Category Archives: Identity

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?


“American Gothic” or how coloring in art class makes you realize you are different

I went to the same tiny private school from kindergarten to eighth grade where I was the only one in my grade with a non-white parent. I was also the only one with curly hair, and in my mind, those two things held equal weight.

We used to do a project in art class every year in anticipation of parents’ night at our school. We would all make our own version of the same piece of art, and the teacher would leave it at our desks for our parents to admire our fledgling artistic talents.

Only one of these assignments is lodged in my memory: in first grade, we studied the painting “American Gothic.” For parents night, we each drew our own version of the iconic work featuring our parents instead of the farmer and his wife. Despite the fact that at the time I drew always people with arms that stuck out at 90 degree angles from their bodies and block-shaped torsos, my parents were the only ones who could identify their child’s drawing on parents’ night. As all the other families milled around the room trying to guess which picture of a skinny blonde woman next to a balding white man was drawn by their child, my parents were cracking up. There was, after all, only one drawing in the room of a person whose skin color had been drawn with a brown marker.

They came home and laughed about it, but the fact that I still remember that night means it must have been more than funny.

“Yes, he’s my real brother,” and other commonly repeated phrases to explain myself

When I was about eight, my parents sent me to a camp that my older siblings had both gone to and loved. I did not want to go, but I did not have a choice. I was miserable at this camp and just wanted to go home. The only somewhat saving grace of this experience was that my older brother was by then a counselor at the same camp, so I would occasionally run into him during the day. We were never especially close, but he knew I didn’t like it there, and he’s a nice guy, so he would always act excited to see me.

One day, I was walking around with my group, transitioning between art and swimming, when I saw my brother. I darted away from my group to go hug him. He asked how my day was going and sent me on my way. When I rejoined my group, another camper turned to me and said, “Why were you hugging that guy?” I said, “Oh, that’s my brother.” “No he isn’t.” “What? Yes he is.” “He is not your brother.” “Yes he is!” “No he isn’t!”

*          *          *

Adults sometimes pick arguments with an agenda: they are angry, they want to make the other person cry. Little kids are not that nuanced. They argue because they are sure that they are right. How could she be so sure she was right that he was not my brother? Who thinks they are going to win that argument?

Ah, but wait. The crucial missing piece of information:

I come from a mixed race family. If you don’t know our parents, you will assume I am just white and that my brother is black. Neither of us looks particularly “racially ambiguous,” a term my (black) father is very fond of.

Here are the five most annoying ways you can respond to someone telling you that their ethnicity is not what you expected:

1. “REALLY?!”

2. “You ARE?!”

3. “I never would have guessed!”

4. “But you don’t look __[insert the ethnicity you that just said you were here]__ at all!”

5. “Are you adopted?”

In my life, I have met zero white people who have not been surprised to hear that I am actually biracial (see? I wrote “actually” – the permanent surprise has become part of my syntax). Probably 95% of them have reacted in one of the five ways listed above. I have gotten so used to this surprise that I anticipate their reactions by prefacing my statement with “I know I don’t look like it but…”

On the other hand, people of color not always as surprised. One time I met a black woman at the conference and when I told her, “I’m actually half-black, weirdly enough,” she said, “Why is that weird?”

It has to do with the whole slave-ancestry thing: even in a family where both parents are brown, the children can have such a wide range of skin tones that everyone knows a light-skinned person of color who looks almost white.