On being “racially ambiguous” (or not)

“I tell you, when you grow up, you should be on the news. Everyone is trying to have racially ambiguous news casters these days, like Soledad O’Brien and Alycia Lane. You could be the next one!”

This is one of my (black) father’s frequently repeated wishes for me. When I tell him that I don’t look racially ambiguous at all, he says that anyone who knows anything can tell. Which means that no one I have ever met knows anything, I guess. Although one time I met a black woman at a conference, and we immediately clicked and started talking to each other about our lives. I said something like, “Well, so actually I’m biracial, weirdly enough,” and she said, “That’s not weird. Why do you say that’s weird?” I’m so used to people being astounded by my racial background that I’ve started preempting their reactions by expressing shock for them.

I have often wished that I looked more “racially ambiguous” because it is annoying as hell to explain myself all the time. I also recognize that because I pass as white, I am able to avoid the vast majority of prejudices from which people-who-are-noticeably-of-color suffer.

One time I was hanging out with my (black) college boyfriend and his best friend. She is a very progressive (white) woman who, shortly after meeting me for the first time, asked me if I considered myself a feminist. Thrown off guard, I said, “I guess so, but not in an angry way.” (Now I would just say yes, and often in an angry way. But that’s another story). I said something about considering myself to be a person of color and she said, “But how can you consider yourself a person of color? That’s like the one-drop rule!” I was furious with her, even though I couldn’t really explain why. When I relayed this comment to my father, he said, “Yeah, exactly. If you were born 150 years ago, you would be picking cotton in the fields. That makes you a person of color!”

Does it, though? To what extent is our racial identity our own choice and to what extent is it bestowed upon us based on phenotype?


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