Maggie Riseborough: Native Islander teaching in Brooklyn

Maggie Riseborough — Courtesy Maggie Riseborough

Interview by Kyra Steck

I was born on Martha’s Vineyard, actually. I grew up in Vineyard Haven. My mother is Black and my father is white, so I definitely grew up a little, you know  — not confused, but it is a predominantly white space, so growing up, I don’t think I identified with my Black side fully. I went to school in Vineyard Haven, went to the high school, and then I went to UMass Amherst for four years. I did track and field there. I’ve done sports my whole life, including on Martha’s Vineyard. Now I currently live in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I’m a first-grade teacher at a charter school.

Growing up, I can remember being at the Tisbury School, and quite literally, there were maybe five students of color, including mixed race as well. As a kid, I didn’t really try to identify as one or the other. I was in a household mainly with my mother, who is Black, because my parents separated when I was about 6 or 7. My dad actually moved off the Island. I grew up in a Black household for sure, but I never even discussed race. I never had to pick, I had never had to identify, I just sort of went with the flow. You could ask my friends, they just saw me as Maggie.

There were definitely a few moments where I saw that I was different. I think the biggest one was probably my hair. People were like, “Oh, I can just get my hair wet, it’s really quick.” And I was like, “Really? My mom just sat and did my hair for 45 minutes. I can’t get it wet, it’ll get ruined.” Like appearance-wise, that’s where I felt different. Something I discussed with some of my other friends, especially my other friend who grew up biracial, was that we didn’t learn to love our differences. We didn’t know how to in that environment. Not saying that it’s anyone’s fault, but I just think that’s something that a lot of biracial and Black kids on Martha’s Vineyard are going to struggle with, because they’re not seeing it. It’s not right there. Learning to love yourself is really hard on Martha’s Vineyard.

Growing up on the Vineyard, I don’t think they discussed a lot about race, really at all. I’m not saying people are colorblind, but maybe to an extent people like to think, “Oh, I don’t see color,” which, you know, obviously that is not the goal. That’s not the goal at all. We have to be able to see different cultures, different races, different everything. So growing up, I didn’t experience hands-on racism. Only comments like, “Oh, you’re not even Black, Maggie.” So then I’m like, “OK, so what am I? Because I know you don’t think I’m white.” I got that definitely more than a few times, starting in eighth grade. The way I identify myself now is African American. That’s definitely the culture that I side way more toward.

When people told me “You’re not even Black,” I think they meant, “Oh, I’m not looking at color,” or “We’re the same.” But then I’ve also received that as people trying to not recognize who I am and trying to dismiss my identity. I can’t remember the specific instances, but whether we were discussing Afro-centric society or Afro-centric beliefs or music, they would say, “Well, Maggie, you’re not even really Black.” They’re choosing to not associate me in half of my identity.

I can also remember some comments that came from my white peers, like people that I thought were my friends very easily using the N-word. I can really remember one instance with one of my best friends. I had a crush on someone. He was Black, and I was talking about it, and she said, “Who? That nappy-headed n_____?” I think that was a moment for me where I was like, “Whoa, what the f___?” This white person has grown up in this space to feel so comfortable to call someone that — it’s so insulting. My other biracial friend said, “What did you just say?” She freaked out, but the other white people in the room had no comment. I think that has a lot to say about being raised on Martha’s Vineyard. I think that because people aren’t seeing it — aren’t seeing police brutality or seeing outward racism, they’re like, “Well, we’re a small community of 20,000 people in the winter, this doesn’t happen here.” But it’s even those little comments that people remember for the rest of their lives.

It was definitely harder to connect with Black culture on Martha’s Vineyard. 100 percent. It’s not something you’re seeing. There were only two Black teachers, and I only had one class with one of them.

Everything (the education system on Martha’s Vineyard) is whitewashed for sure. I would say that the education system is definitely color-blind. I can even think of a situation when I was just in my freshman year, my brother was the one who came home and told me about this. One of the vice principals at the time thought it was okay to have an auction and actually refer to it as a slave auction, and genuinely didn’t see a problem with that. So my assumption is that people aren’t recognizing different races. I can tell you that that principal definitely was not doing this maliciously at all. That wasn’t his thought, but the fact that his brain was so trained to be okay with that says that people on Martha’s Vineyard aren’t recognizing other races or other cultures for sure.

Going to UMass and being in a larger pool of people of color, I felt more comfortable, and was meeting people that wanted to learn about my background and who I was, who my parents were. That was something on Martha’s Vineyard that was missing. People didn’t take the time to learn other people’s heritages, because it didn’t apply to them. They’re used to what they know, so hearing about my side of the family and about my mom’s side, who is Black, was never something that was on their agenda. At UMass, they wanted to share their experiences, what it’s like in their household, and wanting to hear mine as well, because being biracial, it was different than being fully African American. In college, I found my best friends for life. It formed my identity and what I’m actually really interested in, like my music choices, my style, what I choose to educate myself on, and what I really seek to find, like looking for books that are done by Black authors.

I’m trying to think of a way to describe racism here. Because it’s not like racism in New York, where police are openly killing people. I don’t want to keep saying colorblind, but I just think that people don’t acknowledge Black lives on Martha’s Vineyard, or acknowledge that, because of systematic practices in this country, African Americans already start behind. When someone says racism isn’t a problem on Martha’s Vineyard, I would like to say, it’s not a problem that you’ve seen. Because you are white, or because we have grown up in a wealthier area, does not mean that others are not experiencing it.