Yeah, it’s still not working for anyone. Try again.
The first time I remember expressing my racial identity was my first year of high school. I grew up in a series of largely white, suburban neighborhoods and besides the occasional absurd comment, “I don’t think of you as black” my race was rarely brought up. When I entered high school in Maryland, a girl in gym class asked me “What are you?” I was at a loss for how to respond, but when she said she was mixed — half Black, half White — I immediately understood what she meant. I curtly said I was the same.
So, I went with it. When my inquisitive, teenage peers gaped at how my hair could transform from curly to straight overnight, or whispered to me in Spanish around our white classmates, assuming I understood, I could dismiss their questions easily. I was mixed, simple. I hadn’t considered whether or not that identity actually represented me until my first year in college.
Come college, I emerged from the conformity of suburban life, and was able to focus on the origins of my apathetic racial self-identity. There were more nuanced social groups— seeking alternative viewpoints on the world didn’t necessitate wandering discussions with the stoner crowd. Casual conversation explored what identities we claim and why using certain racial identifiers could be both politically and socially advantageous, particularly from a mixed race perspective.
I realized, this was the approach I had been taking anyway. On the Census and the SAT, I checked two racial identification boxes, to be included among the growing number of multiracial people in the United States. On college and job applications, I filled out “Black/African American” and “White”, instead of “Other,” so I would be grouped with “Black/African American” students pursuing higher education. My school identified me as a woman of color; I participated in a pre-orientation program which involved activities and discussions on race and ethnicity within the college’s framework. Within this mindset, I assumed identities based on my circumstances at the moment. I discovered that I only self-identified when I was asked to represent myself to an individual person, or a larger institution.
My father is Black, descendant of enslaved Africans (and, surprise, he’s Jewish; try to guess that by looking), my mother is White, hailing from Pennsylvania Dutch country, and both are inherently American in their own right.
I do not identify as multicultural or multiethnic, because both of my parents are the result of mid-twentieth-century American ideals. Mixed, or biracial doesn't quite fit the bill either, because I am not a gnarled amalgamation of two races, cultures, and histories that cannot be reconciled.
The way race is talked about in the United States is so static, as if you can be made of separate, racially signified blood. Visually represented ideas of race are such a small part of one’s biological makeup that I refuse to regard this concept as valid.
The only available way for me to identify my race to others without explanation is through language that is already in use. Historically I could have been identified as Negro, colored, African American, Black, mulatto, mixed, biracial, interracial, multiracial, a person of color or other less politically correct terms. But all of these terms are all entangled in historical meaning, none of them really describes me.
I believe it was an effect of the environment in which I came of age that I never felt as if my racial identifiers significantly affected my life trajectory.
In a sense, my visibly darker skin has been whitewashed by where I grew up; it’s easier for me to pass fluidly through our societal racial spectrum. If I do not assume a consistent racial identity, am I conveniently opting out of the race war that is so prevalent in our national conversation? Does it mean I’m unconfident with my race, or that I don’t want to be associated with stereotypes, positive or negative? When strangers ask me, “What are you?” I often find myself pressing them to clarify. To speak a word that squirms uncomfortably on the backs of their tongues as they are challenged to confront their curiosity. And, while we’re on the subject, it’s a terrible pick up line. Nothing shuts it down faster than a preemptive attempt to exoticize me.
I have come to terms with the fact that others will define me as they please, unless I assert who I am outright. For the past twenty-four years, slightly transforming my racial identity circumstantially has been straightforward enough, if not mildly aggravating. However, what I am is not only irrelevant, it’s an dull question. It’s relatively meaningless, and only reveals the shallow interests of others. Who, or why or how—those are much more complex, and much more interesting to discuss. Conceptions of race are socially constructed, and so racial discourse and language will morph as the conversation continues. In time, there will almost inevitably be a new name for my racial makeup, but that will not change my confidence in how I perceive myself.