers, for myself. Both my mom and aunt have taken ancestry tests. They are among the 26 million people who’ve flooded services like and 23andMe. 

ARCHIVAL 1: For over thirty years you’ve connected to your family history with Ancestry. Our expansive record collections and growing family trees

ELEANA 5: Many people find out new familial information from these tests, but it was so much more for Bonnie. 

BONNIE 2: Your grandmother is not my birth mother. So I didn’t know anything about the history of my birth mother. That was part of the mystery, you know, who am I? What admixture could there be? 

ELEANA 6: Bonnie identifies as mixed. She’s fair-skinned with coarse salt and pepper hair she always wears pulled back with a headband. I always thought her racial identity was interesting because she grew up in Newport News, Virginia, under Jim Crow. Where it didn’t matter if you were mixed, or to use the language of the system, “colored,” you were Black. You’re going to hear my mom in a minute. Because she’s 12 years younger than Bonnie, her experience is drastically different. But let’s stay in 1950s Virginia—for my aunt during those times in the South  

BONNIE 3:You didn’t define your identity, your identity was given to you. That was the fact of the existence. 

ELEANA 7: Bonnie uses my grandfather as an example. 

BONNIE 4: Regardless of what he looked like, very fair, blonde hair, gray eyes, even if he had wanted to try and pass, anybody in the South who looked at it would know that the high school he went to was a segregated Black high school. The college he went to was a historically Black college. 

ELEANA 8: By this oppressive Jim Crow logic, I would’ve been in the same situation as my grandfather. This identity conundrum wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. I would’ve been Black, period. Just like my aunt during those early years. There was nothing else she could be other than Black.  

My grandparents did everything in their power to protect Bonnie from the corrosive power of white supremacy, from letting Jim Crow win. They lived in a black bubble on the campus of Virginia State College, a historically Black university. My grandfather managed a chemistry lab while my grandmother was a teacher at a segregated school in town. Even so Bonnie says, 

BONNIE 5: I never interacted with whites. We didn’t take public buses because we weren’t going to sit at the back of a bus. I never drank from a colored water fountain. You’d just go thirsty til you got home. 

So I can remember stopping at the side of the road and going into the field to urinate. You didn’t want to stop at a gas station in the South and try to use the bathroom there because there were colored bathrooms and we didn’t use colored bathrooms [laughs]. 

ELEANA 9: My grandparents moved the family to East Lansing, Michigan in 1964. It was there, outside the confines of Jim Crow into adulthood that Bonnie really started to get a sense of her identity. But Bonnie never outgrew the oppressive system. She says she’s mixed because that’s how others perceive her, she’s used to being assigned her identity. For example, while living in Arizona, she was told to go back to the White Mountains, the home of the Apache tribe. Another time a woman insisted Bonnie speak to her in Spanish. 

BONNIE 6: They were reacting to what they saw, and what they saw was ambiguity. 

ELEANA 10: My mom is different from my aunt in a lot of ways. She’s a part of a different generation. She grew up in Michigan. And, despite having the freedom to form her own identity, my mom says she’s Black.

MOM 1: I don’t make it any more complicated than that [laughs]. 

ELEANA 11: She says it’s because that’s how my grandparents identified, and their parents, and their parents’ parents, and so on. For her, it’s a tradition. Another thing that sets my aunt and mom apart, is that while Bonnie never married, my mom did. AND she married someone white. Bonnie would’ve never fathomed interracial marriage growing up, my mom saw it come into the mainstream.

So that got me thinking when she married my dad and had me, how did she wrestle with keeping up this tradition? How did she instill the pride she had for her Blackness in me? 

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a predominantly white college town. Where I was read and treated as white. By teachers, friends, and coaches. Which can explain why for the first five years of my life, I didn’t know my mom was Black. My mom remembers one day when I was around that age. I was playing with my grandmother. 

MOM 2: You had some dolls, and most of the dolls were white. I think there was a darker-skinned doll. And what grandma relayed to me was that you had said something to the effect that you had a preference for playing with the white doll. So I remember feeling just kinda crestfallen about that. At that age you see things more concretely, it’s hard to explain nuances to kids. 

ELEANA 12: My mom has no recollection of what she said to me in response, but I do. A few days later while driving in her car, she looked at me through her rearview mirror and asked why I didn’t want to play with the Black doll. I must of mumbled something along the lines of  “I don’t know” because she then said the life-changing phrase I am Black, and so are you. 

She maintained our family’s tradition by legitimizing my Blackness. 

My sister, Tai, is 5 years younger than me. Physically, she’s a carbon copy of my mom—she has it, all the brown hair, brown eyes, everything down to the tan skin. Tai and I are closer in age than my mom and Bonnie, and are in the same generation, yet our racial experiences are radically different. My parents didn’t have a conversation about race with Tai. Unlike me, her identity was implied. I don’t need to think about my safety in certain spaces because I know how I’m perceived, whereas Tai constantly assesses different situations. 

TAI 1: It presents kind of like a two-fold issue because I don’t know how people are going to perceive me so I don’t know if that’s going to bring danger or if that’s going to bring maybe some semblance of safety or some semblance of privilege.  

ELEANA 13: Because Tai is in this racial limbo, she prepares to face racism and microaggressions. Going out as a family in Ann Arbor, I’ve witnessed what she’s had to deal with. One night, when I was 18 and Tai was 13 we went to a restaurant for dinner. Our dad was out parking the car. 

TAI 2: And so you, me, and mom were ordering at the counter 

ELEANA 14: After we placed our order the white woman behind the counter asked my sister 

TAI 3: Wait so sorry but I was just wondering, what are you? 

ELEANA 15: I can still remember the look of discomfort on Tai’s face as she struggled to find the words to answer. When she finally did her explanation was along the lines of 

TAI 4: Oh, I’m mixed or I’m half Black or something.

ELEANA 16: To our horror, the woman kept pushing.  

TAI 5: Are you anything else? Are you like Mexican or Latina? I probably said “Oh this is my sister this is my mom” because I thought it was also really weird that she didn’t single anybody else out.

ELEANA 17: While Tai felt it was weird I remember being angry. How dare this woman not see us as a family. At the same time, I can embarrassingly admit that a part of me wanted to be asked that question too. I wanted to be able to proudly tell a stranger I’m mixed. To make matters more confusing, in school Tai was always read as Black and was tokenized as a result. 

TAI 6: I never knew if people accepted me as their friend because although I was Black I am acceptable because I am not of darker skin or I don’t look like the stereotypical mixed girl because I think with my identity people are able to accept what they wanna accept. 

ELEANA 18: In talking to Tai there are things about our identity I realized we do have in common. We were both ecstatic to go off to colleges with robust Black communities. And, our perceptions of our identities changed as soon we arrived. No one knew our family’s racial background unless we told them. I was no longer denied my identity like I was in high school. It was my choice to tell people if I wanted to. For Tai, she was told she wasn’t Black for the first time because she withheld this information. 

TAI 7: When I got here specifically for an orientation for people of color and then the first day somebody told me, you’re white, that just shattered my whole world because for the past year I was just kinda working up to, ok when I get to college, it’s gonna be better. 

ELEANA 19: There’s one key thing Tai and I do disagree on. 

TAI 8: I don’t think I would ever want to take a DNA test. Me not taking a DNA test is the first step in like a long journey of reconciling with my identity.  I don’t want to reinforce the idea that Blackness is genetic. And I don’t think that my experiences as Black and as Polish-American can be channeled down into a percentage. I would expect the percentage to be something I’m not happy with that might elicit even more of a identity crisis than I’ve already had for 19 years. I think the way I’ve been treated by others quantifies more than that percentage. 

ELEANA 20: Do you understand why I want to take a DNA test? Or why I would want to?

TAI 9: I understand the desire to have your identity justified because we don’t have a community to justify it. Neither of us can be fully integrated within the Black community to have others affirm ourselves. 

ELEANA 21: I never thought a conversation with my sister would change everything. Seeing her so confident in her identity despite it all really solidified it for me. So I’ve decided not to take the test. Although Tai and I don’t feel a sense of belonging, we can validate our mixedness in one another. Something a test would never be able to give me. And maybe that’s all we need, because after all, who else is truly going to understand what you’re going through other than your family. 

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