A few years ago, I wrote a piece on the Odyssey called “Finding a Mixed-Race Racial Identity in a Black and White Society”. I was a junior in college, and just beginning to breach the surface of the idea of racial identities, let alone understanding my own racial identity. For someone who a year earlier had been living in Baltimore during the Freddie Gray riots and still remained staunchly defensive of the fact that we have a class problem not a racism problem in the United States, the article made some astute observations. It speaks with the voice of someone who feels genuinely neglected by society, who wants to better understand her experience, but doesn’t know how.
The article sprung from a conversation in one of the classes I was taking at the time. The class, which was required for students to work in my school’s writing center, allowed us to regularly explore popular topics in pop culture, politics, and everything in between. In this particular case, we were discussing race and our experiences living in the bubble of our college campus in Baltimore. It was just the beginning of a time in which conversations like that would become all the more common on my college campus.
But, honestly, the article I wrote doesn’t touch on the things we talked about so much as it touches on my feelings of insecurity at the time. The main reason I wrote the article is because there were black and other people of color in my class, and I had been troubled by the fact that I didn’t feel as if my 25% blackness afforded me the opportunity to make my own opinion heard.
In the article, I mention multiple times the story of my upbringing. Looking back, I think I attributed my experience growing up to my reluctance to speak when other people of color were speaking. About my upbringing (at least in a racial context): I grew up in a small suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, spent 17 out of my 18 years of education in Catholic school, and rarely spent time with my dad’s side of the family (not my choice), or any black people at all, really. When I applied to colleges, my mom had to beg me to reveal my race on applications. As a teenager, I constantly mentioned the merits of getting brown skin but not “black people hair” from my black relatives. On beach trips with my mom’s side of the family, sometimes I envied my fairer-skinned cousins for the attention they got when they were sunburned. I wore T-shirts in the sun in order to keep my skin light, to feel closer to my family, the people who were supposed to look like me. For a few summers my mom used to take me to get my hair braided in cornrows, to the only hairstylist in town (at least that we were familiar with) who could do it — and he was a white man. I got used to not seeing people who looked like me, anywhere. People told me I was beautiful and exotic, and I developed a mindset that I was the only person on Earth with light green eyes and brown skin.
To summarize: aside from my mom, no one I spent a significant amount of time with growing up ever felt it necessary to mention my blackness. My dad, the closest link to that side of me, had spent decades trying to run away from his own brown skin, and so had little time to show me the meaning of mine. Strangers became my main source of understanding the fact that my skin was brown. But just to be clear: my skin has never been enough to explicitly define me, it’s only opened the floodgates to a barrage of questions trying to place me into the ethnicity in which I belong. When I was younger, I never understood why my dad would get so angry at people who asked him what he was. To me, it had always been a minor annoyance, and most of the time it was cloaked in compliments anyway. Now I understand. My relationship with my race, for most of my life, was reserved for empty compliments and little moments when things didn’t feel quite right, like when comments on my skin felt more judgmental than friendly, or when people joked about black stereotypes in front of me and I felt guilty when I tried to laugh along.
A few months after publishing my piece on the Odyssey, I went on a five-month long study abroad trip to Cape Town, South Africa. I don’t think I was fully prepared for the differences in race relations there — I had adopted a kind of ridiculous mindset that everyone was going to be brown and Westernised like me — so every observation kind of blew my mind. I had already started wondering about my own racial experience, but South Africa forced me to confront race in a larger context than anything I had known about it in the United States.
In South Africa, racism exposed itself in markedly different clothes than it did in the U.S. Not to mention the fact that apartheid, or the legal system of segregation imposed by the federal government of South Africa, wasn’t dissolved until 1994(!!)The United States has an unsettlingly long history of racial discrimination, but South Africa has an unsettlingly recent one. Where the United States was quick to adopt the one-drop rule (meaning one drop of black blood means you’re black), South Africa’s system of racial injustice was based on a more elaborate system of labeling. According to the apartheid system, there were three main designations of race — white, colored, and black. The opportunities, punishments, lives and everything else of these three designations were organized in a tier from best to worst. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how that hierarchy was organized.
South Africa is still reeling from its recent history, and to me, every day there was a revelation. I thought when I got there that it was going to feel like a walk back in time in the United States. But that’s wrong. Anyone interested in the development of race relations should juxtapose South Africa and the United States — it’s fascinating to see how the understanding of skin color can develop in such different ways. In a warped, f*cked up way, South Africa’s system of racism was more inclusive to people of mixed-racial descent, recognizing them as different, individual people where the United States failed to do so. I wonder about how different my racial identity would have come to develop had I grown up in a racialized system like that of South Africa.
A year after publishing my piece on The Odyssey, and a semester after I had returned from my time abroad, I watched the documentary 13th on Netflix. I was sitting alone in the darkness of my apartment bedroom, and I think it was a Saturday. The few minutes after the documentary concludes are moments that I credit to be an awakening of sorts when I tell people the story of developing my racial identity. After watching the film, I had an intense feeling of clarity, a kind of sudden realization that washed over me — I am black. This was a revelation, because though I had already realized that I wasn’t just white, I was mixed, it wasn’t until this moment that the full gravity of the other part of my race settled onto me. There’s this montage at the end, it’s very Spike Lee-esque, and it puts the audio of Trump rallies behind visuals of 1960s-era brutality against blacks. The ease in which these two things flow together is alarming, and I have to say, the documentary did its job in making me really feel something. After watching, I cried for twenty minutes alone in my apartment.
For spring break that year, I visited my aunt in Fort Lauderdale. I stayed at her house for a week, flew there on a roundtrip ticket courtesy of my dad, who seemed thrilled in an ironic way that I was willing to spend time with his family. Those few days in Fort Lauderdale felt like a breath of fresh air. I heard stories about my family that I had never known, gained an understanding of a woman (who looked exactly like me as a child btw, that significance wasn’t lost) who had grown up in the exact same environment as my father, but instead of running to the white community and begging it to rescue her from blackness, she had turned to the black community and embraced it with open arms. All of a sudden, the pieces of myself that had always felt like they didn’t quite fit in the environment that I was familiar with, found home. It felt like one of those picture games where the photo starts out really blurry, and then little by little it gets clearer and clearer until you can finally tell what it is actually a picture of.
On that trip, I realized that the black community I had always been afraid to speak up around weren’t intent on rejecting me — they had just been waiting for me to say something in the first place. I don’t know how to describe the intense feeling of wholeness and love I suddenly felt for my black family, or the subsequent rush of anger I felt at my dad for keeping me in turbulent questioning my whole life. It’s like this: how are you supposed to understand how to tie your shoes, if no one’s shoelaces look quite like yours, and no one ever tells you why?
Towards the end of that same year, my senior year of college, I was invited to participate in a research study with a sociology PhD student who was studying the experience of multiracial children with one or more multiracial parents. She had happened upon my Odyssey piece by typing “quarter black” into Google. It was the first time I had met or even heard of anyone else who used the term.
To give a little context: within the category of mixed-race people, there’s this other, more slim category — children with one parent who is a single race (monoracial) and one parent who is mixed-race (multiracial), like me. Usually when you think of mixed-race people, you think of someone who is a mix of their two parents, and in most cases, their two parents are of two clearly different races. When one parent is already a member of this mixed-race class, and they have children with someone else of a different race, things get a little muddier.
In this seemingly small difference — I mean it’s mixed race, right, who cares what the percentage is — is the entirety of my life. It’s a lot harder to explain exactly what your race is when you have to boil things down to specific fractions. But when I tell people I’m mixed with black and white, they don’t believe me until I go on to explain the specific amount of each race that I have in me. Sometimes people adopt the one-drop rule — the minute I mention that any member of my family is black, they understand me as a black person. I don’t mind that so much. But sometimes people adopt the rule that only having one black grandparent doesn’t make me black enough to make a fuss over. That hurts a little. Which reaction is right? I still don’t know.
Back to the study: the student who approached me had made the experience of this particular classification the subject of her PhD study because she had also grown up with one multiracial parent and one monoracial parent(imagine that!)And, in trying to find a community of understanding for herself, she had discovered that there wasn’t much documentation at all of the experience of people like us. I was thrilled that she had found me, and thrilled that people like her existed. Still working on finding her final study, but when I find it, I will post a link to it here.
A few weeks ago, I read an article on National Geographic about race. It talks about the complex experiences of people who are mixed-race, how easy it can be to fall through the cracks of different racial communities when you don’t fit perfectly into just one (duh). One person describes her experience with a store clerk who claimed “No, you’re too pretty to be black.” I’ve never had anyone say that to me out loud, but I have felt the weight of people’s shock when I reveal “black and white” instead of something beautiful and exotic, like Egyptian or Greek.
The article goes on to detail the experiences of several different mixed-race people who have lived in a strange world similar to mine. One woman in her 40s asks people for money when they ask her what her race is, at differing amounts depending on when in the conversation they ask it. Another man recounts the time he cried when he discovered he could check more than one box on a census form. A third person interviewed said she likes to let people guess what she is before she finally reveals it to them. The list goes on. I find myself wondering what I could do differently, what I could have done differently when asked that same question. I wish I had thought to charge people money when they ask, because I’d have a small fortune by now. I distinctly remember the day that I was able to check more than one box for my race on a government form — but it didn’t make me happy enough to cry. My reaction was more of pleasant surprise, that I would no longer have to feel a little weird about lying to pretend I was entirely white.
It isn’t hard when people ask “what are you” to tell them that I am black and white. For me, it’s more difficult when they ask what my ethnicity is, or where I’m from. For years of my life, I didn’t feel comfortable answering those questions with an answer as simple as “a quarter black”. Black isn’t a country, and I’ve always felt weird labeling myself as African-American. When I did finally start to get more comfortable saying black when asked, many people still weren’t even satisfied, prodding me to confess some big secret by asking “Okay, and what else?” It starts to feel like an awkward attempt to please them when I have to scramble for things like Irish or German just to save face. I often find myself saying things like this: “I’m just black. Plain old American black.” I was saying that to grown adults before I even knew what it really meant.
In my years of being asked the same questions, here are some things I’ve noticed: white people are by far the most oblivious in the weight of their words, and are the least likely to hide their shock at the mismatch between the stereotype in their head and my face in front of them. Black people are the most likely to claim that they knew I was mixed all along, even though they made some erroneous guesses at first. Latinx people often speak Spanish to me and are more surprised by the fact that I can’t speak it back to them than they are when they learn my actual ethnicity. But in a way these are all just my own kind of stereotypes.
The other day I was in a coffee shop in San Francisco, and I saw an elderly man wave to a young child on the street. It doesn’t matter what race the man was, but he and the child were from what appeared to be similar ethnic backgrounds. In my writing mind, it got me wondering: what would it look like if we lived in a world where greetings were reserved between people of the same race? Where would people like me fit in? After all, this question of where exactly do I fit in has kind of plagued my whole life.
Recently I had to identify my race to someone on the phone, one of those things like the checkboxes on the U.S. Census. I found myself saying that I usually check more than one race when I am given the option, but that if I had to choose one, I would choose African-American. It was an interesting realization as I said those words, kind of a recognition that I’ve crossed some sort of threshold into identifying myself by my minority status, rather than by hiding behind my ability to melt into the majority.
I think I’ve come a ways since I originally wrote that article for The Odyssey. But I still have a ways to go in truly understanding the place of mixed race people in this world. I think the world also has a ways to go in figuring that out. A lot of my experiences, when I describe them, feel deeply personal and individual. I grew up having to adopt my own understanding of my racial identity, with no one to guide me. Part of that is my own fault, for not seeking out the community of people like me that has always been out there. But a lot of it isn’t my fault, because society hasn’t really set up people like me for an easy journey into self-identity. I’m learning that sometimes it’s especially difficult to separate myself from the idea that I am entirely individual and like no one else, so no one can ever truly understand me. That no one has ever been asked the “what are you” questions as often as I have, or no one has ever struggled to fit into one of their races, since they don’t really look like either one. As much as I crave interactions with people who can understand my experience, sometimes I wonder if a little piece of me is terrified of finding those like me, for fear of losing the part of my identity that has been created from feeling so on my own.
But at the end of the day, I know I can get over my own ego. So at risk of losing the readers who’ve held on all the way to the end of this story, here’s a shameless plug: if you have a story that’s anything like mine, please reach out. You now know how I feel, and you know how to find me.