The Biracial Identity: Being Grey in a Black & White America

With Black History Month — the shortest month of the year — being over, I find myself reflecting even more than usual on my racial identity. I have a white mom and a black dad; I'm black and white, or white and black, or mixed, or whatever the heck I'm supposed to call it.

I wish I could call it grey and have people know what I mean, because being mixed paradoxically feels like being both and neither at the same time. It always feels like I'm not "black enough" or not "white enough" to be accepted by either. For a long time this was a weight on my existence, but I've recently come to the conclusion that being black and being white are not mutually exclusive.

And I love living in the middle.

Image courtesy of author

The biracial experience in America begins before conception. It starts with interracial couples that draw strange looks and "Are you sure?"s from the people around them, and then somebody gets pregnant and everyone pretends that no one ever said anything racist before. I've found this process to be very similar to the way standardized history books talk about American history like it's ancient history, and teach about slavery and reconstruction like it happened to someone else and isn't still the relevant cause of the institutionalized inequality that continues to plague this country.

Nevertheless, the mom has the child, and suddenly things are different. All of the external factors of racial tension seemingly dissipate, but in reality, they get absorbed by the child and become an internal conflict that nobody wants to talk about. The burden of racial identity in a country that is practically the dictionary definition of polarity falls on the child. Obviously, a person can get by easily identifying with just one if they only interact with one side of their family, but I've been blessed enough to have amazing family on both sides whom I got to see fairly often as I grew up.

That being said, it's not always easy to see that when you're five years old watching Disney Channel. When you're a kid, you kind of just absorb whatever messages the world throws at you and absentmindedly regurgitate them in one way or another. As a result, you end up saying and thinking and internalizing racist things. The reality that you said or thought those things doesn't leave your conscious, and at least in my case is something you'll always beat yourself up over.

But what I realized when I opened up to my half-white, half-Vietnamese best friend about this is that it's just the experience of a mixed person in America. When all you see is white people on TV, you're bound to ask yourself why your life and your family doesn't look like theirs.

It's not until you get older, after many years of agonizing over wanting your hair to be straight and wanting this intangible quality that the white girls at school all seem to have, you just get it one day. You realize that all those people who told you your curls were beautiful weren't lying and that this intangible white girl quality is the sense of security. This security is a combination of confidence from within and being well-regarded by the world around you.

Yet the truth is most young people are incredibly insecure and are just good at faking it, and you can't control what the world thinks of you. The only things you can control are within yourself. And I think what led me to finally believe that is time. My dad could've played India Arie's "I Am Not My Hair" a million more times than he already did, and I still wouldn't have accepted it sooner — though that might just be because I’m stubborn and very much my mother's daughter in the sense that I strongly identify with Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing."

It took me eighteen years to accept the thing it seemed like my parents had always told me, and once I accepted it, I pretty much became confident overnight. Yes, I still have to be aware that there are people who expect me to be loud and belligerent, and I need to be wary of the way I behave around people like that.

Simultaneously though, not for a second do I actually care about the opinion of anyone who is prejudiced. When the man the news keeps saying is president won't say that white supremacists are bad people, you have to be aware of these hateful opinions and be careful, but you cannot allow their hatred to taint the way you view yourself.

Now, as fun as it is to talk about childhood self-hatred, I have to acknowledge something. It's no secret the the identities of mixed race people are often erased or invalidated. Mixed race people are the fastest growing racial group, but the mixed race label seems rarer than legendary Pokémon.

For example, I have actually never heard a human being outside of my family acknowledge that Barack Obama is half white. He has a white momma, just like me! But as it turns out, people will almost always regard you as one or the other. Usually, they pick the one that either benefits them most or the one you most physically resemble. However, I've somehow gotten this far being so keen on identifying with both.

And to whom do I owe this honor? A combination of great parents and white privilege. That's right, white privilege — because while my beautiful sister is a perfect picture of racial ambiguity, at the end of the day she is brown. Meanwhile, I spent the first five or six years of my life with skin that resembled paper (not to mention kitten eyes and cheekbones that could have saved the world). Now I have a nose full of freckles, rarely go outside without sunscreen, and regularly look at all of my moles and ask myself which one of them is gonna try to kill me.

Though I will say that even with my hair straightened, I don't look completely white, but I am white enough to benefit from white privilege. Because I'm pale, I have the ability to hang out with a group of similarly light people and not have to worry about being watched carefully by store employees, avoided by the elderly, or implicitly be perceived as "dangerous." 

And that's the sad reality of America: because of the color of my skin, I don't have to worry about half the things my sister does.

But of course I still do, not only because they affect my family, but because I’m a decent person. And I shouldn't even have to say that this system of social and legal security being based on skin tone is wrong. However, we live in an America where a significant portion of people believe that a document written in 1787 by a group of misogynistic racists is forever righteous, so I find myself regularly having to point out that the world shouldn't be like this.

Being biracial in America, for me, is being able to see things from two entirely different perspectives. It's being able to fearlessly call out white people for all of the things they could be doing better while knowing that those white people won’t hear you as a white person. It's hanging out with a group of black people outside of your family and feeling like you need to bring up an episode of Martin or be well-versed in rap music beyond the mainstream Kanye, Drake, and Chance to justify that you belong.

It's the discomfort that comes from knowing you have descended from both slaves and slave owners, it's a never-ending identity crisis, and it's wishing that the rest of the world could just open up; but it's also so much more.

It's knowing that I understand things that the two sides of my family could never understand about each other, and being able to experience totally different things depending on which side I'm hanging out with. It's loving soul food, but loving mac n' cheese the most because I'm white and white people love cheese. It's being obsessed with the Arctic Monkeys, but knowing the best song in the world to dance to is R. Kelly's "Step in the Name of Love." 

It’s knowing that even if nobody else can see it, I can see that the world has the potential to be open, because it's open for me. Sure, there are a lot — and I mean a lot of hurdles that still need to be overcome, but gosh, sometimes I look around for hope in the world and don't even realize that it's inside of me.

I've got to say, living in the grey of a black and white America isn't easy. It's a tough burden living in the middle, but that's why God compensated us with the world's most beautiful hair.

I'm hoping I don't sound too self-righteous, but I'm also not particularly caring.

All images belong to the author.