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Being the Black Body in a White Family

By Lori L. Tharps


This essay appeared originally on My American MeltingPot.

I’m coming at you live and in-person from the sunny south of Spain. It is absolutely gorgeous here—clear blue skies, radiant sun, palm trees, flowers flaunting every color from the deepest purple to the sharpest pinks. We’re currently staying with el esposo’s [Tharps’ husband] family and they live in a beautiful home that is within walking distance of the beach, plus they have a swimming pool in the backyard. So, yes, I’m living in paradise. But everything that glitters is not quite gold.

Let me begin by saying that what I’m about to write here is neither a complaint nor is it coming from a place of anger or malice. These are simply my observations of being the Black body in a white family. It’s been almost ten years since I’ve visited my in-laws and so some of these things I’m noticing feel brand new. Even though, they probably aren’t. What is different is that I’m in Spain for the first time with all three of my children and it is clear to me that my presence as the outsider in this Spanish family is causing some identity issues.

Don’t Touch ‘Mi Pelo’ 

So, I’ve known for a very long time that I’m never going to be able to go incognegro in Spain. In other words, I’ll never be mistaken for a Spaniard as long as my melanin levels stay the same and the kinks in my hair stay put. And I’m fine with that. So fine, that I happily shaved the sides of my head to the lowest levels and added colorful thread-wrapping to my locs before I arrived to my in-laws house. I love the look, but it is always a conversation starter with my Spanish relatives. And when I met one of new 5-year-old nieces, the first thing she did before even an hola was to put her little white hands all over my head and pull on my locs with her eyes growing wide. The response from the family, “Oh, look, she’s attracted to your hair.” I wanted to remind my well-meaning family that pulling on someone’s hair is neither acceptable nor normal when you’ve never met a person before. But I held back. I know there was no bad intent, but if she tries to touch my hair again, I will definitely share with her that she should ask permission before touching anyone’s hair. And pulling is no bueno. Side note: My eldest son has had his own share of “hair touching” because his curls are “amazing.” So . . .  sigh

The Last (Black) Wife Standing 

So, this isn’t really about being Black, but because I am Black it feels even more obvious. So, el esposo has two brothers—one younger and one older. They all get along really well and as they age, begin to look more and more alike. Here’s the thing: both brothers divorced their first wives within a year of one another and they both re-married younger women who are both tall, blonde, and very attractive. I have only gotten to know one of the new wives, and she’s a lovely person inside and out, and I look forward to our evolving friendship. But I’d be lying, dear readers, if I didn’t admit that I feel like a little chocolate dumpling compared to these Spanish glamazons. From their nails, to their highlighted hair, to their very fashionable clothes, I feel like Cinderella. Let me be clear: I don’t draw my self worth from my exterior appearance, nor do I feel like I have to compete with these other women; it’s more like I can’t get the Sesame Street refrain, one of these things is not like the other…” to stop looping through my head every time they come over. LOL! I find myself contemplating outfit changes when I know they’re coming over, or maybe trying to teach myself how to apply makeup and then I’m like, who am I kidding? I just gotta be me.

Mama or Mamá? 

I had to check in with my favorite psychotherapist for this one (Thanks, Mom), but it seems that Babygirl is having trouble figuring out how to be Black and Spanish or maybe, it’s just American and Spanish. Ironically, before we left the United States, I was telling el esposo that babygirl [their daughter] knows how to codeswitch. I noticed when she’s with her friends from dance class, who all happen to be Black, she uses different vocabulary and accent than she does with her white friends at school. But here in Spain, Babygirl seems to be struggling with how to love me and “be Spanish” at the same time. So, she’s decided to reject me. If I wasn’t so aware of what was going on, I might be hurt, but I get it. Since we’ve arrived at her grandparents’ home, Babygirl stays away from me, runs to her father, and corrects me whenever she can about all the things. I believe she is trying to figure out how I fit into her Spanish identity when I’m so clearly “not Spanish.” I know she has to figure this out for herself, and I am confident she will, but it is compounded by the fact that her American mom is also Black. I just can’t blend in. Sorry. My boys aren’t having the same level of identity crisis, but I can tell they too want me to fit in with their Spanish family and not be too . . . you know, Black Panther mom like I am at home. I am doing my very best, dear readers, because my kids’ feelings matter. I want them to feel like there is a place for them . . . and me in Spain.

Blessings Not Burdens 

At the end of the day, dear readers, I feel so blessed to have such a warm and loving family on the other side of the Atlantic. My life is so much richer for them. What’s more, they have never made me or my children feel anything less than welcome in their home and in their lives. But being the only Black body in a white family will always come with unique challenges and experiences. That’s life, at least that’s been my life.

What about yours? What has your experience been like as the only person of color in an all white family? Or the only (fill in the blank) in the (fill in the blank) family? The more we share, the easier it becomes for everyone.

You know I’m listening.



About the Author 

Lori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in AmericaKinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. Her writing has also appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and Glamour and Essence magazines. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriTharps and visit her website.