My name is Emily, I just turned fourteen-years-old and I’m dealing with a bit of an identity crisis.
I’m biracial: My mother is a black woman and my father is an Irish American man. I have a younger sister who looks different than me. She kinda looks like what society tells us a biracial person should look like. Unlike me. I was born with blonde wavy hair with blue eyes and tan, olive skin. I was told by a boy in my class that I am considered passing – meaning that I can pass for white.
I’m always told that I’m not black enough or white enough. My mom and dad tell me to block the negative people out and stay positive about things. It’s just so draining and depressing; I get a question about my ethnicity almost every day. “Oh! I thought you were Brazilian,” or “Oh! I thought you were Puerto Rican,” or “You don’t even look black. You’re lying.”
I was wondering how I should cope with people asking me these questions and knocking me down about my identity.
Dear All Mixed Up,
I cannot overstate the degree to which I so, totally feel you. I too am biracial; my mom is white and my dad is black. And I too am ‘passing,’ meaning to the untrained eye I could pass as white. Or, apparently, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Israeli, Egyptian, and – most common of all – Nicole Richie.
For most of my adolescence being biracial felt confusing in just the ways you mention. A lot of undue attention was brought on my physical appearance and the underlying DNA structure that made me difficult to racially decode. But from the position of a now twenty-seven-year-old-passing-biracial-young-woman I can confidently tell you that it does in fact become simpler.
Or better yet – you just become more comfortable being you.
Biracial and multicultural people often have this sense of needing to ‘choose a side,’ – a feeling of conflicting identities battling within their genetic makeup. I remember journaling a lot about this when I was growing up; of feeling out of place at the all-white Christmas dinner table with my mom’s side of the family, but not quite feeling like a snug fit with my dad’s side either.
The best way I came up to describe how I felt was this: Imagine you have a swirl ice cream – half chocolate, half vanilla. And it melts in the sun and becomes just one big bowl of melted, swirl ice cream. If someone were to say ‘take a bite of the chocolate’ you couldn’t. If someone were to say ‘take a bite of the vanilla’ you couldn’t. They’re all mixed up. They’re a new ice cream.
Of course, the confusing part of the whole thing was feeling like I needed to choose a side in the first place. I never felt half black and half white. I never felt like half of anything. I felt wholly… Nomi. Just myself. I felt biracial. And being biracial didn’t feel so much like an equal mix of two distinct elements – it felt like something new and separate entirely.
The pressure in being biracial comes from an outside world that struggles to fit you in a box using stereotypical signifiers. If you talk a certain way, you get a check in this box. If you dress a certain way, you get a check in this box. And the tightness of your curl will have strongest weight out of any category.
These things felt immensely important to me when I was in the stage of life where I was figuring out who I was. But ultimately you begin to understand that you just aren’t meant to fit in a box.
This journey of introspection will serve you well in the end. You will find that you likely spend more time questioning who you are, why you do what you do and why you like what you like than those around you. And this level of self-reflection will ultimately make you a more self-aware, curious, self-confident person. Your identity is something you will continue to wade through and examine – not something you’ll simply swallow from others like you in your ‘clan.’
I should say that at the root of it I do identify as black. It is what is true for me; that my blood is black. And there is some historical context surrounding this reaching back to slave societies, where having even one sixteenth of African ancestry put you under the delineation of being racially black.
But feeling the need to please other people’s expectations of how you should perform your race is a fruitless, meaningless waste of your time. You don’t owe anyone any answers about your race, and why should they care?
But when and if asked you don’t have to overthink it: Your mom is black and your dad is white. That is your answer because that is your truth. It’s no more complicated than that. You don’t need to sort out what significance that has; you don’t need to assign special meaning to that fact outside of appreciating your heritage. You don’t need to drop clues to people to indicate to them how they should think about you or treat you.
Your only choice, ever, is to go on being you.
And read Cacausia by Danny Sanza. She’s talking to you in those pages.