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Four women share their struggles with racial identity

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Historically Black: Episode 6 alt
Historically Black: Episode 6
Washington Post

Prior to the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, the Washington Post asked African-Americans across the nation to submit photographs of family objects that connect them to black history.

The Post teamed up with APM Reports to produce a podcast called "Historically Black" to shine a spotlight on the story behind these items.

A number of people who sent submissions said their story of black history is really about racial identity. Many identified as African-American or black as well as another nationality, like Native American or African. Each has had to ask themselves what it means to be black.

Four women submitted items that helped them explore and define their own identities. Here are their stories. 

"Not black enough"

Marcelle Hutchins submitted a black and white photograph of herself and her twin sister as infants being held by their mother, taken in 1989.

When Hutchins was 8 years old she became very ill and was flown from her home in Cameroon to Maine for open-heart surgery. Hutchins' mother saw an opportunity for a better life in Maine and decided to stay with her two daughters. Her mother married a white man. While Hutchins' biological father is from Cameroon as well, she considers her stepdad to be her real father.

Hutchins said she's been told many times that she is not being true to her heritage, and because of the mannerisms she adopted growing up, she can't be considered "black."

"I had a classmate come up to me in college and told me that 'you talk white, you look white, you're not black enough to be my friend,'" Hutchins recalled. "It had a negative impact on my life for a long time."

Today, Hutchins is involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and expresses her thoughts on racial inequality and police brutality online — though, with less frequency now.

Hutchins' mother approached her one day and told her a family member felt like her online posts meant she was turning her back on her white family.

"I just laughed, and I got really pissed off because I felt like I spent a good chunk of my life trying to defend my white family," Hutchins said. "And now, I'm being questioned whether or not I truly love my white family because I'm talking about racial injustice in America and I'm trying to make people understand. And so is that me turning my back on my white family?"

Pushing back against "white people nonsense" 

The next item, submitted by Christina Tucker from New Paltz, N.Y., is a black Santa Claus Christmas tree topper.

The topper was just one of the many decorations Tucker's mother, who is white, found to try giving her children an image of themselves that was not necessarily present in the community they lived in — Tucker's father is black but the rest of the New Paltz population was predominantly white.

"For me, what I saw as normal, what I saw as accepted was still whiteness," Tucker said. "So I still kind of felt an unease and a discomfort in figuring out what my blackness meant to me, what I thought black people were, what I thought I should be as a black person."

Tucker said she was able to better figure out her racial identity when she made more friends of color. Having a space to voice the frustrations of daily life with people who understood what she was going through made a big difference and helped her learn how to push back, she said.

"Having a community and having a space to voice those things and say like 'Oh this was like a weird conversation I had with somebody at work," and be like 'yeah that was some white people nonsense, that's just what white people are like'," Tucker said.

Everything a culture needs

The third object was submitted by Ivie Ani, whose parents immigrated from Nigeria to New York. It's a photograph of of Ani's mother taken at her job in Benin City, Nigeria, in 1985.

"She just looked like the epitome of style and grace, and she was really young in that photo, and she had a Jheri curl," Ani said.

Throughout her childhood, Ani and her family lived in neighborhoods where they had many African-American neighbors. 

It wasn't until college that Ani spent any time with white people.

"And I knew enough about white culture to be able to function in that world," said Ani. "Because when I got to college I literally said to myself 'this is like TV,' because that's all they showed on TV."

Meanwhile, black culture isn't recognized nearly enough, Ani said.

"They have their own dialect, their own food, their own attire, they literally have every aspect that a culture needs," she said.

Ani believes that rings true for black people across the world, "any ethnicity, any nationality, your race is black globally."

Excluded from culture

The fourth item is two photographs: one of Kianah Jay as a baby; the other of a small, silver bracelet decorated with turquoise.

As a child growing up in a small village in New Mexico, Jay barely got to know her father, who was black, and spent a lot of time trying to communicate to others that she in fact identified as Native American, like her mother.

"My mom, she has this long, dark, raven hair. It's beautiful, straight, thick and I remember wishing so badly that my hair would lay down that way instead of stick up how it did," she said. "And wishing that when I was walking with my mom that people would know, I wanted so badly for people to know that she was my mom, because I knew how different we looked."

When she got older, Jay became more active with blogging and started to gain a supportive following of black readers. It opened up a whole community of support she didn't know she had.

"Native culture can be very exclusive and I think to fully belong to it growing up I had to be totally absorbed by it," Jay said. "But black culture is much more accepting of people who even might kind of belong to it."

That said, Jay still identifies with both cultures and when people try to point out that she is "half" of each, she isn't afraid to fight back.

"I've had conversations with white people where I've been told, 'Oh, but you're only half black right?' and I say, 'Oh well, then I guess I can only have half of an opinion about this,'" Jay said. "I think it's not so much that I only feel only half the pain or half the joy of each culture. I feel all the pain and all the joy from both sides."


Also in this episode, "Historically Black" explores black love stories and why we don't see more of them in popular culture.

To listen to the whole episode, click the audio player above.

• Click here to listen to part one of "Historically Black"

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