Sophomore Emily DiBenedetto remembers talking with a friend about music when she was nine years old. They both liked emo and punk rock. They were also both from mixed backgrounds. Then her friend asked, “You don’t like rap music?”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
As one of the few racially-mixed students growing up, Emily often encountered unseemly comments about her appearance. From elementary school throughout high school, the comments made her feel uneasy, out of place and sometimes isolated.
“I didn’t get super comfortable with myself and my racial identity until I was probably in my later high school years,” Emily said. “I kind of ignored it for a long time.”
In fourth grade, Emily got her hair braided into cornrows with beads, a style she was excited to show off. When she went to school, kids told her she was not black enough to wear it, and that she was trying to “be more black.”
She felt self-conscious and quickly undid the braids. The older she got, the more names were thrown at her Ñ ‘Oreo’ (black on the outside, white on the inside) for the way she talked, her music tastes and her interests, as well as other, more vulgar, names.
Emily was adopted at birth by a white couple and was raised in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood and school in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Tony and Mae DiBenedetto went out of their way to ensure their daughter had various black figures to look up to in her youth.
Emily remembered listening to Billie Holiday, Etta James and other black musicians. Mae and Tony asked their friends of color to interact with Emily and teach her about their culture. They made sure to buy books and dolls that featured positive brown-skinned role models, and Mae asked the principal of the school to place her daughter in a more diverse classroom, to which the principle obliged.
But despite their efforts, there were times Emily encountered discomfort as she grew up. Some days, she would come home and rant about her ignorantly racist boss to her father.
“Not really providing enough access to black role models is probably one of our biggest shortcomings in raising Emily,” Tony said.
Mae added that there was no one outside of Emily’s school or Mae’s work that Emily could go to for advice about being black. When it came to these kinds of issues, the young girl had to learn to navigate the world of color on her own.
Emily’s biological mother put her up for adoption after becoming pregnant while stationed in the army. She had already had two children and did not want to put another child through traveling as they grew up. The DiBenedettos were present for Emily’s birth and they allowed Emily to keep in contact with her biological family.
Emily also grew up with a younger brother, Eddie, who was also adopted and is of Mexican descent. When the two were younger, they were always at each other’s throats, and rarely saw each other due to their busy schedules. But, Eddie recalled that as they got older their love for one another Ñ and their friendship Ñ got stronger.
Talking through her experiences being mocked, Emily deflated slightly.
“I’m mixed É so I was never white enough, I was never black enough, that was really rough,” she said. “Whenever I went into black spaces, I felt too white, and whenever I went into white spaces, I felt too black. It’s a little hard to navigate.”
She also recounted her two years of employment at Edible Arrangements, where she would talk with customers over the phone to take their orders. When they came in to pick up their orders, customers would look around in confusion.
“I’m looking for Emily?” they’d ask, assuming it was not her who they had talked with on the phone. Emily’s voice “sounded white” when they’d spoken to her. The high school student would also deal with a boss who, though not malicious, would say racist remarks out of ignorance.
“I told [Emily] to be strong and do her job to the best of her ability,” Mae said.
After two years, Emily left.
Emily’s parents initially felt some trepidation when she was in the midst of selecting a college, but were relieved when she followed in the footsteps of a family friend who attended Knox. They knew this friend through their involvement in their town’s politics, which is something that inspired Emily to get involved in seven different clubs and activities around campus and make so many friends.
Knox was rigorous academically; but moreover, students accepted her as she is. It was a perfect fit.
Looking back on her life as a mixed child, Emily remembered that first uncomfortable encounter with her friend. “You don’t like rap?” Years later, the two are still close friends, and Emily said it was one of the most important friendships she made in her younger years.
Though she encountered difficulties growing up, Emily greatly appreciated everything her family had done for her. Contrary to how her parents felt, Emily expressed how her parents did their best to make sure they did not whitewash her and keep her in touch with black culture, and that they did more than enough to help her try and navigate life as a young girl of color.
She is happy to have the support of her parents in everything she did while in college and talks with at least one member of her family every day. She knew that whenever she needed them, her parents would have her back, and that she was blessed to call them family.