Mason Pippenger is a senior at Ball State studying Journalism. He was born in Ethiopia and was adopted at a young age into a white family in Northern Indiana. Mason seeks to share his experience and lessons that he has learned while being black in predominately white settings.
The Weight of Blackness
The truth is, I did not know I was black… By that, I mean I did not know that there was anything different about me. The color of my skin did not match other kids’ skin color, but that did not mean anything to me. I did not know the weight of my blackness.
Let’s backtrack. Northern Indiana is not the most diverse place. My school, my church, and heck even my family were mostly white. I did not know that there was a difference between me and the others. The first time I acknowledged that there was a difference was when I was on the playground with my brother and a friend of ours. These white older kids came up to me and my brother and started calling us the infamous n-word. I had never heard the word before, but I could tell that it had something to do with our skin. It was like this eureka-moment where I was like “Oh. I guess I am different.”
Afterward, I would not say I experienced a lot of blatant, in-your-face racism, which I think is the case for a lot of minorities these days. Issues I encountered with my blackness came in the form of micro-aggressions – the everyday small comments or actions that targeted my race. For example, my friends and I would listen to rap songs and I would hear them say “nigga” (no, it does not matter that it was with an -a and not an -er). Other times people would ask me if they could touch my hair like I was some foreign art piece. One micro-aggression that I really struggled with were moments in which people would refer to me as “the whitest black person” they knew.
When I first heard this, I felt like I was receiving this prestigious award, as if whiteness was this earned thing. “Wow! Little ol’ me, finally passing as a white person? It’s an honor!” I did not talk black. I did not dress black, I only ever wanted to wear Abercombie and Fitch or Hollister. I was smart, so I definitely wasn’t black black.
I carried this internalized-racist mindset for a long time. It was stressful at times, making sure that I was as white as I could be. It was not until February of 2012 that I realized that this whiteness that I was putting out into the world did not matter. When I heard the news of Travon Martin, all I could think was ‘that could be me.’ The disputes, trial of George Zimmerman, and the after-affects scared me quite a bit. The endless string of police brutality and (yes, I’m gonna say it) glorification of black death shook me to my core. And how did my white peers react? The people who dubbed me the whitest black person they knew? They did not seem to care. “Well, that guy had a record with police,” or “He probably was on drugs” or “Why didn’t he just put his hands up?”
There was a disconnect. The person who I wanted to be was not a person I could be. I could not be white. It did not matter that I had a certain dialect or wore Abercombie and Fitch. George Zimmerman, bad police officers and certain government leaders do not care. All they see is a threat, a danger or a complication. There are always going to be circumstances that I will have to face because of my skin color that white people will not have to. This is why I try to drive 5 miles under the speed limit. It is why I make sure not to have my hood up when I’m walking home late at night, no matter how cold my bald head is. Most importantly it is why I feel like I must speak up on these issues. This motivates me to have discussions with my roommates about race and why I am pushed to vote for politicians who have my safety in mind.
Today, I’m still trying to grasp what it means to be black, and I realize that it is a different process for everyone. I am here to share my experience. At the end of the day, this skin is always going to be on these bones, and I must go to bed knowing the weight that it brings.