I was in kindergarten when I became aware of my skin color. I came home one day and asked my mom why I was lighter than the black girls at my school but darker than the white girls. “If Kimmy is black and Amber is white, what does that make me?” I said.
My mom paused for a beat. She would later explain that she had spent that extra breath figuring out how to explain why my dad wasn’t in my life. Impatient, I beat her to the punch and crafted my own conclusion: “I think I’m golden.”
I lived with the three white people who had raised me—my mother and her parents—and had attended mostly-white Catholic schools in the suburban Midwest since pre-K. I don’t know why I hadn’t ever thought about the difference between my skin color and theirs , nor what prompted me to do so on that day. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning race at school, but my best friend at the time was mixed like me, and we came to this question at the same time, suggesting we’d been wondering together: Why were we darker?
I was a well-kept only child, spoiled beyond what my family’s lower-middle-class lifestyle probably could have afforded. My mom and her parents were my world, and I theirs. My mother worked part-time as a teacher’s aide at my elementary school and fixed her schedule to make sure she had time to be with me in the evening too. When she went off to her second job in the morning, her Polish-American mother babysat me and taught me how to read. On school-vacation days my grandfather, a proud Greek-American with a belly and beard as big as his personality, took me to his job at a pest control business he co-owned. In his blue Toyota pickup truck, we’d listen to the oldies station and he’d sing along to Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, and his hero, Elvis Presley.
As kids do, I adopted my family’s tastes as my own. Papa’s oldies station became my favorite and an automatic car request (as he would proudly tell everyone as I grew older). My mom liked the oldies too, but hers were from the ’80s—she could never turn off the radio when either of her teenage crushes, Michael Jackson and Prince, were on. She’d tell me as often as she could the story of how her best friend’s brother once dressed up like the Purple One on Halloween as a surprise for only her. She was 21 when she had me, and maybe the angst of being such a young mother is what drew her, in the ’90s, to that decade’s wave of indignant female singer-songwriters: Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, and Tracy Bonham. Amos’s “Silent All These Years” and Bonham’s “Mother Mother” were played on repeat off of our desktop Dell computer in the dining room as my mom cleaned or paid bills. As soon as I figured out how to work our car’s CD player, I played those songs on repeat, too.
It wasn’t until I was seven that my kindergarten question was answered. My mom had been doing a great job of hiding the court battle she’s been fighting for a year against my father over visitation rights. He won that case and was granted biweekly visits with me. Suddenly I required by law to spend time with a man who had until then been a stranger to me.
My parents were a case of teenage love gone horribly wrong. They began their toxic on-and-off relationship when they were both 13. They had me eight years later. They never married, and my mom left my dad when I was six weeks old. He saw me a couple of times when I was an infant. I don’t really remember it.
At first he seemed like an alien to me. His complexion was much darker than my mom’s, which wouldn’t be hard because she has the type of pale skin that instantly turns red in the sun. I could tell right away that he really wanted to build a relationship with me—he was unfailingly nice, and he even dressed up in a suit for our first few meetings. After that, though, he relaxed into his usual wardrobe of black T-shirts emblazoned with the names and logos of heavy metal bands. I was just starting to branch out from my family’s musical preferences to develop my own, which tended toward Radio Disney and its endless bubblegum-pop goodness, and my father’s Metallica shirts scared me. With their imagery of skulls and graves, they looked nothing like my Backstreet Boys tees.
Desperate to get to know my father, I overcame my fear over time. I never talked to him about race because I was too busy learning about who he was as a person. His identity as a metalhead seemed more integral to his personality than his blackness. Not that his race was irrelevant—it was just lower on the list of the things that made him him.
As I got to know him over the course of the next couple of years, I was also evolving as a music listener. Ages seven through nine were devoted almost exclusively to ’N Sync. My first two concerts were ’N Sync shows; my dad took me to both of them. The band’s breakup in 2002 and Justin Timberlake’s subsequent maturity, as manifested on the solo album he released that fall, and in scandalous Super Bowl halftime performance with Janet Jackson 15 months later, were too much for a Catholic-school-attending nine-year-old to handle—they ignited the most intense bout of preteen angst my young life had ever seen. Deepening my sorrow, my grade school closed down at the end of fourth grade due to low enrollment, so I began fifth grade at a new private Catholic school. It felt like heading into the great unknown, leaving behind life as I knew it and a slew of familiar faces, and I was terrified.