Penny, right, with her sister, Amy. (Photo courtesy of Penny Wrenn)

Sister, Sister: I’m a Black Woman with a White Sister

Penny, right, with her sister, Amy. (Photo courtesy of Penny Wrenn)

When people ask if I have brothers and sisters, I don’t know where to begin. Do I say, I’m an only child, the youngest of seven or the seventh of nine? In fact, all these answers are true. I’m my mother’s only child and the youngest of my father’s seven biological children. But if we’re talking the order in which my father’s children entered his life, then I’m not the last. When my parents divorced, my father remarried and I inherited two step-siblings.

Still, however I go about answering the “Do you have brothers and sisters?” question, I always get to this part: I am a black woman with a white sister.

Her name is Amy. People would come to my old Harlem apartment see her photo on my bookshelf, the one where I’m standing next to her on her wedding day, and they’d ask, “Who’s that?” But I would never just say, “My sister.” I knew that I must follow up with an abridged version of my family history, saying something like, “My parents divorced when I was four and a year later my father, who is black, married Amy’s mother, who is white….”

That’s the thing about family narratives. They read like Genesis, all who begat whom and when. But lineage is scarcely a straight shot from here to there. We are not always certain of where to write our own names.

[pullquote]What do you do when one-upping your sister appears to boil down to who’s which color?[/pullquote]

To be clear, Amy and I are not related by blood. We are not a medical marvel, like those biracial biological twins, who came out looking like polar opposites, one the color of earth and the other the color of snow.

My father’s first wife and my mother are black, so I have my six biological siblings, including two half-sisters, who are black like me. Yet when I say “my sister,” I’m usually talking about Amy (with whom I dropped the “step” in stepsister ages ago), because she’s the one with whom I’ve shared the most constant sisterhood. She’s the one on whom I’m leaning, literally, in nearly all of my childhood pictures taken during my visits with my dad.

Photos courtesy Penny Wrenn

When I first met Amy, she was the plucky heroine in a girl’s adventure novel — all straight bangs and floppy pigtails, climbing trees, picking crab apples and drying wildflowers for homemade potpourri. (Meanwhile, I’d break out in hives or an eczema rash whenever I tagged along on one of her outdoorsy adventures.)

She is barely two years older, but we quickly embraced roles as big and little sisters after our parents married. We wore flower girl dresses when our parents wed before a justice of the peace. She’d tickle me, and I’d shriek for mercy; she’d lock me in a closet, and I’d spend what seemed like endless minutes tearfully yanking at the doorknob. We shared bunk beds and wore matching Easter outfits. With her around, weekends at Daddy’s house were like sleepovers. We stayed up past our bedtime singing and dancing in her bedroom, pulling back the record player needle over and over until we’d memorized the entire Annie soundtrack. On Sundays, we watched Shirley Temple movies in the basement while sipping on Shirley Temples and eating maraschino cherries. I was in high school before I realized that my father hadn’t singlehandedly invented the grenadine-and-ginger ale cocktail just to give Amy and me a legitimate reason to sit at his bar and spin competitively on the barstools.

Nowadays, racially complicated families seem so commonplace they’re almost inconsequential. But when my father married Amy’s mother in 1982, there was neither a biracial president nor celebrity matriarchs (think Angelina Jolie and Madonna) flanked by their culturally chic broods. While others gush with “look how far we’ve come!” pride at tabloid photos of Shiloh and Zahara Jolie-Pitt walking hand in hand, I see the two girls and think of my near lifetime of being a white girl’s black sister. Sure, the Jolie-Pitt sisters are cute — there’s something so Jackson-McCartney about those two, so ebony-and-ivory, gorgeous and symmetrical — but so are we. And knowing what it’s like to be the little black girl in the picture, I do wonder about Zahara. I feel a pinch of “bless her heart” empathy because as beautiful and rainbow coalition-y as it may appear, interracial sisterhood can do a number on a little girl.

Of course, Amy stopped being the girl in pigtails years ago. When I look at her now, I see green eyes and pink cheeks, sometimes-blondish-sometimes-reddish hair and that lucid Blanchett-esque skin that makes me want to press my nose against her face. But even having written the line “makes me want to press my nose against her face” has me cringing, like I might still be the little black girl who couldn’t help but perceive the world by her white sister’s better view.

Among any pair of sisters, there’s not a more common affliction than envy, than resenting yet loving she who at once reminds you of who you are and also of what you’re not. So to say I’ve been jealous of my sister Amy isn’t to say much. I mean, she’s my big sister; I’m supposed to compare myself to her despite knowing that we’re both unique and special in our own ways.

As beautiful and rainbow coalition-y as it may appear, interracial sisterhood can do a number on a little girl.

Indeed she has many enviable qualities: She is taller than I, and her stomach has always been flatter than mine; she’s a smarter talker of politics and a better spender of money; she maintains hobbies and remembers birthdays and actually finishes books. In most sibling compara-thons — the kind where you’re constantly judging who has the winning looks, wardrobe, work ethic or whatever — you might feel like the loser sister who’s falling behind but you never feel that you’re not in the race. If you wanted to, you could improve your standing, even give yourself a competitive edge with a “so what?” attitude. So what your sister is taller? You can rock heels. So what her stomach is flatter? You can do sit-ups (or wear Spanx). And if you damn well wanted to, you could take up a hobby, punch in birthday calendar reminders on your BlackBerry and finish a freakin’ book already.

But when the race is race, well…then what? What do you do when one-upping your sister appears to boil down to who’s-which-color?

For years, I felt utterly benched and unable to compete with Amy because of her “white girl”-ness. She could actually use the beauty advice in Seventeen magazine and take her pick of hair and makeup products. For me, the drugstore was a bastion of pale lipsticks and “flesh colored” anything (band-aids, pantyhose). For her, it was an always-in-bloom garden of hair sprays and mousses, apple-scented this and morning-rain that (compared to my medicinal-smelling hair greases that were an afterthought on the shelf in a small section marked “Ethnic”). She could unselfconsciously shop the makeup aisles. Meanwhile, every blush I tried looked colorless on my skin; every foundation or pressed powder was too beige and chalky.

Something breaks in every girl’s heart from age 13 to 17, when insecurity and self-consciousness, those thieves, lay hold on her mirror. Even when the awkwardness of adolescence is long gone, there’s still that thing we do as women, the minute we identify the beauty of another we begin to second guess our own.

What I’m really talking about here are the social advantages to being a white girl that only a black girl can see. Which isn’t to say that I ever wanted to be white — or wanted to not be black. Yet on any given Saturday, both Amy and I would get all dressed up to be dropped off at the mall to meet guys, but only one of us won their attention. A group of two or three boys would follow us for a while, then the cutest one would say “Hey you…” and make his approach…toward Amy. We’d all stand in a group, with the cute guy trying to get Amy’s phone number while his sidekicks fell back, near but not next to me and not knowing what to say to me except “You’re pretty…for a black girl.” (Yes, even the black guys said this, especially the black guys who might have also added that I was “pretty…for a dark-skinned girl.” And if, for some reason, “pretty…for” sounds to you like a fine compliment, you should know better. It’s insidious, not just back-handed; it’s an unlicensed display of self-righteous preference. It’s downright cruel in a you’re-not-as-ugly-as-you-could-be-or-as-ugly-as-other-people-are-who-look-like-you way.) My poor self-esteem grew weary from carrying around heavy notions about how teenage fortune (read: magazines, makeup, boys) favored white girls, or if not white girls then un-black girls.

Perhaps the differences between white girls and black girls is best measured in the differences between white mothers and black mothers. Black mothers advise their preteen and teenage daughters against “acting grown” or “being fast,” i.e. engaging in adult behavior like shaving their legs, putting on makeup and wearing their hair down—and my mom was one of them.   Although my mother lived in Pennsylvania, her decrees still abided with me during holiday and summer visits at my father’s house in upstate New York. Having the flimsy courage that came from being hundreds of miles away, I sometimes broke rank with my mother’s beauty rules. Take shaving. I simply couldn’t concede to feeling downright hirsute next to my smooth-legged and bikini-clad sister. So while taking a bath one night, I snatched one of Amy’s pink Bics and ran it up my legs—and my arms. (Don’t ask why, but I saw a boon in having twice as many shaven limbs.) Unfortunately, I forgot to clean out the tub afterward and my stepmother discovered my virgin hairs clinging to the porcelain. She knew I wasn’t allowed to shave yet, so she called my mom and I received a cursing-out-by-phone. When Amy found me sulking in the bedroom later that night, having heard reports about the shaving incident, she could barely summon a straight face.

Mention “the time Penny shaved her arms” and Amy will bury her head in the nearest pillow or cover her mouth with one hand and pat me on the back with the other, consoling my inner-14-year-old. I told the story in my maid-of-honor toast on her wedding day nine years ago and she nearly choked on her champagne.

Amy and I laugh about the stumbles of our black-white sisterhood now. I’ve confided in her about seeing myself as her inverse “pretty…for a black girl” reflection. Turns out, she had her moments too. While I badgered my mother for a jheri curl to rival Amy’s J. C. Penney spiral perm, she wanted her mom to let her wear cornrows like mine.

I’ve finally learned to see myself incomparably. If envy is indeed a shared affliction among sisters, then there’s likely no better balm than time to heal its injuries.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

6 Responses

  1. Suzan Bond

    Yet another wonderful essay. Your essays are always clear, real, beautiful and make me think. I look forward to every byline. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.

  2. Sara Gilliam
    Sara Gilliam

    Penny, I LOVE your voice. This is just spectacular.

  3. Atiya

    This was such a great, great article! Really.

  4. Wendy Goldman Scherer
    Wendy Goldman Scherer

    Totally loved this piece… reads so true. Thanks for sharing – this really touched me.

  5. Pauline Adamek

    Loved this gorgeous story!!

  6. Charnae

    Penny, your writing, like your conversation, is always from a thought-filled place, I can always feel your care and literal empathy, realness, as well as love for yourself and the other person and their perspective. You’ve always helped me to feel seen. Your writing just as your conversation is often if not always relatable and understandable and also brings voice to my thoughts and feelings I’ve struggled to identify and at times are still unfolding. Thinking of you and look forward to reading more of your work.


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