Extended Conversation on Being Biracial: Laila Branch and Freedom Gobel

A Shorewood High School junior and Reagan High School senior discuss being biracial.

‘Why Do You Sound So Ghetto?’

Laila Branch, Shorewood High School junior
Freedom Gobel, Reagan High School senior

Laila Branch and Freedom Gobel didn’t know each other before the September day they met up at Freedom’s school on Milwaukee’s South Side. Halfway into their hourlong conversation, they were finishing each other’s sentences – literally.

Freedom plans to study journalism next year at Northwestern University. Laila is president of Shorewood’s Youth Rising Up student group.

Both of their moms are educators, and they’re both part of their respective schools’ black student groups. Laila and Freedom are also both of mixed descent: Laila’s dad is black and her mom is white; Freedom’s dad is white and her mom is black. The teenagers bonded over that background and their subsequent shared experiences: unique hair issues; divergent family get-togethers; and being “kind of stuck in the middle” racially, culturally and socially. – Moderated by Adam Rogan

A condensed version of this conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

‘Why Do You Sound So Ghetto?’: Laila Branch & Freedom Gobel

LB: I am glad I went to Shorewood in the sense that it’s given me a good education. Shorewood offers a lot of programs and a lot of things that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. … But when it comes to relationships, race issues and things like that –

FG: Any social aspect is tough.

LB: Yeah, it’s horrible. … Like my black friends, they’re like, “Why are you talking like that? That’s so white. Why are you saying that?” Or I say something around my white friends and they’re like … I’ve actually had a girl say, “Why do you sound so ghetto?”

FG: At Reagan it’s interesting because most of the people are not white. However, very few people are black here. It’s mostly Hispanic. So it’s not uncommon for me to be the only black person in the room. And it’s usually tough having conversations in history where we have to talk about slavery. Or we’re talking about a lynching in recent news and everyone’s like, “Let’s hear the black perspective. Let’s have the black girl speak.” And it’s like, “Oh, OK, so you want me to speak for an entire population.” And there’s this pressure on that. People want to know the black perspective. And it’s important for people to realize that there isn’t just one black perspective. I just happen to be the only one in the room. And so I struggle because I don’t want to speak for everyone, and it makes me wonder if I should speak at all. Because I don’t want my perspective to go unheard, but I also don’t want people generalizing for the entire race.

LB: My brothers and sisters are all full black. They’re all my dad’s kids. So when I’m with my sister, I don’t look like my sister at all. I’m much taller than her, she’s very short. And so when she says, “Oh, that’s my little sister.” People are like, “Your little sister? What?” And especially at Shorewood, it’s different because I’m kind of stuck in the middle. I hang out with mostly black kids, but I pretty much talk to everyone, because I’m forced to because I don’t have a set group that I can go to. Sometimes, I’m with my white friends and they’re like, “Oh, what’s that?” Or, “Why do you act like that? Why do you talk like that? Why do you eat like that?”

FG: You’re too white to be black and too black to be white.

I am glad that I’m at a school where there’s diversity and it’s not entirely taken up with white people. Because I know what that feels like. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin [Fort Atkinson]. And coming to Milwaukee was a life-changer. So I knew that there wasn’t a huge population of black people, but that’s part of the reason I wanted to come here because I wanted to start making a change here and I knew that if everyone was too afraid to step outside something; put themselves in uncomfortable situations so they can make it better for people in the future; then where would we be today as a society?

I’m a leader in our black student union. I go to middle schools. I try and let people know Reagan is a school that you can come to. We try to mentor middle school black students who might not know that there are other opportunities out there. A lot of it is trying to improve the minority experience here at Reagan, and especially for black people because there’s a voice that’s just unheard. That’s also part of the reason why I want to be a journalist, because I want to give misrepresented people or underrepresented people the chance to be heard.

I think there aren’t a lot of conversations about race in schools because it makes teachers uncomfortable. I feel like they don’t want to be blamed and they don’t want other students to be blamed. When in reality, there is someone to blame.

LB: Yeah, there is.

FG: There are routes to the problem [centuries of institutionalized racism], and those routes cannot be ignored because it’s making someone uncomfortable.

LB: Why are they so uncomfortable for people to even have an opinion? Because basically, when you’re being racist you’re attacking someone about how they look, how they act, their culture, everything like that. Say some white guy told me that I should have to straighten my hair every day because it’s gonna make him feel more comfortable, some stupid thing like that. You’re telling me that I can’t be my natural self because it makes you uncomfortable? Because it does this? [She plays with curls in her hair.] No one should have to feel lesser than someone. And so you’re making somebody feel lesser than you when you’re talking about the color of their skin, or the curls in their hair or what their routine is before they go to bed. Some kids pray, some kids don’t. You’re putting someone down for something that they do that is their right to do, for who they are.

FG: It all does come down to ignorance. And the thing is, obviously, you don’t know you’re ignorant because you’re ignorant. But you’re happy in that state of being. Why would you try and educate yourself if you’re happy with where you are at, your status quo?

LB: There’s this whole thing in society, it’s all stereotypes. That’s all it is. Everywhere you go, there’s gonna be a stereotype. And some stereotypes are good. We have stereotypes about chairs. We know that they’re going to hold us up. I mean, that’s what my English teacher told us. He was like, “There are stereotypes everywhere. You have a stereotype about a computer.”

And that’s correct, but it differs when it comes to people because people are different. Yes, there are stereotypes that are correct about African-American people. Like I mean our foods, that’s huge. I had a girl ask me actually at my school, “Do you put Crisco in your hair?” Crisco is cooking fat. Try coconut oil. I had someone ask me if I use Crisco to moisturize my body. Cocoa butter. She was genuinely curious.

FG: That’s because people see these things in the media or wherever, they watch a movie and they see a joke but they don’t realize that it’s a joke. And then they have that one black person that they can ask, so they do it.

LB: It’s like, I’m not going to go up to my white friends with, “Does your mom not put seasoning in her casserole?” I’m not going to be like that. That’s dumb, why would you ask? Because it’s a joke. The stigma within the community of African-Americans, especially the women, that we all have attitudes. We’re all angry all the time. We’re always yelling about something. And then about the men, they’re violent, they’re irrational and things like that. I see it in shows all the time. And I won’t even lie, we play into that stereotype sometimes.

FG: Here’s the thing, though: If you think about it, black women have every right to be angry. They got the short end of the stick for gender, they got the short end of the stick for race.

LB: Yeah. Literally the bottom of the barrel is the black woman. Black men are still above us in every way. If an African-American man and an African-American woman are married and they’re in a house –nowadays it’s kind of changing because we’re kind of like, “No, chill out with that” – but 20 years ago, black men in a house with a black woman; the black man, he’s the dominant one. and he will make sure that is known that he is the dominant one.

And often, with African-Americans, we a lot of times turn to bully someone else because we’ve been bullied. I see it in Shorewood with the LGBT community. A lot of African-American men – the women don’t do this as much – but a lot of African-American boys and men antagonize the LGBT community, because they’ve been put down by the white man. And so now they have to find something to put other people down. It’s a whole violent and vicious circle that happens and it should stop.

LB: When I was younger, it used to be drilled in me that I had to act a certain way when I was around my white aunts, my white uncles, my grandma [on my mom’s side]. I had to act put-together, a good little child. I noticed it. My mom, she would never do something like that. She’s always told me, “Just be yourself.” And so it’s just something that I did subconsciously, I think up until the age I was 10. I think I was trying to act like how I thought my mom had acted when she was my age.

I don’t even know how to put it with my black family. I guess it was more of a laid-back vibe. But when it came to elders, you had to respect them. Even me saying “Grandma” versus “Granny”: Granny’s on the black side and Paw Paw’s on the black side; Grandpa and Grandma are on the white side.

FG: For me, it’s Gram and Oma, which is German. So there is a difference.

LB: The whole family dynamic is different. I think when you go on your black side, there’s more of a – this sounds a little weird, but there’s more of a community.

FG: I was going to say there’s a difference in family dynamics too. Because on my mom’s side, the black side – family is family. That’s all it needs to be defined as, right? If there’s someone over there that’s at the family reunion, they’re your cousin.

LB: Right. They don’t have to be blood.

FG: Right, that’s family. And we’re gonna love each other like family. And that love doesn’t change. But on the white side, things are more defined. There has to be a line that you can trace. That’s your aunt, that’s your second aunt; that’s your whatever-something-cousin’s daughter. But on the black side, it’s just family.

And in terms of how I act depending on which family I’m with; I’ve come to realize I’m not, not being myself, I’m just a different version of myself when I’m with the different sides. So I have my black mom, my white dad and then the four mixed kids. And I always tell my mom and my dad all the time, “You guys are the minorities in this house.”

I know I’m the most comfortable with mixed people just because they understand the struggle of being split in two. It wasn’t until recently that I could check more than one box on an application for race. I had to choose. Am I going to be white, or am I going to be black? Which one is going to get me the job? Which one is going to get me into this program? And it was a real struggle.

LB: I mean for scholarships, I’m going to check the black box.

FG: Black always. Or “other” works too. Exotic, you know?

LB: I hate that so much because I’m not other. I am both.

FG: My mom told me, “OK, this year we’re having—” She didn’t say “the white family,” but the white family is coming over for Thanksgiving this year. So I already can picture what that’s going to be like.

LB: The food. That’s a whole issue within itself, the food.

FG: No, that’s the thing; my mom is cooking and none of them are gonna be used to the food that she makes, ’cause she makes soul food for Thanksgiving.

LB: It’s gonna be fun because we have two Thanksgivings and two Christmases. My dad makes one at our house, and then we go up to my (white) grandma’s house. On Christmas Eve, we go to my mom’s side; the white family. And then on Christmas Day we have the black family over to our house. And so going up there, it’s stuffing from a box. It’s –

FG: Mashed potatoes from a box.

LB: Actually, my grandma’s been really good. She’s been doing actual potatoes, but it’s just butter and a little salt. Just a little bit. [Laughs] And so it’s not the same. I beg my dad each year, get two hams, make one so that when we go up to Grandma’s you can make it at Grandma’s. He does because he knows that that’s the only thing I’m going to eat is that and the dressing that my mother makes. My momma actually throws down some dressing. No one has made it like my granny ever since she died. My mother can do it. I was like, “I love you.” ’Cause that’s my favorite thing.

I’ve had friends ask me, “What’s dressing?” Honey, you’re missing out. It’s like stuffing, but way better. I go to my grandma’s house and it’s like, “Well, here’s some fruit.” Pick at that. Here’s some ham. Some mashed potatoes. My dad actually brings a little packet of seasoning. I was like, “Dad, that’s so rude.” He’s like, “I don’t care. I don’t want to eat it if it’s not my taste.” The first time we brought dressing up there, my (white) grandma was like, “Lisa, what’s this?” That’s my mom’s name. She’s like, “It’s dressing.” And then she’s like, “Oh, what’s that?” And then she looked at my dad and was like, “Arnold, did you teach her how to do that?” And my dad was like, “No, my mother actually taught her how to make it.” She tries it and she’s like, “This is wonderful!”

FG: [Imitating Laila’s white-grandma impression] “This is wonderful!”

LB: Oh my gosh. She’s like so ecstatic: “You have to bring this every year.” This was two years ago. We’ve brought it every year since. My mother literally makes six pans and puts them in the freezer; one for that Thanksgiving, one for our Thanksgiving at home, one for Christmas, and on Christmas and then New Year’s.

FG: There you go. All set.

FG: I was gonna say, something I feel like is important to acknowledge is I feel like anyone reading this article, listening to this conversation, I feel like a lot of people would be like, “So, why does it sound like you hate white people?”

LB: Yeah.

FG: “Why does it sound like you’re attacking white people?” And there’s a point to this. So when you are anything but white, even if it’s a small percentage – to the white society that we live in – you are stained that race. If you are a quarter black, then you are black. And that goes back to slavery, right? If you had a little bit of non-white in you, then you were stained that race. So there was a separation there. So automatically, since I knew what race was since I could navigate human relationships; we were other. And we still are other from black people too.

FG: And it’s great meeting someone who is mixed—

LB: Who understands—

FG: Because you know exactly how it is.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the January issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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