I identify as mixed-race. My father is white, and my mother was black and Native American. I have medium-light-toned skin, I have curly hair when it’s not buzzed, and I do not really look like either of my parents. When I was growing up, it was always hard to explain my background to people. Plenty of people, kids and adults alike, would ask me, “What are you?” as though I were some sort of unidentifiable artifact found in the caves of racial mélange.
When I would explain my parents’ racial identities (which usually had me saying my mother was black, as she typically identified as such), I would be met with a variety of reactions. Some folks would reply with, “Wow! That’s so interesting! Where did they meet?” I always took that as the inquirer being surprised that a white man and a woman of color could meet and start a family together. Of course, there was always the “Oh, so your mom is into white guys?” response or, even more like clockwork, “Is your dad into black women?” Also common was “You are a symbol of the melting pot of America,” a burden I never want nor have ever asked for. It seems to be given simply because I am mixed-race.
I honestly never knew and still do not know how to respond to these kind of remarks — other than to become generally annoyed.
It was tough growing up and not really knowing where I fit in. To some people, I was not “black” enough to be into rap and hip hop, to like break dancing, to wear baggy clothes, and so on. To others, I was not “white” enough to like rock and pop punk or “white” things. (Really, what is “white culture” anyway?). But there were much larger implications. I was not, and have never, been “white” enough to just be “white.” Even though some of my peers and elders saw me as “whiter” than others, I still faced a great amount of flack because of my darker skin, because of my tight and frizzy curls, and because I was half black and Native American.
I had a hard time coming to terms with my racial identity as a kid and a teenager. I knew what I was, I knew what my parents were, but I did not know how I could be who I was without constantly having to explain myself. I would tell people, from time to time, that I was just white, or that I was just black, but no one quite believed me. Whenever I would bring up my Native American lineage, it would get even more complicated, so I shamefully started avoiding it altogether. I had no connection to any Native communities. I just wanted to be something easily defined. I just wanted to be “normal” like most of my friends.
My experience with friends lended itself even more to that dreaded concept of the “melting pot” of American culture: I had friends who were white, black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and even some that were mixed-race. I became so distraught about my own identity that I wanted to find a way out of having to choose between being black or white. As gross as it is for me to say it now, I started wishing I could identify as another race entirely. I became so ashamed of my own background that I started telling my friends I wanted to be Vietnamese, or Filipino, or Mexican — all ethnic identities I have been confused with in my life.
It seemed easier to me growing up to just leave my actual history and background aside and try to “become” something else. I got into the things my Vietnamese friends were into, like Dance Dance Revolution and anime; I wanted to transfer middle schools in 8th grade to learn Tagalog and fit in with my Filipino friends; I started attending more parties and functions with my Mexican friends in high school to fit in there as well. I tried so hard to be something I was not that I lost track of who I actually was and where my ancestry had led me.
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It was quite common for me to want to say, in my frustration about being “different” or “weird” in my mixed-raceness, that race should not matter at all. If there is one thing that a lot of people my age can say, it’s that they either believe or were taught to believe in colorblindness. It is something my parents tried to instill in me and my sisters, at least to an extent. It is something we learned in school whenever race was brought up: “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great leader in the black community, but race is completely imaginary, and we should not focus on it at all!” I wanted so much for colorblindness to be true — to just forget about race and racial identity entirely, and to just be a person like everyone else.
But it does not work like that — at least not in the United States. Race dictates so many bits and pieces of our lives, often without us even knowing it. I learned, as I got older, about what it means to take pride in your race, especially as a person of color. I needed to acknowledge the fact that I have white ancestors and a white father while also being proud of my black and Native American ancestors and family.
The biggest aspect of my racial identity that I lost track of was my Native American lineage. It was not until my mother was laying in her hospice bed and a month away from death that I, at the age of 18, actually tried talking to her about our Native roots. She listed off five of the known tribes and nations that she claimed ran through my lineage, including Creek, Crow, and Blackfoot. I began taking more of an interest in my Native lineage, but it honestly felt so foreign and borderline armchair-anthropologic of me that, while I identify with that aspect of my ethnic background, I do not mention my Native background to people I feel would want to “quiz” me to “prove” that it is true.
I have learned to understand the other parts of my racial identity as not being mutually exclusive. I can be white, and I can be black, and I can still exist as a human being. The fact that I am mixed-race does not mean that my identity has to be lost. I will be proud of my darker skin and my tight curls and my black identity, and I will be proud of my French-Canadian history. I will not let any imaginary lines that others push onto me get in the way of my love and interest for things that are considered “white” or “black.” I will keep interchangeably playing pop punk and indie hip hop in my car as I please.
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Recently, though, I have been preoccupied with the question of how my fiancée and I are going to explain these things to our future children. Not only do we have to explain my mixed-race identity as white, black, and Native American, but we also have to explain her mixed-race identity as white and Mexican. Our mixed-race identities affected both of us so much growing up, but we do not know how it will be when we have kids. What do we tell them? Do we say, “You are technically half white, half a mixture or black, Native American, and Mexican?” Or do we try to let them figure out how to identify on their own? That will be one of the biggest questions I have as we start our family someday.
But one thing I know for sure is that I never want my children to feel the same sort of confusion and frustration that I felt growing up. I never want them to try to escape their identities because other people want them to fit inside a clean-cut box of what it means to be any race or ethnicity.
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[Headline image: The photograph features an adult explaining something to a child while they share a meal together. Both have short black hair, dark eyebrows, and dark eyes. The child is wearing a white shirt. The adult has black stubble visible and is wearing a beige shirt. Visible on the table are a white plate with oranges, a white plate with vegetables, and a glass of orange juice.]