"How I 'became black' at age 19" - Ariana Wagoner, a Be Free Story

My name is Ariana Wagoner, I’m from Sacramento, CA and this is my Be Free story:

This Be Free Story is a about my journey with my racial identity: How I, as a light-skin, biracial girl (black and white) with curly hair, “became black” at age 19.

That phrase may sound a little crazy, but for biracial or multi-racial individuals, race identity is often a source of feelings of displacement, homelessness, otherness, and uncertainty. My journey through childhood and adolescence certainly reflected that truth.

Growing up in an interracial, blended family – white father, black mother, myself and my older sister biracial – black and white, my younger brother – Mexican and white, race identity was a constant internal struggle. My parents taught me at a very young age – before I can remember – that I was neither black nor white, but both. I was biracial. I used to run around at my older sister’s soccer games telling everyone I met, “Hi! I’m biracial!” I have no recollection of this, but apparently it was a frequent past-time of mine.

At school, in public, wherever truly, I was constantly asked “What are you?” Meaning – what is your race identity? I would always respond – “I’m biracial.” *insert the other person’s look of confusion* “I’m mixed. I’m black and white.” And the next questions always followed: “Which parent is white?” and “Why doesn’t your brother look like you?”

When you are biracial or multiracial, deep aspects of your private and personal life are directly related to your physical appearance. You often do not learn the luxury of boundaries to protect deep, intimate sources of internal confusion or pain because of what shows on the surface: ambiguous facial features, hair, skin tones, etc.

The saddest truth was, however: I felt that I wasn’t allowed to be black. I did not grow up with black immediate of extended family, school, gymnastics, church, were almost entirely white spaces. And any messages about blackness I heard at home or in society were negative stereotypes or caricatures. Black people are thugs, ghetto, don’t speak right, are loud, obnoxious, criminal, ratchet, improper. You are pretty because you are mixed. Because you have light-skin. Because your curls are loose. Essentially: “Don’t talk black, act black, associate with black people, or be black. You are mixed, you are white, that is better.” Blackness, black culture, black people, was at best scary to me, and absolutely foreign. So, my race identity was grounded in the ambiguous, grey tension that is biracialness. The only time I was allowed to be black was on standardized tests – so I could get more scholarships or awards for academic success.

Everything changed around age 19.

I am a theology major at Azusa Pacific University. Theology has been my saving grace in my race identity, my sexual identity, my relationship with God and the church. In one theology course, I was required to do a research paper. I was stuck between writing on black or feminist liberation theology. A friend suggested to me, “What about womanist theology? Theology written by and about the experiences of black women?” That one suggestion changed my life.

Womanist theology is theology from the perspective of black women, based on our diverse experiences of gender, race, and class. Within books, articles, narratives of black women, I read stories that reflected my life, that I never had been able to put to words. For the first time, I didn’t feel homeless, alone, or confused about my racial identity. I didn’t feel isolated in my struggles with race, gender, and class. On the pages of books and articles written by and about black women, I felt belonging and understanding.

And I became black. I became I black woman. I became black girl magical.

Meaning, for the first time, I felt confident and able to identify as a black woman. To embrace black womanhood proudly. To love my skin, to love my hair, to love myself, because of my black ancestry.

And in embracing this identity, I embraced a community of black women before me and around me. I gained new role models. I began to seek out mentors – like Brittany Barron – who know and understand black womanhood and the beauty, power, and pain associated with it. How we can, as black women, embrace and love ourselves fully in a society and world that communicates to us:

Black women are hypersexual, lazy, ugly, welfare queens, uneducated, ratchet, loud, worthy of disrespect and violence.

Embracing blackness was the first door I opened to freely embracing all aspects of myself. Becoming black pushed me to ask greater questions about community, church, and society:

What negative messages are being communicated and taught to people of color? Women? Women of color? The LGBTQIA+? How can we embrace greater freedom?

As I relentlessly pursued greater freedom for myself and others, I awakened deep passions for activism. I came out, and embraced my queer identity. And I became a person who actively seeks the same freedom and self-acceptance for others.

I freely and unapologetically identify as:

Biracial. Queer. Woman. Womanist. Activist. I will be going to grad school this fall to contribute to the growing field of womanist queer theology. Because black LBTQ+ lives and stories matter. I stand in love and solidarity with communities of color, the LGBTQIA+, all marginalized groups. We all deserve to be free to embrace all aspects of our lives.

I’ve learned, through 20 short years of life, that how you identify is different than how you are identified in society. BUT. You have the power, resources, experiences, to identify as is true to your experiences. Your race, culture, gender expression, sexuality, ability, is YOURS. No one else has the authority to dictate who you are or who you ought to be. And who you are is beautiful and worthy, and that never changes. So, celebrate and express who you are, seek communities that will celebrate with you, and be hella proud every. Damn. Day.

Peace and Freedom,

Ari


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