Autobiography of a Human Melting Pot
Editor's note: this little essay is ancient. Just keep that in mind.
I’ve always heard that mixed kids are confused about their “racial identity.” The only thing that confuses me about racial identity is the term. I don’t have a racial identity, at least not that I know of. I have a color—it’s sort of a medium-light brown. I have an ethnicity, I guess. I have a lot of ethnicities: German, African, Irish, a dash of Native American—I’m basically a mutt. People try to guess my ethnicity, and I get some pretty interesting guesses: Mexican, South American, Cuban, Persian, and my personal favorite, Egyptian. I can pass for nearly anything and most would not question it—I look just that ambiguous. I feel ambiguous, too. I don’t know where I’d get a racial identity, and if I got one I can’t imagine what in the world I would do with it.
Not everyone is okay with that. In an interview with the Seattle Post, one biracial man says, “I have a big problem with people who identify themselves as biracial or multiracial. There’s a lot of ambiguity in that”(Rodriguez par. 2). As for me, I like it that way—I’ve always felt like choosing a race would be like choosing a personality out of a catalog. In any case, I won’t claim all mixed people have some unified sense of identity; we certainly don’t. We each decide for our own reasons.
The fact that we are even supposed to pick a racial identity is an example of one of the most defining things about being mixed: options. When I’m filling out paperwork and come to the section asking my ethnicity, I am very moody about it. Sometimes I say I’m black. Sometimes I’m mixed, or if I’m feeling more scientific, I’m biracial. If I’m feeling really dissident, I might write “Who cares?” When I’m apathetic, I just check “other” and fail to specify. I discovered that other mixed kids exhibit this race-box moodiness, too. As my friend Lauren said, There was this question on every application: “Which of these nationalities best describes you?” This caused a bit of controversy in my family. My dad always said, “Check the black box!” And then my mom would get all pouty and wounded-looking and say, “I think I had something to do with her birth, too.” I liked it best when the application let me give more than one response – I could simply check the black box and the white box. But sometimes, I could only pick one. To complicate matters, there was sometimes a response called “Multicultural.”
Personally, I thought that “Multicultural” was the closest thing to how I would describe myself, but at the same time it was also important to me that I was black…. (Humphrey par. 6)
The general consensus in America seems to resolve this confusion by declaring that one drop of black blood makes a person black, and that’s that. This is the way it has always been. There are several famous mixed people in American history, like W. E. B. DuBois and Fredrick Douglas. Mixed celebrities are becoming ever more prominent; Alicia Keys, Halle Berry, Tiger Woods, and Barack Obama are all biracial. Yet, most just call them black. Some might point out their biracial background as a quirky side note, as if pointing out a person’s middle name. No one would call any of them white.
Even if one decides to embrace his or her status as a mixed person, even if it’s just as a modifier to “black person,” there’s quite a selection of labels. I’ve always thought the term “mixed” was a little odd, because most everyone is mixed in some way or another. Biracial is very technical-sounding without being very specific. “Mulatto” is supposed to be highly offensive, yet I’ve never personally heard it used offensively (I don’t even know how I’m supposed to react to it when I hear it). People sometimes call us “Oreos,” but that has multiple meanings. My personal favorite is Halfrican, because it sounds catchy and clever. I have found that biracial people all disagree on what the best term is, and arbitrarily like and dislike certain ones for no real reason, except perhaps their personal experiences with the term. There’s a lot of controversy over what mixed people are supposed to be called, and that’s mostly because we haven’t really decided what to call ourselves.
And that's the problem with options: second-guessing yourself. As a teen I found myself at punk concerts wearing skater pants (you know, the ones with all the straps hanging everywhere) as the only person in the room who wasn’t white. I felt like someone should be asking me, “What are you doing here, anyway?” They never did, and they probably didn’t even think it. I was asking myself. Biracial people have quite a propensity to feel like wannabees.
Lauren, the friend I mentioned earlier, tells me she had similar feelings in high school: “I used to fear that I wasn’t black enough. Whether we like it or not, black Americans and white Americans generally are part of two very separate cultures. I have always fit in with the white culture. I used to look at black kids and wonder if I was black enough because I didn’t act like them.”(Humphrey par. 3).
We mixed people sometimes fear that we’ve accidentally chosen one culture and rejected the other. One day I counted up my friends and realized I had more white ones than black ones. I had to level with myself. As far as my personal culture was concerned, I wasn’t very black. Most of the musical artists I liked were white. Most of my closest friends were white, and every girl I’d been interested in had been white too. I hated rap and was never any good at basketball. Even though I grew up around urban slang, I soon felt a bit silly when I spoke it, like it was all for show. All of that used to bother me. I wondered why I apparently chose white culture, and occasionally felt a little guilty about it.
There is of course nothing whatever to feel guilty about. The race dichotomy is a false one. Still, it has a remarkable ability to assert itself in tangible ways. I remember one time I was sent two Christian magazines by an aunt or something—someone who didn’t really know me. They were identical in size, weight, and publisher, except one had black people and basketballs on the front, and the other had white kids and skateboards. If I were given one or the other, I might have at least skimmed it, but when I looked at them side-by-side, one in each hand, I only felt bored and insulted. I owned a basketball and a skateboard, and was no good with either of them.
Mixed people are always being offered ultimatums like this, and it's at such moments that I realize how freeing it is not to have a clear label. It awards a person a sober objectivity about things. People from multiracial families have amnesty regarding racial taboos. For example, everyone knows mixed people aren't racist. White people are practically expected to be, and there are enough paranoid black people who talk about “white devils” that people know to be on the lookout for that, too. But mixed folks are in the clear. We get to point out anyone’s stupidity or disagreeableness (because they are genuinely stupid or disagreeable) without being mistaken for a dirty racist. While everyone else is walking on eggshells, we mixed people can stroll right in and call it like it is. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
I have never wanted to be white. I feel like white people must spend half their time trying to convince themselves and others that they aren’t racist. All their lives they’ve been told that they are the oppressors, they’re the ones who screwed up society for everyone else, and they’re the ones that need to make amends. What a mind job. Most of the white people I know never oppressed anybody. The white male: America’s scapegoat for everything. I don’t envy him.
I've never really wanted to be black either, just because it's too definite. Early on I noticed that the black people I knew were always calling themselves black, and the white people I knew usually just called themselves people. I was never offended by that, but I’ve always preferred to live without the extra modifier. Being black just has too many ominous phrases attached to it. The Black Struggle. The Black Experience. The Black Crisis. It's like I'm expected to be tortured inside and filled with political angst. I'm not. I’d rather not be assigned a political agenda from birth. If I want one, I’ll pick it myself, thank you, like white people do.
If you’re not a mutt, it seems like the issue of race has to have so much weight to it, in one way or another. We mixed people are allowed to take it lightly. To people from interracial families, the whole idea of race becomes sort of an inside joke. Personally, I love how awkward other people are about racial issues. I really do. I remember a phone call my dad got one time, from some other Mulwee who said he was looking for family. Naturally, my father was intrigued, as Mulwees are quite rare—but the man on the other end had the unmistakable voice of a redneck. My dad set out to resolve this dilemma. “Excuse me, sorry for the question, but, are you white?” My dad said, very politely.
The man chuckled. “Well, I ain’t no nigger!”
My dad didn’t even flinch at the word. “Well, I am. I’m a black man.”
The awkward silence that followed was priceless.
There was a similar occasion in which some white lady called our house looking for her fellow Mulwees. When they got on the subject of her being white and my dad being black, she said,
“That’s funny, how do you suppose that happened?”
“Well,” my father explained quite casually, “your ancestors probably owned mine.”
It was silent, and I imagine the poor lady on the other end just about died. My whole family gets a huge kick out of moments like this.
As of the 2000 census, only about 1% of Americans identify themselves multiracial (Rodriguez par. 7). Because we are so rare, we mixed people also have a secret club. We can spot each other from the distance of half a football field. We know right away. We love to meet each other because there’s a whole load of things only they will understand, the things I am trying to explain to you now. Whenever I meet other mixed people, they always seem like family. As far as I’m concerned, all biracial people are my cousins. I once made a friend that way—from being spotted, I mean.
There was a girl who always sat at the opposite end of my lunch table in high school. One day she just slid down and said, “Excuse me, can I ask you a personal question?” I love it when people start conversations like that. I had never talked to her before.
“Sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“Is one of your parents white?”
“Yeah. My mom.”
She lit right up. “Awesome! Partners in crime!” She gave me a high five. Her mom was white too. We’ve been good friends ever since.
All things considered, I’m glad to be a mutt. It’s shown me just how much I don’t care about race, and as far as I can tell mixed people are the only ones allowed to not care. No white guilt, not black agenda. In its best moments, it’s like having a cultural blank slate. The best thing about being mixed is that first moment when I meet someone who can’t decide what my ethnicity is, and therefore don’t know what to assume or what to anticipate. Good. Give me a minute, and I’ll show my p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l-i-t-y. Anticipate that.
Rodriguez, Cindy. “U.S. Census Now Recognizes Multiracial Entries.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 16 Dec. 2000. 34 pars. 31 Mar. 2008 . Humphrey, Lauren. e-mail interview. 23 Mar. 2008.