Hi, beautiful people! I hope you are all having a wonderful week and are getting so excited in the days preceding Thanksgiving. I know I am! Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and I cannot wait to take a trip home to spend time with my family, share in the season of giving, and graciously embrace all that this fall season has brought me. Only a few short days away!
In this week’s blog, I thought I would write about a topic that has been much-requested on Instagram, Facebook, and in my past blog comments: what it has been like to grow up racially mixed and how it has impacted my personhood and the course of my life. I thought this topic suggestion was really interesting and I was instantly drawn to it, because after looking back on how my life has been shaped thus far, it was never something that I have so openly discussed (apart from the plentiful political science papers that I’ve written on the basis of race) . So naturally, I wanted to dive right into uncharted territory and talk about race and being mixed in the context of my own life, my family’s life, and how the distinct dynamics I have experienced have contributed to my growth. Alright, let’s talk race!!
Obviously, first thing’s first. My dad is African American, and my mom was 100% Caucasian, so my sisters and I are full-fledged mixtures of them both, and I identify as both black and white. Doing so has been important to me for as long as I can remember (I suppose as long as I have understood what race implies & entails), and I have grown up learning to embrace both parts of who I am. Even within my mixed family, the children that my parents produced are extremely diverse. My oldest sister, for one, is the fairest of the three of us and perhaps most resembles my mom with her mostly straight hair and blue eyes. My middle sister has the most bronzed skin of us and has tight, curly hair and brown eyes, and I am somewhere in the middle in terms of both pigmentation and hair texture. My eyes are also blue (which is crazy, I know. Those recessive genes really came in clutch for our family lol), and while I am often told that I look most like my oldest sister, I can also see similarities between my middle sister and me. That is to say, we are all so unique, anomalous and special in our own distinct ways, and the way we appear to one another and to the world is only a beautiful manifestation of the diverse, loving background from which we come. Looking back, I really do appreciate the way my parents raised my sisters and I— always being honest with us, teaching us the ways of the world, and never trying to hide the adversities or difficulties that could arise throughout the course of our lives. I remember from a very young age my parents describing what it means to be biracial in this world, how it manifests itself in both the public and private spheres, and the way it is perceived by others. They never shied away from being honest with us about human nature and the fact that there were and will always be people who look at us differently, don’t appreciate our coming from a mixed background, or hold us to the same standard or regard as those who identify as full white (or even full black). I distinctly remember my dad telling us many stories in my childhood in which he would give accounts of his own experiences dealing with race and forms of discrimination, including the intolerance he and my mom encountered resulting from their interracial relationship and marriage. Like so many other African Americans, my dad faced endless critique, inequities, and acts of bigotry all throughout his life (and still does), from the supermarket to the workplace. His “blackness” has been an element of his being that others have targeted and exploited in many ways, and he always told us that in his workplace, he had to work at least twice as hard just to be considered on similar footing to his white colleagues. Hearing this come from my dad at a very young age undoubtedly struck a cord with me, and I never forgot all that he told us regarding the impact that race and appearance play in the unfolding of social and political life.
Now that I am older and have widened my experience, array of knowledge and understanding for how race is conceptualized in our contemporary society, I definitely have come to better learn what my race and background mean both to me and to the world. Race is something that I’ve often found to be considered a “taboo” subject by so many people, and I think the stigmatization around it is, in itself, damaging and supererogatory. Race is something that 100% should be able to be discussed, for it is unquestionably something that has most worked to shape our culture, institutions, and even modes of thinking (for better or for worse). My being both black and white growing up has definitely come with its challenges, most of which I have never thought to talk about before. I remember the first introduction I had into the notion of race came with my first encounter in which I realized that I was a little different. My sisters were a little bit different. We didn’t have the super straight, blonde hair that so many other kids at our schools did, nor did we have two white parents that was the norm of the suburbs. Additionally, I had an entire half of my family with darker skin who resembled my dad, while the other half was full white and resembled my mom. Little by little, noticing these minute differences between the way my family looked as compared to the ones that surrounded us at school, out in public, on TV and in the media all led to my eventual realization that my sisters and I were not like everybody else. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s beautiful.
Admittedly, it is difficult for me to speak to the conflicts and obstacles that a lot of African American people face, because I don’t feel as if I can completely relate to the black experience, considering only half of my identity is fulfilled there. And yet, I also can’t fully claim the white experience, for I did not grow up just being white and playing to my whiteness. I don’t think I understood then exactly what I was feeling, but I recall very early in my childhood feeling this sense of aloofness and lack of complete belonging, especially when it came to social interactions that involved stratification of some sort, or even at family holidays. I remember struggling to understand what it was that was so different between the times I spent with my mom’s family and those I spent with my dad’s side, never grazing underneath the surface to find the source of my internal discomfort. For some reason, I always felt like I was being pulled in one direction or the other, depending on the people who surrounded me or the environment I was temporarily a part of. While I know my family or friends never did so intentionally, I did, at times, feel as if I did not belong. It didn’t matter how many things we had in common, the fact that I had the same abilities as others around me, or even that I was interacting with my own family. I still felt this inexplicable guilt and tension within myself when I was called upon to be in certain settings, for I almost felt as if I had to reject one half of myself while simultaneously fully assimilating/accepting the other half of my identity. Often times, I think people have this conception that biracial people have “the best of both worlds” in this way. But what they refuse to acknowledge is that along with the ability to somewhat blend cultures and embrace diverse modes of life derived from both races they incur, this “blend” can also lead to a kind of detachment, reclusion, and even oblivion as to what we are meant to be seen and understood as, as well as how we are supposed to be in this world.
This marginality that has characterized my entire life is something that I’ve only come to fully understand in my college years, but it is something I find essential to indicating what my experience being mixed has been like. Because my parents come from such vastly different backgrounds and their ancestries occur on very separate continuums, my experience growing up was nothing if not multidimensional. I definitely had the “biracial experience” in attempting to exhibit both sides of my identity, and that did not come without cost. Although I was raised in a diverse and mixed household, my experience growing up was not one that I would consider an evenly distributed cultural experience. I grew up in a household that culturally reflected whiteness, and I never saw that as a problem until I started to get a little bit older and hear comments like, “You’re so whitewashed,” “You’re not black enough for this,” and even questions asking, “Are you SURE you’re black? You look, sound, and act full white.” Now, the whole notion of “sounding” and “acting” black is a whole other conversation that I can create a whole separate post about at a later time. But hearing people express these kind of judgments and doubts about my own race and experience was not something that I ever took lightly. I began to wonder why people were so inclined to feel as if they knew more about my race than me, what it should look like manifested in the world, and how they were so quick to judge me based on my appearance and the way that I present myself. Getting comments about being “whitewashed” is still not uncommon for me (or even my family), and although I do, in part, agree with the fact that my environment and upbringing does not fit into what could be coined as African culture, the complete rejection of half of my identity that is implied in these kinds of statements still aggravates me. I like to think that although my household (my sisters and I, specifically) was primarily culturally white, we in no way attempted to forget or deny the presence of our African heritage and the fact that it composes a large percentage of who we are as people and as women. We have never been naïve in believing that life would be easy for us, for our mom and dad explained to us very early on that the world was not structured to benefit or protect women NOR people of color, and that being both would inevitably pose great and lasting challenges. Still, I am very, very proud to be both African American and Caucasian, and my race is something that I am inclined to think of as an asset to my character. My race does not define me, but it does hold great importance in shaping who I am and how I choose to interact with the world I live in. And most of all, looking, being, and feeling different (even on the smallest scale) is not a problem, and I am not a problem. My differences make me who I am, and who am I to say they aren’t wonderful differences?
I still find myself struggling with this concept today, because I think society has forced us to believe from such an early age that being different is not okay under any circumstances, and differences in race, appearance, character, etc. are equally susceptible to judgment and criticism. Though I definitely continue to feel waves of isolation and separation from people around me at times stemming from my inability to FULLY be a part of or accepted by one side or the other (whether it be black or white), I have come to learn that, as cliché as it is, being different is freaking amazing. It’s a gift, and I deserve to cherish it. So what if I don’t look like people who are full white? So what if I also don’t look black and people constantly question my racial assuredness? I know what and who I am, and that is what matters. Being mixed gives me a diverse and unique experience, and that is something to be celebrated and grateful for, not ashamed of. I love who I am, where I come from, and how my identity has shaped me, and I am grateful everyday for my parents and their creating this beautiful, diverse and exciting life for my sisters and I.
My body is not an apology, and the complex and deep-rooted dynamics that undergird my identity all coalesce in order to make me who I am. That is not something I will ever apologize for, nor is it something that requires an explanation. I don’t have to feel obligated to reply to people who shockingly comment about how “white” I look and those who claim I’m lying when I describe myself as being racially mixed. The way I look to others does not shape the way that I identify myself; that power lies within me and only me, and being black AND was is not something that I am (or have ever been) ashamed of. In fact, it is the source of some of the greatest pride I feel for my identity, because it connects my life and being to those of my parents, for whom I have boundless respect and admiration for. For me, embodying the races of both my mom and dad has always been something I have found joy in, and I will always feel immense honor and have dignity in discussing my race and its effects on me. I’m proud of my identity, and I know there will never come a time in which I feel differently.