Personal Voices: Gateway Girl

I think I've mentioned before that I was somewhat of a social outcast growing up. A small, all white, town in Maine was my childhood stomping grounds, and being the half-black illegitimate child of Brenda Allen didn't exactly propel me into the ranks of popularity there. It's a bit of an understatement to say that kids can be cruel; the "Plastics" clique from Mean Girls has nothing on some of my female classmates, and boys? They didn't even notice I was alive. Or if they did, it was only long enough to dis me. One kid actually signed my eighth grade yearbook: "You're ugly." Ni-ice.

I was in high school before I got any positive attention from boys and, given my lack of experience in that department, I didn't know how to act when a guy did try to holla. My natural, juvenile instincts told me to ignore anything I didn't know how to deal with, so although I was intrigued by the attention I avoided it like the plague. By this time, I was enrolled in a boarding school, which, while still a predominantly white environment, afforded me my first opportunity to be part of a somewhat diverse community. (That should tell you how rough I had it growing up -- it's gotta be bad when you are one of ten black kids in a school of 200 and you think you've arrived in a diverse community.)

For the record, even given these circumstances, I have never had a white boyfriend. Many people are incredulous when I tell them this. How could I spend 18 years in a state with one of the smallest black populations in the country and never date a white guy? It wasn't for lack of trying, I assure those who doubt me, because once I did jump into the dating game I certainly had more than one crush on boys who were pigmentally challenged. And there were plenty of guys in high school who liked me, but it just never clicked. It took me some time to figure out, but I think I may have stumbled upon the answer.

Looking back, I am struck by this: Although most if not all the black guys in my high school dated white girls at some point (if not exclusively), the black girls rarely -- if ever -- had white boyfriends. Again, not for lack of trying. Black women dating white men is still one of the less frequent pairings in interracial couples, but back in the mid-to-late '80s, it was even less common. Although I would venture to guess that more than a few of my white male classmates had a crush on a black girl, it was taboo and off limits at best, and, I suspect, socially terrifying to them at worst.

But I, being mixed, seemed to be a "safe" alternative. I was like a gateway drug for those guys who really wished to date a black girl but who didn't have the nerve. I was black-girl-lite. One guy in particular was relentless in pursing me, even unscrupulously embezzling a kiss from me in the laundry room of the girls' dorm. I remember giving him a look like he was crazy, and asking him, "WHY do you like me so much?" To which he replied, "I're just so exotic."

That was perhaps the first time anyone had ever used that word to describe me, and although he probably meant it as a compliment, it made me uneasy. Even back then, before I was fully aware of all the implications of the word "exotic" and of black women's painful history of being seen as lustful, over-sexualized beings, something about the word didn't sit right with me. I thought about our little exchange long after we had fallen out of touch. I vaguely remember asking him, hypothetically, how his parents would react if we were to date, and him giving me some sort of ambiguous response. But over the years, I distorted his reply to be what I think he really meant: They might trip at first, but you're not a typical "black girl" so they'll be okay with it. It might be an unfair assessment but, for a while, it angered me to think it might be even a little bit true.

The pain I associated with people not liking me based on how I looked (remember the junior high school yearbook?) and then later liking me for precisely the same reason has helped form my perspective on my color and my features. Ultimately, those things form one part, and not that significant a part, of who I am. These days, it's almost funny when I realize someone is attracted to me because my light, bright, damn near white exterior makes them think they know me, but I've worked too hard to become the person I am for someone, especially anyone I'm going to date, not to notice. In the 15 years since I left high school, I've run up on many men, both black and white, who have wanted to characterize me as not that black, based on my looks. The joke's on all of them, though; many a brotha with a penchant for white women has tried to step to me, only to end up fleeing after finding me "too black."

Forgetting for a moment the obvious -- blackness is not solely defined by skin color -- it offends me when anyone, male or female, thinks they can predict how I'll act, think, or feel based on my looks, or finds me a more "acceptable" black person due to the same. Being the stubborn creature that I am, rather than try to enlighten them, I politely keep my distance. Which would explain why, even before I fully understood what I was doing, I avoided those guys in high school who wanted to make me their Gateway Girl.

It's entirely possible that those poor kids had no idea how I'd perceive their advances (and they certainly didn't think in a million years that it would be the subject of a column on but I do think they were likely attracted more to a stereotype ("exotic" biracial-type) than to me as a person. I'm not mad at them, though; rebuking them was the first step in a long process that lead to me accepting who I am. So for that much I am grateful...although I could have done without that sloppy laundry room kiss.

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