I Spent 35 Years Trying To Convince The World (And Myself) That I'm White

"Though I was half-Black, I was hellbent on being seen as fully white. Then, everything changed."

“Hey! It’s Bushroot! In the flesh!”

These six words shattered the little world that I created for myself during my freshman year at Syracuse University. Up until that point, I had considered myself to be pretty much nailing the whole college thing as I adjusted to life eight hours away from my Maryland childhood home. I was getting good grades, keeping my homesickness mostly in check, convincing myself that I enjoyed cheap beer and making new friends. Cool new friends. Cool new “bro” friends, to be exact.

I was on cloud nine about being accepted into the Brewster Hall dorm crew, which was led by a group of guys who lived on the floor below me and who loved to do the ultimate college bro stuff, such as smoke weed and watch sports. One of them even initiated a hookup with me on the very first night of college. He was drunk ― and he never looked me in the eye after that ― but still.

Growing up, I was a bit of a late bloomer both physically and socially. I could hardly believe that these guys saw me for who I really was: a cute, fun, friendly girl who was cool enough to be privy to their inside jokes ― including and especially the one about Bushroot.

Bushroot was a squat, gnome-like creature that one of the bros had sketched out at the beginning of the semester to be our dorm mascot. It had bulging eyes and a dark shaded face ringed by short spiky hair. The guys proudly hung photocopies of the Bushroot sketch up on all their walls. They would approach the sketch and ask, “Bushroot, should I take another hit from this bong?” Or someone in the room would suddenly whisper “’Shroot” and then they’d all repeat the name in turn, escalating the volume until they were shouting. They would invite the girls, myself included, to chant “Bushroot” along with them and then they would hoot and holler when we did.

Then, one night, I found out that this “mascot” — and therefore the whole Bushroot joke — was supposed to be a caricature of me. A guy from a different dorm was hanging out in Brewster Hall. When he saw me face to face, he blurted out those six fateful words: “Hey! It’s Bushroot! In the flesh!”

I retreated to the privacy of my dorm room and tried to deny that I had heard him correctly. I’m Bushroot? I thought. The stupid-looking mascot thing that everyone thinks is so hilarious? How?!

But Bushroot had enough similarities to my appearance that I had to believe it. The shaded skin, for one. And the spiky hair. I understood that my Afro-style cropped cut was an unconventional look for our white, affluent, sorority-laden upstate New York campus. It was for me, too. I had never done anything so bold when it came to my appearance. I had gotten a burst of confidence after high school, though, and wanted to make a start strong in this new chapter in my life. I wanted to show up to college and really be someone.

I just didn’t want to be the dorm mascot.

The author sporting her newly cropped cut during her freshman year at Syracuse University in 2003.
The author sporting her newly cropped cut during her freshman year at Syracuse University in 2003.
Courtesy of Leah Olson

Considering that this incident occurred at roughly the halfway point of my life to date, it could have made for a very nice turning point if we were following a typical Hollywood narrative.

Leading up to Bushroot, I had spent nearly two decades as a girl who was half-Black but hellbent on being seen as fully white. From as early as I can remember, I harbored the belief that in white America, there was a minimum threshold that a human had to meet before the rest of society even considered whether that person could be cute, beautiful, sexy, professional and successful. And that threshold was ... whiteness. The way I saw it (and the way the world had made me see it), if you didn’t look white, well then you better hope to be super talented at something that white America valued.

Paradoxically, I developed this hurtful white favoritism mindset while growing up in a multiracial family of transracial adoptees. I was adopted at birth by my white parents, who went on to adopt my white sister and four Black brothers. My parents espoused diversity, African American heritage, anti-racism and tolerance. We had open conversations about race and prejudice. I grew up surrounded by family friends and family members of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

But the messages I was receiving from the broader society around me were powerful and persistent. As I got old enough to make my own decisions, I chose to attend mostly white academic magnet programs in middle and high school. I made no efforts to diversify my social circle. Ditto with my extracurricular activities: violin, cross country, competitive swimming and ― the kicker ― field hockey.

Through it all, I felt like I was doing a pretty convincing job of passing as white, so long as I hid my hair. I saw my hair as the big giveaway. White people’s hair hung down. My coarse, kinky curly hair expanded out.

The author at age 4, when her hair finally grew long enough to assemble into some sort of bun (which she viewed as "a thrilling milestone in my young eyes!").
The author at age 4, when her hair finally grew long enough to assemble into some sort of bun (which she viewed as "a thrilling milestone in my young eyes!").
Courtesy of Lean Olson

When my hair finally grew long enough, I always shoved it back into a thick braid or a tight bun to try and pull off a sporty look. But right before I left for Syracuse, I went out on a limb and got that short, cropped, natural curly cut.

If my life were following the kind of story arc you might see on TV, here’s where I ― the Black girl who wanted to be white ― would have finally been forced to admit that racism exists. I would have known it all along, of course, in part because of the very fact that I wanted so badly to be white in the first place. Post-Bushroot, I would have taken a hard look at all the other times I had experienced both covert and overt racism. I would have spoken out against the hurtful mascot joke of which I was the butt at Syracuse. I would have sought solace from other people of color ― maybe even my own family members ― who might have understood and helped me deal with my pain.

But I can’t write that story.

Forget an arc ― my story became more linear than ever as I jacked up my quest to get white people to see and accept me as white.

I first addressed my hair, which seemed like an obvious place to start at the time. I felt grateful that at this point in my life, I was no longer beholden to my parents’ “no chemicals in your body” policy. I began to pay increasingly large percentages of my income to hair stylists to burn the crap out of my hair with sketchy chemicals ― relaxers, texturizers, keratins, thermal reconditioners, smoothers, serums, rinses ― that made my eyes water, my nose run and my scalp scream. I figured it was the price I had to pay to scorch out any traces of Bushroot.

The author giving a toast while rocking her elusive straight hair at her sister's wedding in 2016. ("Needless to say, chemicals were involved," she said.)
The author giving a toast while rocking her elusive straight hair at her sister's wedding in 2016. ("Needless to say, chemicals were involved," she said.)
Courtesy of Leah Olson

I also went hardcore on tailoring my résumé, my friendships and my lifestyle in hopes of fitting in with white, privileged, affluent, well-respected America after I graduated from college. In 2007, I joined the education reform organization Teach For America for a two-year teaching commitment. Afterward, I attended Harvard Law School, graduated in 2012, and then worked for four years at top-tier corporate law firms in New York City and San Francisco.

The whole time, I was surrounded by a lot of white people. A lot. However, I take far less issue with that ― I made wonderful friends and had incredible, life-changing experiences ― than I do with my attitude along the way. I was in full-on racial denial. I didn’t even join any affinity groups for Black, Indigenous and other people of color or try to make any friends who looked like me.

At first, while I was still hurting inside, I felt motivated to keep climbing the white privilege ladder to get as far away as I could from the position of being a victim of racism. I would collect my latest (white) gold star and think, Suck it, Syracuse! As I became more enmeshed in my 20-something rat race life, however, it became more subconscious. I am naturally hardworking and competitive (aka Type A), so I began enjoying my aggressive life pursuits more simply for what they were. I began to go long stretches of time without thinking about Syracuse or Bushroot or any of that pain. In fact, I never told a soul about Bushroot until this year.

Now, I am finally finding an arc, thanks to the boys ― not the Syracuse ones, but my own.

In a plot twist that I find a little bit hilarious and a little bit fated, my white husband and I are the biological parents to two sons who are as different in appearance as day and night ― pun intended.

The author with her sons, ages 2 and 4 months, respectively, in the spring of 2020.
The author with her sons, ages 2 and 4 months, respectively, in the spring of 2020.
Courtesy of Leah Olson

I’ll pause here to acknowledge that, yes, I married a white guy. My husband loves me for all of who I am, inside and out. He has been a strong supporter of my identity journey. He is an incredible father to our kids. But he is indeed a white guy. Like, “Scandinavian ancestors on both sides” white. And our first son looks like a carbon copy of those ancestors. Fair skin, blue eyes, stick-straight towhead blond hair.

Consider this child next to me. We turn heads when we’re out in public. Strangers cannot get enough of our brown-blond combo. Sometimes even I catch myself doing a double take at us and thinking about how not even my AP Biology teacher back in high school could have predicted this outcome.

So maybe it was the universe at work in some way, right? My first son came to me with the message: Stop hiding! You’re not white! And now everyone’s going to be calling you out on it!

And then came his brother.

Almost exactly two years later, my husband and I were blessed with our second son, who looks like a carbon copy of me. Brown eyes (no real hair yet) and brown skin that is somehow even a little darker than mine.

This son brought his own message: Stop hiding! We’re not white! But we are both beautiful just the way we are!

The author's younger son at 9 months old.
The author's younger son at 9 months old.
Courtesy of Leah Olson

It took welcoming these two beautiful boys into the world for me to realize the journey I had been on was not the journey I wanted to stay on. I do not know what would’ve happened if I had not become a mother to them ― if the realization that I was hiding from who I really am had not accompanied them when they appeared in my world. But it did. And it made me rethink ― and re-feel ― everything.

So here I am, in all of my vulnerable glory. I am sharing the Bushroot story to belatedly call out racism and cruelty but also to illustrate just how powerful white favoritism and, let’s be honest, white supremacy can be in this society. By hiding the pain that I felt at Syracuse and, more generally, by focusing so much time and energy throughout my life into trying to convince others and myself that I am just as white as they are, I have undoubtedly caused pain to myself and to those who look like me. I don’t want to do that anymore. Especially not to my son.

My identity journey is not over. On the contrary, it’s just beginning. There’s a lot that I still don’t know, but here is what I do know: Being honest is important. It doesn’t mean you have to have all of the answers or have to be ready to take some dramatic action to prove a point. It just means that you have to be ready to be raw.

Being raw is OK. Admitting pain is OK. Apologizing is OK. And it’s never too late to come home to yourself.

I want to be honest about my racial identity for me, for my kids and for my country. I want us to make some profound progress in making America a more accepting place where people can feel more and, ultimately, hurt less. I want to be exactly who I am, and I want my sons — and, really, everyone — to feel confident to do the same.

Leah Olson is working on a memoir about growing up biracial in white America. She works as an in-house attorney for a network of public charter schools. She lives in Southern California with her husband and two young sons.

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