My name is Olivia Grace Jack. My family calls me Liva, Livy, and Olivia Grace. My friends call me Liv. My identity is one of the most important parts of me, something I hold close to my heart.
I was born in Saginaw, Michigan- the first of four children in my family. My mother is white- her father is German, and mother is Italian. My father is black- he was born and raised in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines- a nation made of a chain of islands in the Caribbean. I am mixed- Vincentian, Italian, German, and American as I was born in the United States of America. My skin is black, I am black.
I have struggled with that definition my whole life- whether to say I am black or mixed. If I say I am black to some people, they think that I am disregarding the white genes that are part of my being. If I say I am mixed, it is assumed that I am not willing to embrace my black skin. I have decided over the years, with the countless surveys asking me to choose one racial identity, that I am black. And I love my mom’s side of the family and the genes my mom gave me just the same. If I have the choice to pick more than one race, of course I say I am mixed. But there has never been a racial identity survey that has allowed me to perfectly show my identity- a Vincentian-American woman with West Indian, Italian and German genes.
I guess that is one of the first things I noticed about being black in a nation where you’re either white or “other”- there is no identity given on any governmental documents where I can truly define myself as what I am.
My grandparents were not slaves. Slavery was abolished in 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment. Throughout school, though, there was a common question as to whether my grandparents, or great-grandparents were slaves. My great-grandmother is still alive- Grandma Pearl- and she is in her mid 80s. Unless she has traveled to the future and created a family, she is not, and never was a slave. If they were to ask about the originality of my last name, Jack, they would respectfully discover that it was given to past family members who were enslaved by the British on the island of Saint Vincent. The nation was emancipated from Britain in my father ‘s lifetime- on October 27th of 1979.
That was the second thing I noticed about living in a nation where black skin is not the expected, the respected, skin tone. I have learned about the same United States history throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school- highlighting all the great wonderful things accomplished by the white people of the nation, and touching on slavery. And when we did spend a few days talking about slavery, it was always as though we were tip toeing around the issue of it all- as though in some way, there was a reason why slavery should be validated in some way for its presence. I am in college now, and there are classes I am able to take where professors instruct us to criticize the history we have learned our whole lives.
Imagine if we were not taught from the very beginning that Thomas Jefferson was an angel of a man and president, but instead that he raped the slaves he owned and ended up contributing to the creation black children that had lighter skin tones and were sent to work as house slaves. What if we grew up learning the history of all members of this nation? If we learned that the Native Americans did in fact know that this land existed well before, and Christopher Columbus stumbled upon it and stole it, making those that lived in the land work for him or die. What if we grew up learning to celebrate the number of cultures we have in this country, as equal in nature, instead of assuming the superiority of the white race? We cannot drill into the minds of children the ideas of one racial superiority anymore- after all, it’s education that leads to decision making. If someone is taught their whole lives that black people, minorities, are inferior to those with white skin, and they themselves have white skin, they will think it is right to treat them as such.
If little black girls like me, who grow up in a predominantly white neighborhood, are taught that their skin is something that she might be punished for having, how can we grow up loving the very skin we live in, the very skin others seem to hate?
I did not always love my black skin, my curly afro. I wanted so badly to have the beautiful straight hair my mom has, so bad that I had it flat-ironed at seven years old, and chunks of my curly hair fell out in the days after I had washed it when my hair was curly again. I learned then that my hair is curly, as it should be. I still didn’t love it- because I was ostracized and questioned daily about my hair, as though it was not simply a different texture of hair but rather a completely different being of its own- a foreign object to be examined. I was constantly asked how I wash it, how I handle it, how it fit into the cap I wore every day during swimming practice. There were many people who were asking simply out of curiosity, who meant no harm and were simply interested in the hair that was different from their own. Although there were times when the questions were worded, presented, stated, as though my hair was something that could not be maintained because it was not like their own.
I am tired of being examined. I am not a foreign specimen, imported from a world other than our own. I have pigmented skin, I have melanin. I have a large, curly afro. I have light brown eyes. I am simply different. I am a beautiful mix of my mother and father, beautifully mixed, beautifully black, and beautifully me. I have a name, a heartbeat, a story.
At twenty years old, I am still struggling to believe the statements I made in the past paragraph. I am still bothered by the ignorance created when my black skin is seen, and my origin story is ignored. I have learned to handle the questions about my hair, and how to decipher if it’s coming from a place of pure curiosity or not. I still struggle with the lack of people who look like me in my sport.
I was one of the few black swimmers from my hometown, and I am now the only black swimmer on the Penn State swimming and diving team. My team is my second family, they have welcomed me as a sister and daughter to every swimmer and coach of the program. What I have struggled with most is not seeing someone who looks like me, doing what I do, at so many competitions. I have always loved Simone Manuel- she is my idol. I just wish there were more of her, more of us, in the sport that has my heart, so that we weren’t seen as foreigners in our own world.
I have been the victim of countless questionable looks when I am with white friends of mine, as though I don’t belong. I have been told that swimming is not the sport I am supposed to compete in. I have been rejected from social events I planned on going to, while my white friends were allowed in with no question. My friends have been questioned if I am bothering them, when I am walking with a group of them and I am the black one of the group. And until I sat down to write this, I hadn’t noticed that I had become so numb to those experiences that I have just accepted them as normality. Writing this, I am remembering how abnormal and unfair the experiences actually are.
I don’t have a story of being arrested and targeted because of the color of my skin, and I don’t have a story of being physically assaulted due to my racial identity. I do, however, stand as someone who has lived as the diverse member of the community, the team, and the friend group. I haven’t had life-threatening experiences, but I have had those that have knocked down my confidence and made me question my worth as a black skinned biracial woman in this world. I have been made to feel as though I should not belong, on many occasions, throughout my twenty years of life.
I also have the most supportive family, friends, and personal community around me that constantly reassure me that I am loved, for every difference I might have. They have helped me develop the identity I am proud to have today. Imagine if everyone in the world took on the same level of embracing differences of the people around them. Imagine if we were taught to love one another, to see color, and to celebrate all shades, from the very beginning of our education. We would not be protesting for the recognition that black lives do in fact matter, that our lives are worthy of the love and protection that other skin tones receive. Families and friends would not have to worry about their loved ones leaving their house, their safe communities, to go out into the world who might not see them as one of their own.
I think that as soon as people learn to love who they are- their skin, their hair, their identity- it will be so much easier to see the beauty in others as well, no matter how different the beauty is from their own.