My Journey to Leadership as a Big, Black, Biracial, Spanish-Speaking Girl from Naptown

By Nicole Carey

First of all, welcome to our blog. This blog, JUST Community, along with our monthly podcast, will be designed to have thought-provoking and at times provocative conversations around how we do the work. As equity practitioners who work alongside organizational leaders striving for social change, we come across so many everyday challenges that just don’t get enough airtime. We want to talk about all the things—bodies, femininity, relationships, hair, public education, health, sports, disease, the term BIPOC, what exactly is a person of color anyway, gentrification, generational wealth, erasure, ability, politeness of the Midwest, how we approach conversations around race, masculinity, Black and Latino relations in Indianapolis and elsewhere, play, joy, the adultification of children, sisterhood, Black women and babies dying at an alarming rate in our state but no one really talking about it, land rights, capitalism, art, solidarity, collective power—our list of topics goes on and on and on. But before we jump into all the juicy convos, the Indy Equity team thought it only appropriate that we introduce ourselves in our inaugural month. I’m Nicole, but my closest friends call me Nikki. I’m a Black biracial entrepreneur and civic leader born and raised in Indianapolis. I’m also a mother to five multicultural, multilingual, infinitely complex children. There is so much that makes me who I am, far more than I can share in one post. At Indy Equity, we have a practice of sharing our leadership stories that has been very powerful, so I want to share a small piece of mine with you all today, as an invitation for connection and also reflection on your own leadership journeys.

 

On Being a Big, Black, Biracial, Spanish-Speaking Girl from Naptown

My identity story is synonymous with my leadership story. I am biracial. My mom is white from Central Indiana and my dad was Black, born in Cincinnati, with parents transplanted during the Great Migration from the Deep South. My parents met in the army. Due to a mixture of both parents’ trauma and mom’s family’s racism, my father was mostly absent during my formative years. So, I was raised by my white mom, with three older white siblings, a precarious situation. Being the youngest of four, the only one with a different dad, and the only one with brown skin made me acutely aware of race and belonging as a concept from as far back as I can remember. I always felt different. I felt like I was born with the wrong skin, the wrong body, and definitely with the wrong hair. My grandfather would make a point to comment on how unflatteringly overweight I was as a child, blessed with thick thighs and calves from the very beginning. My hair was completely untamable. There was no such thing as Kurly Koils in the 90s. So, my natural curls didn’t make an appearance until my early 20s. There was a never-ending cycle of cutting off all my hair, permanent relaxers, and crochet braids (if I was lucky enough to find someone to do it with money I had saved). Ironically enough, as much as I hated my hair, the Black girls at school hated it more, but for different reasons. I definitely didn’t understand what colorism was at that age, but they did. I had “good hair.” I was “high-yellow,” an Oreo, a zebra. I was told that I thought I was better than they were, and I was therefore labeled an enemy. I wanted nothing more than to be part of their in-group. I was told explicitly and repeatedly that I was not Black enough. So, I believed it. I was not them. I was not like my family. I didn’t really belong anywhere. I was a big girl with racial identity issues, big girl issues, daddy issues, and mommy issues.

So, what’s a girl to do? The answer: Prove that I’m worthy of love, of course. Being really great at everything became a part of my identity. Overachievement doesn’t begin to describe the ethos I internalized. Don’t worry that I’m not Black enough or white enough or thin enough or pretty enough, I’m really, really, really smart and that makes up for all the rest of my deficits, right? So, the mission became to prove my worth—excelling, achieving—so that finally I would be good enough.

I graduated with a 4.3 GPA. I was among the top ten from Ben Davis High School, in a class of around 1,000. It was during this time, in my teenage years and my early 20s, that a solid identity began to form. I moved in with my dad, learned so much more about his past, and connected with our family. I learned more about his struggle as a Black man; he served over twenty years in the US Army, but consistently and repeatedly had to prove his humanity and worth to his country. I began to relate my personal struggle of worthiness to something larger, something more systemic. It wasn’t until college that I decided that I identify as a Black woman, not “mixed.” Someone once told me that I can’t forget my white side. To identify as only Black is to dishonor my white ancestry. However, I’ve decided that white is not an ancestry that I identify with. I don’t disrespect the European heritage my mother’s family espouses. But the meaning of white in the United States is different. I cannot walk down the street and enjoy white privilege or be mistaken for white. I am not white passing. I came to appreciate that Black comes in all shades and that lots of Black folks in the United States and globally struggle with defining “Black enough” for themselves in the legacy of colorism and the one-drop rule. Today, I identify myself situationally, feeling a strong connection to my Black identity within a supportive community. To show respect for others’ struggles and the privilege that colorism can afford, I may identify as Black biracial, depending on the audience (although I do that less and less frequently). In a workshop a few months ago, I identified myself as a Black woman and privately in the Zoom chat, a Black woman wrote “just Black and nothing else?” Panic! I was discovered and immediately transported back to middle school where I was just pretending to belong somewhere. It’s an ongoing process, and it is complicated.

In high school, I learned Spanish fluently. Of course, coming from poverty I couldn’t travel abroad to perfect my language skills. So, I worked in restaurants with lots of Hispanic employees and joined a Spanish-speaking congregation. The growing multinational, multicultural Latino population in Indy in the 2000s, connected by language and solidarity, gave me a sense of home. I felt less that the color of my skin dictated my value. I married a man from Mexico, with strong Indigenous ancestry, and we had three kids.

 

On Growth and the Messiness of Leading

Since I can remember, language has played a pivotal role in my life, especially when it came to connecting the Black and Latino communities. Growing up, I believed that any cultural differences we had stemmed from a lack of understanding, and I saw language as the bridge that could bring us closer together. It wasn’t until later in life that I began to grasp the concept of anti-Blackness and its far-reaching implications beyond a simple Black-and-white context.

Becoming an antiracist educator was a natural progression for me. I recognized that our liberation is intricately intertwined, and true freedom can only be achieved when everyone is free from oppression. Through my initial workshops and professional development sessions (in 2007), I sought to foster a deep sense of connection among diverse communities, advocating for unity and understanding. I aimed to dismantle the barriers that separated us, encouraging individuals to confront their biases and prejudices.

As I expanded my workshops to include Spanish-speaking audiences, I realized that language, although essential, was not sufficient on its own to bridge the gaps. Cultural nuances, historical experiences, and social structures contributed to the complexities of our identities and the challenges in building authentic coalitions.

Currently, I find myself enrolled in a PhD program (achiever can’t stop won’t stop) that focuses on studying cross-racial connection and coalition building. This academic journey allows me to delve deeper into the intricacies of forming meaningful relationships between diverse communities. Through research and exploration, I hope to identify the most effective strategies for fostering understanding and solidarity among different racial and ethnic groups.

Doing the work and constant learning has meant a lot to me. Now, I love my hair and I love my skin, and I am working really hard to love my body that has carried seven babies and birthed five. I’m still an overachiever, but I’m working on that, too. There has been a lot of therapy. Raising multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual children brings with it a unique set of challenges and implications. In our family, my three oldest are Latino passing and live in a household surrounded by Black culture (I’m remarried). They have not one, but two critically conscious race scholars as parents. The intersectionality of their identities exposes them to diverse perspectives and cultural influences, fostering a rich understanding of the world around them. However, it also presents them with instances of discrimination and hurtful comments, as they grapple with their racial identity in a society that may not fully comprehend the complexity of their heritage. In just the past year, a Black biracial boy told my oldest to stop calling herself Black because she wasn’t. A Hispanic boy called her the N-word . . . with an r at the end, because she “pretends” to be Black. (Identity-focused youth workshops coming next year!) As a parent, I strive to provide the support and guidance I wish I had received during my own identity formation journey. But sometimes I really just want to fight these kids. In all seriousness, my hope is that my babies will navigate these challenges with greater clarity and confidence, emerging from their journey of self-discovery and acceptance sooner than I did, and with less therapy.

Leading equity work is messy. But my commitment to this work, both personally and professionally, stems from a profound belief that true transformation and progress can only be achieved through collective efforts. Being forced to navigate spaces as an outsider and searching for connection has allowed me to appreciate our mutual humanity and develop skills to dismantle barriers to connection. I advocate for inclusive dialogue, genuine empathy, and active engagement as the foundational pillars of building lasting bridges between communities. Gloria Anzaldua, the genius Chicana feminist, writes about her identity journey, coming from literal and figurative borderlands. Navigating complex intersectionalities forced her to live between worlds, where she discovered true connection and true belonging. My journey has also taken me to this third space, the figurative borderlands, a place where I found myself and my voice for advocacy.

This, of course, is not the complete story, but it’s a good start and gives you some insight into my motivations in the work. My journey from feeling like an outsider in my own skin to becoming an advocate for cross-racial connection has been a transformative one. I continue to build bridges between communities of difference. My hope is that aside from being extremely cathartic, these blog posts will serve as a catalyst of connection in Indy and beyond.

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