“What are you?”
I cannot recount the number of times both friends and strangers have posed this question to me. Such an encounter may seem open-ended or nonsensical, but for me, it’s all too familiar. Over the years, it has come to my attention that my complexion leaves others uncertain. As a child, I didn’t know how to respond. Yes, I’m a human being, not an object for you to label. But now, I don’t even hesitate. I know the answer people are looking for: “Mixed. Black and white.” It’s second nature. However, the conversation never ends there. Sometimes the examiner proudly claims, “I knew you were mixed with something…” Other times he or she will stare more closely and make a quiet comment about my hair texture or skin color. They don’t know how discomforting I find their naïve remarks. I feel like an abnormal species under a microscope.
When I faced the college Common App, I confronted this identity crisis all over again. The application, accepted by most American colleges, requires applicants to report on nearly every aspect of their identities: name, age, race, religion—a deluge of questions and labels. A list follows each title where the applicant ideally checks one box suitable to his or her particular race or religion. But for a growing population in America, it’s not that simple.
It can feel like a trick question. What would you do if you didn’t identify with any of the five racial categories listed – not because you are of some alien or unknown descent, but because your genetic makeup is not confined by those boundaries? Instead of selecting a single label, such as A) Caucasian or B) African American or C) Asian American, you search for something like an Answer G) “Race A and B are correct,” or “Race B and C.” But most applications feature no multiracial option. So you pick a label that neglects half of your diverse cultural heritage. Put simply, you are boxed in by the corresponding color of your skin.
In lucky cases, the bottom of the list offers a category entitled “Other.” Some might say this is where multiracialism fits into such forms, but let’s consider the implications of this word. Dictionary.com defines other as “different in nature or kind” (“Other”). If selected, “Other” characterizes the candidate as inherently different from the preceding rigid categories. 17-year-old multiracial Nayo Jones, recently interviewed for CNN’s fifth installment of “Black in America,” claims that the term “Other” can make “you feel like you aren’t a person” (O’Brien).
Racial communities, comprised of people with similar racial backgrounds and experiences, can give people a sense of security and confidence. Thus, when Nayo associates with the Other category, she feels removed from the comfort of mutual-experience. Forms like the Common App can make mixed-race Americans feel as though they have three options: black, white, or cast as an unknown “Other.” Certainly, I recognize that institutions use racial statistics to fill diversity quotas and allocate financial aid, ensuring more equitable access to higher education. Thus, a valid reason exists for racial categorization and the racial hierarchy. My argument, regarding the treatment of multiracial Americans, does not dispute this.
According to Pew Research Center’s recent study “Multiracial in America,” 6.9 % of American adults, or 17 million people, identify as multiracial. With this number far outpacing population growth, it seems logical that institutions would become more aware of, and accepting towards, the multiracial population (“Multiracial in America”). However, as a biracial teenager, I have never felt completely embraced by some American institutions. My race seems a puzzle for others to piece together. I am not as disturbed by the questions as I am by some people’s mystified reactions to my answers. Why do people feel compelled to define me based strictly on my appearance?
Historically, many American institutions have attempted to categorize people in problematic ways. Take for example the One Drop Rule. Codified into law in the twentieth century, the One Drop Rule defined any person of traceable black ancestry within five generations as black (O’Brien). “One drop” of blood was all it took. Until the late-twentieth century, this rule racialized America, a place where “color has historically been the dividing line for opportunity” (O’Brien). People labeled as Black were relegated to second-class citizenship.
Even though this law is no longer in effect, some American institutions still carry out this process of racialization. Some institutions continue to rely on racial prejudices because they are “terrified of what [they] can’t see” (Campoamor). When some people cannot define my race or ethnicity by my appearance, they may start to wonder: “What genetics gave her caramel-colored skin? She must be exotic.” Besides, doesn’t categorizing people reinforce existing racial hierarchies? Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, white Americans still enjoy the greatest socioeconomic privilege. Racial categorization attempts to promote diversity awareness in institutions; however, such awareness has yet to address pay and educational disparities. Such racial inequities are woven into American society. Seemingly little things, such as the demand to check one specific racial box, have become second nature. While equal opportunity may be their goal, such institutional forms can also reinforce hierarchical definitions of race.
Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, sexual relationships between white owners and black slaves were hidden and all-too-often often nonconsensual. However, the offspring, “mulattos,” nevertheless had to live visibly in the shadows of their parents’ shame (Gonzalez-Barrera). A mulatto bridged opposite ends of the racial hierarchy—white and black. Intermixed bloodlines created uncertainty; some mulatto children could potentially pass as white. By shaming and ignoring mulattos, racist citizens helped to prohibit mixed-race offspring from fully participating in American society.
Although interracial relationships are no longer widely considered socially disgraceful, America only recently acknowledged its multiracial population. The US Census Bureau first allowed its citizens to select two or more races in 2000, while multiracial populations have existed here since before the Civil War (“Multiracial in America”). Even so, many people today struggle with the implications of carrying two or more races through a world that still sees in black and white.
According to Pew’s research, one in four multiracial people feel that others make assumptions about their race, and over 50% report experiences of being subjected to racial slurs or degrading jokes (“Multiracial in America”). Thus, the multiracial experience can place a heavy burden on a person’s psyche. Danielle Campoamor, a half-Puerto Rican and half-Caucasian Huffington Post columnist, states that for a person of multiracial background “it can be challenging to feel like you belong to a collective we” (Campoamor). This feeling of displacement is a widespread issue among the multiracial community. When two or more strictly defined races become intertwined, society highlights the conflicting characteristics rather than the beautiful blend. Campoamor explains:
I wasn’t completely out, but I wasn’t completely in either. I had one Caucasian foot in the door of a middle class family—living in a predominantly white neighborhood—while one Hispanic foot was left out in the cold, constantly explaining why my last name was so long and complicated and difficult to spell…I was an imposter.
Campoamor’s identity presents a violent clash rather than a smooth blend. This experience, common to multiethnic Americans, creates a sense of guilt when people feel as though they have to ignore one side of themselves. In fact, 29% of multiracial Americans indicate that they previously thought of themselves as a single race (“Multiracial in America”). America asks mixed-race individuals to choose one dominant identity, a concept that is reinforced by documents like the college Common App. They must choose only one box (White, Black, Native American, Asian, or Pacific Islander), whether or not they satisfy more than one of these categories.
It is well known that racial constructs play integral roles in minority persons’ identities. Moreover, countless reports link minority backgrounds with having limited access to things like quality education and economic prosperity. My contention does not lie in the use of race as an identity marker but rather in society’s obsession with imposing singular labels upon an individual. In other words, I cannot choose my identity because someone else has determined it for me. Such labels do not represent my identity experience, but merely what I appear to be.
As the child of a white mother and a black father, I have thought about my racial identity extensively in the past few years. I have struggled with its complexity, a biological bridge between opposite colors as well as black and white stereotypes. In America, some simply assume that a child of a black and white interracial is black due to skin pigmentation. From a young age, I checked the African American box because that was how people saw me. But as I got older, I began to feel out of place, recognizing that I did not grow up with the typical black experience. On the contrary, I grew up visiting my white grandparents much more often than my black ones (simply due to proximity) and playing with friends, the majority of which happened to be white.
Once I realized the relationship between racial and cultural experiences, I noticed my obvious disconnection from African American culture. In the past, my naïve self simply equated race with skin color. My own upbringing makes it difficult for me to fit in with black children, yet some people simultaneously expect me to represent black culture due to my complexion. I feel ignorant in being more connected to one side than the other. Nevertheless, as Perry Divirgilio, Artistic director of Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, states, “America lets you know real quick that you aren’t white” (O’Brien). To everyone around me, I’m obviously not white. Yet, I don’t necessarily feel black either. So where do I fit as a white and black hybrid inside a country that presupposes inherent differences between these two colors?
A famous example of the black and white identity dilemma rests in the background story of America’s forty-fourth President. With a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Barack Obama is technically biracial, yet some refer to him as America’s first black president. One columnist even sums up his race as “white plus black equals black socially” (Morganroth). In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, Obama describes “trying to raise [him]self to be a black man in America, [but] beyond the given of [his] appearance, no one…seemed to know exactly what that meant” (Obama 76). Race and blackness are still disputed concepts. Far too many people simply expect that a person of any color identify with a singular racial category, regardless of personal experience. In 2016, America is still obsessed with racial categorization.
I will never forget when I was nine years old, walking down the ancient streets of Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa, and holding my parents’ hands on each side. Street vendors would smile and chant “Happy family! Happy family!” in thick accents, hoping to gain our attention for business. In this foreign environment, my family’s wide array of skin colors did not spark hesitation or confusion. I felt accepted. Yet here in the U.S., my family is a mismatched puzzle—something to be nagged and picked, categorized and sidelined. It’s almost as though the fate of multiracial Americans is a losing battle. I will never completely fit in; and I will always feel left out.
In January 2013, National Geographic released its 125th issue featuring an article entitled “The Changing Face of America.” A photo of twenty-five mixed race Americans accompanied the piece, captioned by each person’s self-identification compared to the US Census boxes checked. National Geographic predicted that by 2050, this photo would be the face of America; the average American will be multiracial (Funderberg). Perhaps categories such as Blackanese, Filatino, and Korgintian will become the norm. It is my hope that by 2050, multiracial individuals will no longer feel as though they have no place in society. They will not feel confined by a single racial identity. Rather, they will live proudly in full acceptance of their intertwining backgrounds. It is my greatest wish that by this day, America will finally retire the notion of race as the basis for societal order.
Campoamor, Danielle. “What It’s Like to Be Multi-Racial in a Black and White World.” Latino Voices. The Huffington Post. 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Craven, Julia. “These Emails Show Just How ‘Post-Racial’ America Really Is.” Politics. The Huffington Post. 6 June 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Funderberg, Lise. “The Changing Face of America.” National Geographic 125. Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana. “‘Mestizo’ and ‘Mulatto’: Mixed Race Identities Among U.S. Hispanics.” Pew Research Center. 10 July 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Morganroth, Ed Jr. “Why Is Obama Black, Not White?” The Race Card Project. 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
“Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse, and Growing in Numbers.” Pew Research Center. 11 June 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Obama, Barack. Dreams From My Father. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2004. Print.
O’Brien, Soledad. “Who’s Black In America?” Black In America. 5th edition. CNN, Dec. 2012. Television.
“Other.” Dictionary.com. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.