Anthony Bittner • January 31, 2023
When I think about the phrase, “racial healing,” I have to admit that my brain instinctively goes to a dark place. I find it hard to acknowledge there’s much healing at all when racism, antisemitism, and hate in general seem to be running rampant from coast to coast. It sometimes feels like we’re losing our grip on the gains achieved since the Civil Rights Movement. But when I push myself beyond the cynicism and reflect on a deeper level, I do find it possible to see progress. It’s progress that can sometimes feel like our society takes two steps back for every one step forward, but it’s progress.
As a storyteller, the component of racial healing that I connect with the most is the telling of hard truths — that, paired with conversation about the consequences of those truths. And in this country, a whole lot of folks struggle to hear the truth when it makes our past or present seem less than idyllic, when it tarnishes that image of the “shining city upon the hill,” when it puts at risk the notion of American exceptionalism. For me specifically, sharing these truths and consequences – whether personal or societal – is cathartic. My mother is white, and my father is Black, so connecting with folks through stories of my experience as a person of mixed race, like the one I’m about to share, is a powerful part of my own healing journey.
I didn’t know my father or his family until I was 38 years old. There was a year or two when I was brand new that he came around now and then, but I have little to no memory of that period. From the time I was a kid, all the way to my twenties, I never thought that his absence bothered me. My mother showered me with love, as did my aunts and uncles and family friends (all of whom were white). But nowadays, I can look back and recognize the hurt that I buried deep within. I’m the type that tends to deflect pain with humor, and let me tell you – my teenage years, my twenties, and even my thirties were riddled with “ain’t got no daddy” jokes. I’d make light of the harmful Black dad stereotypes and say things like, “my father is a Black man, so he obviously ain’t around.” I’m not proud of how I handled that hurt, but those were the tools I had at the time.
When my Black family found me on social media in 2013, nearly 40 years after my birth, I finally allowed myself to ask the questions I had previously been too afraid to ask. Through conversations with my father, his oldest daughter, my mother, and her oldest sister, I learned how the love that resulted in my creation was no match for the hate that encompassed it. When my father’s father learned that his son was involved with a white woman and that she was carrying his baby, he condemned the relationship and threatened that “if those white folk don’t kill you for this, I will.” Not too long after, my mother’s father secretly demanded that my father end the relationship, or he’d kick his daughter and newborn grandson out of the house. And although he never invited my mother to be a part of the decision, my father chose to disappear, assuming that the security of her family’s home and support was the best path forward. The foundation was laid for a lifelong struggle with identity, belonging, and acceptance.
A dozen or so years later, I was a high schooler in a small, mostly white mid-Michigan town no more than 60 miles from my birthplace. Although I had brown skin and coarse, curly hair, I had never really thought of myself as different from my white family and friends. But then, I started dating. I quickly learned that although I had not yet identified with my Blackness, plenty of others saw nothing but. One girlfriend was told that she was not allowed to date Black boys and that she’d be kicked out of the house if she didn’t end the relationship. She didn’t end the relationship, but she lied to her father and said she had. When our underground romance was uncovered, she was evicted from her own home and forced to live with an aunt until she ultimately conceded and broke up with me. The very next year, I began dating the daughter of family friends. It seems it was okay for this brown boy to house sit and take care of their dogs while on vacation, but it was not okay for the same brown boy to date their white daughter.
A few years later while in college, I was finally beginning to connect to Blackness. For the first time in my life, I’d found opportunities to hang out with circles of friends that were majority Black. A completely different world presented itself to me, and I was all in. I crushed hard on a beautiful, funny, dark-skinned woman and we clicked. Our conversations were great, the laughter nonstop. But when I made my romantic interest known, I was told that I wasn’t Black enough for her taste. I was too Black for some, not Black enough for others. It was collectively confusing, infuriating, and soul-crushing. It was a kind of hurt that was unexpected, and one that I wasn’t sure I’d recover from.
After a twenty-year stint in Chicago, a handful of failed relationships, and amidst a pandemic, I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. I reconnected with a friend from my days in mid-Michigan and we fell in love hard and fast. And although my liberal self was admittedly a bit scared to move to the south, and even more scared to be in an interracial relationship in the south, I experienced something completely foreign to me, even after two decades in Chicago (an infamously segregated city). It seemed that no matter where I went in my new city, other interracial couples were never more than a stone’s throw away. They were everywhere. In the south. And I marveled. I had found the love I had spent my life looking for, her parents were excited for us both, and we lived in place where we weren’t the odd ones out. I had finally felt that one step forward in my own healing.
As our relationship grew deeper, I got to know her three beautiful children (ages 6, 10, and 12 at the time) and I was smitten. They captured my heart just as quickly as their mother had. We were careful and intentional in how we nurtured my relationship with the kids, and slowly, we found opportunities for me to have one on one dates with the them. More and more, I found myself around town with the kids, their mother’s presence no longer a requirement, simply enjoying our time together.
But even in our liberal bubble, it became clear that people were watching and wondering. Interracial couples were one thing, but a Black man taking a blonde haired, blue-eyed kid to lunch during a school day was another. A Black man on his knees, comforting a young white boy who had just fallen off his scooter raised suspicion from passersby. A Black man in his forties, walking around town, laughing, and drinking lattes with a white, pre-teen girl turned heads and drew concerned looks from those around us. Their internal narrative was painfully evident. “Those kids are clearly not his. Why are they with him? Do I need to be concerned? Do I need to do something?”
Two steps back.
It’s a hard truth for a lot of people to hear. It seems especially hard for those that consider themselves progressively-minded yet recognize themselves as one of the suspicious passersby. It’s certainly not easy for me to think about. It’s not easy to have even the slightest cloud of anxiety follow me whenever I’m in public with the kids sans their mother. But I’ve discussed this dilemma with the two older children when I’ve noticed the keen interest or concerned suspicion from those in our community, and their reaction is one of complete confusion. They have no sense of why it should be concerning to anyone that doesn’t know us that we’re together. “Well, they’re just ridiculous. You’re the best!” they said in closing. Their reaction to the racism-cloaked concern brings a smile to my face and releases my furrowed brow. Their assessment of the situation and of the offenders gives me hope that the work we’re doing is truly impactful. Their love is my healing.
Anthony ‘Tony’ Bittner is a musician, storyteller, and activist who recently relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina from Chicago, Illinois. He is passionate about social justice and DEI in both his personal and professional lives. Tony strives to use his art to entertain, educate, and inspire.