Tag Archives: Biracial

Biracial Identity: I Chose “Neither” before I chose “Both.”

My biracial identity? Black/white. As followers of this blog know, I am the product of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, who were happily married for forty-six years before my father’s death. Williamsons 1970

When I was in my thirties, my twenties, in college and younger, I faced a lot of criticism—was even attacked verbally—for identifying as biracial instead of black. This came from black people who felt I was rejecting blackness, but also from biracial people who felt I didn’t look “mixed” enough to qualify.

Evolving Biracial Identity on Campus

I remember walking across my college campus in 1987 with a white friend, chatting and minding my own business. Two black guys passed us, appearing to be deep in their own discussion. But once they were about a yard ahead of us, one threw me a glare over his shoulder, amplifying his voice:

“… except for those of us who forget what their color is.”

I had no idea what declaration had come before, only that this snatch of the conversation was directed at me. I had a white friend, meaning I had forgotten that I was brown? But my mother is white, I thought. How is white not my color too? Of course, that thought filled me with guilt. I knew the problem with claiming “whiteness” along with “blackness,” no matter how light or dark your complexion. You can’t have a biracial identify. There is no way to identify with your white side and your black side, the logic went. You have to choose, and you’d better choose black, or you’re abandoning your people. But my other people—the white, Jewish people—had also faced struggles and bigotry. The white ancestors on my mother’s side had never owned my father’s black ancestors. (Though the white ones on my father’s side–with whom I do not identify—clearly had.)

From other mixed-race people I heard: “I confuse people. No one can guess what I am.” For some, this was a badge of identity unto itself. To these multiracials, I lacked ambiguity, which meant I was not really mixed. For some of my black-and-white friends, race was a costume they could change at will. For others, blackness, not apparent to the naked eye, was an identity they had to fight to prove–just as I would have to fight to claim my mother’s heritage along with my father’s.

And here’s another twist to my identity: Since I was a ballet dancer and completely immersed in that world for so many years—from the age of seven until my late twenties—Ballet was my strongest identity. Ballet was who I was. I didn’t have time to focus on racial identity until later.

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Me in the center.

I entered college as an exile of the ballet world. I was at the university by choice, but ambivalent, missing ballet, searching everywhere for an ally who understood what I had left behind. Anyone who was unusually thin and walked with excellent posture and duck feet might be a compatriot. And yet, here was all this pressure to identify myself by race.

As I scoured my university town in vain for a halfway decent pointe class, I kept facing the question: “What are you?” more than I ever had.

The question came from blacks more than whites. White people just assumed I was black (they didn’t need my membership anyway). Blacks who asked really wanted to know: are you with us or them? Now I understand why they needed an answer. Blacks were outnumbered, talked over, dismissed, deemed undeserving of the Ivy League education we were getting. Numbers were therefore precious to the group. I was being welcomed, not challenged. Not that I understood this yet.

For me, it was simply too painful and too complicated to choose one race or the other. I loved both my parents. They loved me. They loved one another too, and had created a joint culture in our home. And now I was expected to reject this inclusiveness? Instead, I plunged myself deeper into the world of dancers and theater people, who identified first and foremost as performers.

Racially, I chose neither before I chose both. Neither allowed me to be Lisa-the-ballet-dancer. Which I still am. Which I will always be.

Today I embrace all of who I am, racially, ethnically. Awareness of being black comes first I guess, because that is how I appear, but I identify just as much with my mother’s Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. I am biracial, black/white, blanche-et-noir, both-and. To embrace my white, Jewish “side” is not a rejection of my proud black “side.” I am married to a white, Jewish man, whose heritage is similar to my mother’s. We have two children who know both sides of their history and will take both into consideration as their identities form.

Thankfully, the older I get, the less likely people are to tell me I am not identifying the way they believe I should. Or, maybe it’s simply that I take the criticisms less seriously. I know who I am. My identity is what it is: inclusive, unshakeable, me.

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Advice for the Multiracial Community #3

Today on my third Multiracial Media column:

  • A biracial man grapples with anger when his widowed, white father begins dating a white woman.
  • A young white woman worries about saying the wrong thing to her new black boyfriend.
  • Two American moms are alarmed and upset when their Guatemalan tween daughter rejects her culture of origin.

Click here for the whole “Ask Lisa” column.

Submit your own question on the Multiracial Media site!

Published on Mamalode!

I am honored to say I’ve been published on Mamalode, the top-rated online magazine dedicated to the stories of mothers. My article is a slightly updated version of a post that appeared several years ago on this blog.

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

When I arrived at Parents’ Night and met Zoe’s middle school teachers for the first time, they all said, “Well, we can guess whose mother you are!”

The truth is, our faces don’t look all that much alike; her features are more Eastern European whereas mine are more African. But our skin color and hair textures are closely matched, and that is what strangers pick up on most often. Besides, our posture and builds are similar, as are our facial expressions and the shape of our foreheads and chins. In a bad, blurry profile shot, if you took a hurried look, you might mistake one of us for the other. In any case, people easily and readily place Zoe and me together. Unlike most mothers with daughters who resemble them, I don’t take this for granted.

Read More …

 

 

Thinking Outside the “Other” Box: An Inclusive Mixed Identity

I am happy to announce that I have joined the blogging team for the Mixed Remixed Festival. I thank Heidi W. Durrow, best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Joy Stoffers, author of Whasian. for bringing me on board. The following appeared on the Mixed Remixed Blog on February 5th.
Thinking Outside The “Other” Box
When I think about my own multiracial identity, when I talk with other biracial writers and friends about the state of being mixed, I usually think of the cultures we inherited from our parents—what was represented in our homes and along the roots of our family trees.

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But a question posed to The Ethicist in last week’s New York Times Magazine made me consider blended racial identity on a broader scale.

“Can I call my Nonbiological Twins black because my Husband is?”

The author of the question was a white woman, married to a black man. When she and her husband had been unable to conceive naturally, she had carried to term a donor embryo—the biological parents of whom were said to be Caucasian and Hispanic. The mother noted:

I am not comfortable being open about the origin of my children, except with family and close friends, until they are old enough for me to explain it to them.

But, when a pre-k application form asked the children’s race, failing to provide a “mixed race” or “other” box, the mother identified her children as black. “Was this the right choice?” She wondered. The Ethicist—Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is himself multiracial, white British and Ghanaian—devoted much of his response to what he would have responded had the twins been the biological children of their parents, going into depth about this country’s frequently challenged “one drop” rule. He concluded:

 …our system of racial classification … presupposes an extremely oversimplified picture of the relationship among ancestry, appearance, biology and culture …

Dr. Appiah correctly faulted the preschool for not having a “mixed-race” or “other” box to check, and suggested that the mother demand one. He also affirmed the twins’ right to claim their non-biological father’s black heritage.

But what Dr. Appiah didn’t mention is an error the parents made long before the pre-k form appeared. Waiting until the children are “old enough” to have their heritage explained implies that there is something shameful about joining their family through donor insemination, something wrong with having a different racial background from their parents’. The time to broach such information is right away, using the simplest language possible—the same way you might talk to a baby about bedtime or the toys in his room.

Years ago as an adoption caseworker, I encouraged families adopting from China and Vietnam to learn about and incorporate their children’s cultures of origin into their family life. Even in domestic adoptions where the child could “pass” for their parents’ biological offspring, I urged families to begin sharing the adoption story immediately—before the child could understand. Talking about difference and culture becomes as natural as breathing. This is your nose, those are your toes, this is a photograph of the day we met you in a place called Guangzhou, where you were born.

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This way, there’s no fraught moment in the child’s life when parents must sit them down and reveal the Momentous Truth. Though less has been written about children born via donor insemination than adoption, I believe this same openness should prevail.

Where it gets tricky is the discussion of appearance. Going back to the twins in the Ethicist’s question, what will it be like for them to identify as black if they don’t look black? As Dr. Appiah points out in his response, there are many people whose African features are not visible—he names early N.A.A.C.P. director, Walter White—who identify as black. Besides, these twins are Hispanic, which is not a race, but in many cases includes some African ancestry.

My own experience is somewhat reversed. Many people perceive me as black—not mixed—so when I identify as biracial, I am often corrected: you’re black. In graduate school, when I identified as Jewish—an ethnicity as well as a religion—it meant to some African American students that I was denying my blackness. But to identify as black and only black would be to disregard my mother’s ancestry and half of my own.

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Another troubling issue: the mother who wrote to the Ethicist was given few specifics about the embryos’ heritage. Only Caucasian (Swedish? Dutch? Irish?) and Hispanic (Dominican? Venezuelan? Puerto Rican?). The parents are not to blame for this oversight. I know from my friends who have had children through donor insemination that you don’t get much control over how much genetic information you’re given, if any. But in an ideal world, these parents would be able to share the twins’ whole heritage—genetic and adoptive— with them.

One of my closest friends had her twin sons with the aid of an egg donor. Before her boys could understand the word “fertility,” they knew that somewhere in the world was a Very Special Lady who had made it possible for Mommy and Daddy to be their parents. Now the boys are three and the special lady is part of their family dialogue, as is her country, which the twins may visit someday. As they grow, these boys will have more questions which my friend and her husband will be happy to answer. These twin boys will know who they are genetically as well as culturally. One day, they too will be faced with boxes to check. They may choose one or more; they may choose to leave them all blank. Either way, by the time they are old enough to hold a pencil, my friend’s sons will understand that no box will ever truly define who they are.

 

Mixed: A Canvas for the Assumptions of Others?

New Profile picI’ve let this blog grow cobwebs lately, focusing every bit of my writing energy on my fiction. A quick status report: I’m querying my YA novel again and have reserved a spot among the NaNoWriMo  ranks, hoping to complete a draft of a new novel by November 30th.

Full disclosure, I wrote the following a few months ago but never got around to posting it. I’m posting this now, in part because I know I won’t make it back here until December at the earliest. I’m also putting it up at this time because it feels very relevant to me.

Recently, another mother—a mother with children whose racial combination matches mine—a mother who is a wonderful advocate for her children, devoted to making sure they have positive identities—said something that I can’t quite get out of my head.

This mother, who is white and shares my own mother’s ethnicity, corrected me when I referred to myself as “mixed.” She offered a different word instead. A word which, to her, is the way to refer to oneself if one is the product of a white parent and a black parent. (As I am, as her children are, but as she is not.) We were having a fast conversation about something we’re working on together, so her correction came out quickly, too quickly for me to process what I was feeling. I corrected myself, used the word she had chosen, and we went on with our conversation. It was only afterward that I realized what had happened. I had allowed her to define me. The word she chose was just as good as “mixed.” It was in fact a word I sometimes do use to describe myself, but it was not my word choice at that time.

Those of us who are biracial, mixed-race, mulatto— whatever you wish to call us—must claim our own words—even if they don’t ring true for others. Many of us say “mixed,” which was once derogatory—like “mixed up”—but we embrace it the way a gay person might embrace “queer.” It’s empowerment by taking back language that was once designed to wound. Or, maybe it just feels right.

Anyway, here is my first post since the summer, as well as my last post until December.

A Canvas for the Assumptions of Others

You are the “other” box. Maybe not quite black, yet clearly not white. Or not visibly black, but something off-white. You are “exotic.” Possibly Armenian? Koori? Dominican? Really, really tan? No, you’re biracial, mixed, mulatto, colored, depending where in the world you hail from. You’re Both/And.

For some of us, the Barak Obama’s the Halle Berry’s and me, black is a convenient short-hand for our identity. It is how we appear to strangers, and doesn’t cause a stir or elicit extra questions. Black is also a way of adding our numbers to a much-maligned minority. But black skips out on half our story, half of our parentage and identity.

For the Jennifer Bealses, the Rashida Joneses, the black piece of the package is what people question. In both situations, there is a parent whose ancestry is less visible than the other.

And then there are those in the middle, the racially-ambiguous looking, where the trained eye can see a little of everything. In this spot, you’ll be facing the “what are you?” question more than the others, who tend to quickly be (if incorrectly) categorized by strangers. In the middle, you throw people off.

Now I’m wading into the deep waters of “Ascribed Identity,” a concept I first read about in graduate school when Dr. Elaine Pinderhughes came to present on her book, Understanding Race, Identity and Power.  Ascribed identity has little to do with who you actually are and everything to do with how others see you—their snap-judgments, the stories they tell themselves about who and what you are—based on your appearance alone. No matter how far from the truth these inferences are, you deal with them all day long—in the questions people ask, the treatment you receive. Other people’s stories and judgments—whether you believe them or not, whether you know about them or not—are part of your identity. Even when they are totally false. It’s that flicker of here-we-go-again awareness anytime someone compliments your diction or asks where you are “from.”

When you are mixed, this ascribed stuff can feel like a costume that doesn’t quite fit, but that’s always going to be somewhere in your closet nevertheless. It’s important to be aware of it, to be prepared for the things people say and assume. But the good news is that our ascribed identities need have no bearing on our self-concepts, our behavior or choices. For example, I have been judged for not speaking “black,” for not wearing my hair in braids, even for being the wrong weight for my color. (That really happened).

Sometimes, being biracial can feel like being a canvas for other people’s creative assumptions.

My favorite section of Dr. Maria Root’s Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (that I think I quoted three or four posts ago) is this one: “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

Frankly, I think this right applies to everyone—not just those of mixed heritage. But when it comes to us biracial types, there are a great many opinions on how we should identify ourselves racially, ethnically and otherwise.

After hearing Pinderhughes speak, my fellow social work students and I were suddenly thinking about identity more than we ever had before. Our daily vocabulary included not just ascribed identity, but also terms like use-of-self and cross-cultural competence. Like everyone else, I was grappling with what it meant to be me—how I was perceived versus who I was and how my background affected my work with clients. When I identified as biracial, black and Jewish, I was challenged by my fellow students at every turn.

Some white students looked at me as a novelty.

“Wait—you’re Jewish? How did you get Jewish?”

“I guess you could be Jewish, like Ethiopian.” My Jewish ancestry is Ashkenazi, actually, regardless of my skintone.

On the other hand, many black students bristled when I identified as mixed, saying I was black, because it was how I was seen. (Ascribed identity.) If I claimed I was “both,” then I was denying or diluting my allegiance to my father’s African heritage. I countered that I had to embrace all of my heritage, and not deny my mother’s background. I was informed that white people didn’t need or want me; blacks did. If I identified myself as Jewish—which, to me, had nothing to do with my race—students of color said I was identifying with the oppressor.

My Jewish ancestors, by the way, arrived by boat at the turn of the last century. Not one of them owned slaves.

So, eighteen years later, imagine my confusion at this curious phenomenon I’m finding on the internet lately. Dismissiveness, in some cases contempt, toward mixed-race people who identify as black. Now people have always taken issue with the words biracial people use to self-identify. For example, when Tiger Woods called himself “Cablinasian,” people became incensed; he was trying to deny his blackness. When Vin Diesel referred to himself as having “ambiguous ethnicity” while playing one Italian American character after another—people had a lot to say, much of it not for tender eyes.

But lately, as I browse the comments on articles that feature mixed race celebrities—writers, filmmakers, athletes, I’m seeing the pendulum swing a new way.

When President Obama calls himself black, many argue that he’s not black, he’s biracial and should stop “pretending.” They say the same about Halle Berry, who grew up being encouraged by her white mother to identify as black. Again, people take umbrage over Lacey Schwartz, producer and subject of the film Little White Lie, identifying as a black woman. After her film aired on PBS, the internet was abuzz with outrage over the fact that Schwartz, who is the child of a white, Jewish mother and black father, could not “accept herself as a biracial person.” The shocking part is that these comments came from mixed people, who know all too well how it feels to be dismissed by the generalizations of others.

How can one biracial person judge another for identifying “wrong?” And how is it suddenly not okay for people like me to call ourselves black? Sure, you can argue that, as the product of a white and a black parent, I’m only as black as I am white (regardless of my appearance). Since I cannot call myself white (see my profile photo? That would just be silly) I should not be allowed to call myself black. The reason that logic doesn’t work is my appearance.

I am not white. But I am Jewish, by way of my mother’s ethnicity. And in this way, I embrace and embody both sides of my heritage. (If my mother weren’t Jewish, but Irish or Italian, for example, I’d identify the same way, black and Irish or black and Italian. Jewish is an ethnicity as well as a religion.)

That’s why to be mixed is to be both-and, as well as sometimes neither-nor. Our identities are fluid by nature. No matter how white or how black we appear. So, instead of being canvasses for other people’s creative assumptions, let us be fountains of our own multiple heritage.

I have no claim to monopoly over the words I use to identify myself. All I ask is to self-identify, to claim all my heritage without challenge. We are all-inclusive, often in flux, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. We’re not confused or out of touch with reality.

We’re not tragic either.

I’m on a Podcast!

So I’m on a podcast! (As you can guess from the title of this post). I am honored to have been interviewed by Alex Barnett, Comedian, blogger and Multiracial Family man on his podcast, aptly named Multiracial Family Man.

Alex is the white, Jewish husband of a black woman (who converted to Judaism) and the father of a 3 year-old, biracial son. Each episode of his podcast is devoted to the issues that confront multiracial families and the experience of being biracial.

In my interview, Alex asks me basically everything about my experiences of being mixed and part of a multiracial family—from my parents’ marriage to my own, to how I handled my multiracial identity in college, grad school as well as in the ballet world.

Here are the links to the podcast:

On iTunes:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/multiracial-family-man-ep./id969793342?i=341813854&mt=2

And on Libsyn Podcast Network: http://traffic.libsyn.com/multiracialfamilyman/Lisa_Rosenberg_Podcast.mp3

By the way, Alex is smart, funny, down to earth and very candid about his family’s experiences. (Fun fact: it turns out he also went to college with my husband, though they never met!)

Make sure to check out Alex Barnett on the Web:

www.alexbarnettcomic.com

Youtube: www.youtube.com/alexbarnettcomic

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexbarnettcomic

Twitter: http://twitter.com/barnettcomic

Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children? (Survey included)

Baby 1966This is the first post I have written soliciting responses to a survey—so I’m stating it up front: At the end of this post is an actual, honest-to-goodness survey for those who are interested and who fit the demographics* I’m looking for.

So, what is this about “White Privilege?” Sounds kind of political, kind of threatening, no?

The first time I heard the term “White Privilege,” I was in my late twenties and teaching at a very exclusive, private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York. Peggy McIntosh, PhD., the feminist, antiracism activist and associate director of the Wellesley College Women’s Project, had been brought in by the Parents’ Diversity Awareness Committee of said school. McIntosh, who is white, was there to discuss her famous paper, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, as part of a workshop for staff, parents and students about the ways in which whites unwittingly benefit from racism on a daily basis.

I was fascinated as McIntosh described white privilege as an

invisible package of unearned assets which [she could] count on cashing in each day, but about which [she] was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.

However, as she began to list these assets and privileges, I found myself thinking: hold on a minute—I grew up with a lot of those assets and I’m not white! What gave?

As I thought it over, I realized that, as a child—regardless of my color—I had walked through the world in the care and company of a white mother. I had un-harassed entry into upscale department stores and swimming pools. Most everywhere I went, people had treated me with the same respect they paid my mother.

When McIntosh went on to list the ways in which her skin tone worked in her favor:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented …When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is … Whether I [use] checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.… I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, withouthaving people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

I started to see her point. Okay, maybe all of those privileges hadn’t been mine, but under the umbrella of my mother’s whiteness, the world had been a different, more accepting, place than it might have been otherwise.

When I was alone with my father, we visited restaurants  and little shops in Harlem—which was mostly black at the time. It was a world apart from the Englewood, New Jersey pool club my mother’s friend belonged to, where Mom and I went almost every day in the summer. As a child, I felt equally welcome in both places. However, if the whole family had shown up together in either location, there might have been stares or even questions.

My father taught me to be aware—and sometimes wary–of racism, that I might be treated differently because of my color. But my mother took me everywhere; the hostility, if there was any—was subtle enough for me not to notice. I believed I belonged anywhere my mother did.

The stories of black and biracial children raised by white parents are as varied as humanity itself. I know my own, but am curious about others. For this reason I’ve started a project I’m calling Under the “White Privilege” Umbrella: Children of Color in their White Parents’ World.

As part of the project I have created a survey where I ask adults of color, like myself, who were raised by at least one white parent, to reflect on their childhoods. My purpose is to understand the experience of growing up black or biracial** in the care and company of a white parent, to learn whether–and how–any of us benefited from the day to day privileges our white parents might have experienced.

*If you are between the ages of 18 and 70, identify as biracial or mixed, the product of a white parent and a black parent, or if you are adopted, either black or biracial/black-white, and raised by white parents, interracially married parents (one of whom is white), or by a single, white parent), I would love to hear from you.

Please note, I have no hypothesis to support and no political agenda. And here is the link to my survey.

**The reason I’m only including black and white in this project–at first at least–is to understand whether parental “white privilege,” dilutes the very specific biases directed toward blacks.

For Canines of Mixed Ethnic Heritage

IMG_0121He’s a golden doodle?” said the woman with the boxer, eyeing my sweet, black-and-white puppy with the same skepticism my mother had faced when I was little. Back then, everyone wondered how I—this brown, curly-haired baby—could belong to my white, straight-haired mother.

“He doesn’t look very golden to me,” said the boxer lady.

“Well he is,” I could almost hear my mom responding. Short, sweet and a little indignant. Just like she handled people who questioned my parentage.

I, on the other hand, lunged into an explanation. “He’s a quarter golden retriever and three quarters mini poodle. His parents were bred from black and white parti poodles. So …” Did the boxer lady need such detail? Did she deserve the lowdown on my puppy’s ancestry?

Of course not. But her question caught me off guard, triggering something in me. An age old response to having my own ancestry questioned.

When Rico came home I thought I was prepared for everything. I’d been researching puppy care for over a year, grilling every dog owner I knew—and some I didn’t know—for tips. I’d learned about crate-training, treat-training, leashes and harnesses, apple spray, and chew toys. I’d researched vets and arranged my schedule to accommodate a “new baby,” which is how everyone said a new puppy would feel.

We’d been trying for a rescue dog for some time also, getting turned down again and again because I’d never owned a dog before, I did not have a vet in place, and because my last pets (the gerbils) had perished in a house fire. And—the ultimate deal-killer for pet rescue organizations—we had children under fifteen. Finally we bit the bullet and started researching goldendoodle breeders. When we found a reputedly great one, I looked on the website for “waiting puppies” rather than signing up for an upcoming litter. You could click on the link and watch a YouTube video of each golden retriever-poodle mix pup interacting with the breeder’s young grandson. I fell for Rico immediately.

A mini-goldendoodle expected to top out at about thirty-five pounds (he’s thirty-three), Rico was sweet and playful with a curly coat—predicted not to shed much, which was a good thing for my husband’s and daughter’s allergies. Though plenty of pups on the website were golden goldendoodles, ranging in hue from off-white to rich amber, Rico and his litter mates were black and white, like Snoopy and Harry the Dirty Dog and the Pokey Little Puppy. Like us too.  Both his parents were half “parti” poodle, meaning black and white spotted.

Rico is a party dog it turns out. He’s a total charmer, loves people, loves other dogs, is even gentle with our neighbors’ toddler twins. He doesn’t chew shoes or furniture. He slept through the night and potty-trained with relative ease. His only vice—kind of a big one—is that he loves to eat debris. Sticks, rocks, socks, ace bandages—a habit that’s sent him to the pet ER more than once. And yes, everyone at the ER loves him too.

None of us can imagine family life without him. He fits us perfectly. As my son says, “he’s even a quarter black and three quarters white like me.” True. But that’s just what I wasn’t prepared for: having the same conversations about Rico’s heritage as I have about my children’s and my own.

For example, this is what people say about my son:

“Wow! You really can’t see the black in him.”

And about Rico:

“Wow! You can’t see the golden retriever in him at all!”

About my daughter:

“That hair is beautiful. It must be a lot of work.”

About Rico:

“That coat is beautiful. It must get so matted though.”

And the kicker (seriously this happened): “We were thinking our goldendoodle’s coat might get curly too. But Misty has that nice, smooth golden retriever fur. You can barely see the poodle in her.”

Now substitute the words “biracial child” for “goldendoodle” and “black” for “poodle” and you have something like what my mother used to hear when I was a kid.

“Are you sure he’s part golden retriever?” (Are you sure she’s yours?)

And I explain. In varying degrees of detail. You might ask, WHY must I answer to these curious passers-by and dog owners? Why do I need to answer prying questions about my dog’s, my own or my children’s ancestry? Why can’t I be more like my mother and give a simple—if snarky—response?

In Maria Root’sBill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage,” it says specifically, “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

In other words, I have the right not to explain my heritage. As someone who does not look mixed, I am called upon to do this less frequently than my racially ambiguous-looking mixed friends. Since I look black, I don’t get asked “what are you?” very often. People assume I’m black and leave it at that. It’s only when I mention a different piece of my background—that I’m Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side, for example, that people ask How is that possible?  

Similarly, people assume Rico is a poodle or a Portuguese water dog. No one means anything by it; no one is judging him. But the word Golden hits strangers the same way Jewish hits them with me. Rico couldn’t care less. The words he knows are sit, stay, leave-it, drop-it, walk, bone, and Ruby (the little dog next door). But I care.  His heritage is what it is—not to be questioned any more than mine or my children’s.

photo 3This is why I explain. I explain to be understood. To acknowledge all my heritage, my children’s and my dog’s, not to deny any part, but to embrace all, even the parts that are unseen.

Feeling, Living the Black in Biracial

This post is something I lifted from a novel I once began and then abandoned.  The character is quite obviously speaking for the author. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA younger friend, who is also biracial, has said before that she’s just never felt black, which I understood very well.  It’s hard to feel black—the way you think black is supposed to feel—if you grow up with more advantages than most white people have.  Especially if one or both of your parents is white.  You might get looks when you’re out together with the white parent—but everywhere you go, you go under the shield of the parent’s whiteness, even viewing the world through a white lens.  You can’t see yourself, so you may forget you’re different at all.  To be fair, the mirror will remind you, as will a stray comment from a stranger to your white parent (she’s yours?).    Each time, you’re jolted into awareness: you stand out.   Depending on your environment (better if you live near the coasts, where different is more likely to be status-quo), you may have some self-esteem issues.   Maybe you’ll become self-destructive as a teen: date some bad guys or develop an eating disorder.  You may become a tireless people-pleaser, allowing the world—black, white and other—to walk all over you.  But there will be nothing off limits to you because of your race; nothing a white person gets that you don’t.   Racism itself will be an abstract concept that you read about or hear about—and when you do, you’ll feel not outrage, but guilt.  On those odd occasions when racism is directed at you yourself, you may not notice because it’s the last thing you’re expecting.

I never felt black either—not until I got that black is not a feeling at all.  It is a part of you that you wear and are; it never goes away.  I was still dancing professionally when it all finally clicked for me.  Ballet dancers spend most of their working lives in a mirror-lined studio—company class in the morning, the rest of the day in rehearsal.  The only time you’re not looking in the mirror—comparing yourself to everyone else—is the tiny fraction of the time when you’re actually on stage.  So, maybe I had an advantage: I never got to “forget” that I was the black girl, usually the only one in the room.  (Though I was always told I “washed out” under the stage lights: you couldn’t tell unless you looked at my photo in the program.)

Ballet companies usually have affiliated schools, full of little girls in pink and black with ribbons in their hair.  Each one’s biggest dream is to be you.  When the company is rehearsing, you can see these tiny aspirants watching through the glass doors, hoping, wishing they’ll be in your place one day.  When you pass these girls in the hallways, you’ll hear them sigh with awe (she smiled at me! No—she was looking at me!).  After performances, they come to the stage door, begging for a smelly, used-up pointe shoe with your signature on it.

img002The little black girls—sometimes there were only one or two—always came to me.  I had plenty of white fans—particularly the shorter girls—but the black girls looked only for me.   I remembered the few such role models I’d had as a kid: what they’d meant to me—even on a subconscious level: hope and validation.  I saw myself in the girls—no matter how many shades darker they might have been—they were mine.  I liked most of the kids; I had smiles for all of them but the black girls were always first to get my discarded shoes.  I remember thinking for the first time, thank God I’m black; thank God I’m here or—who would they have?  I’ve single-handedly integrated three different corps de ballet in my career.  Maybe it was an accident that there were no black girls when I got there, but I like to think I opened doors.   Opened their eyes to the fact that—contrary to what George Ballanchine declared—there were skinny black girls out there with “feet” and turn out and all the other non-negotiables a ballerina needs.

It’s like Obama (how does everything circle back to him?).  This country is home to many, many black people who are educated, accomplished, refined, and yes: articulate!  Our president is all those things, as well as being capable of reaching people of all races—all nationalities—without making any of it about race.  And still, he wears his race with pride.

Race 2012 Post #2: “A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

The following is my second (technically third) post for the blogging project affiliated with Race 2012: A Conversation about Race in America, the PBS Documentary that airs tonight, right after the presidential debate, and will be rebroadcast on October 19th.  Check your local listings; the air times are approximate and different everywhere.  Read more details about the blogging project on my friend Monica Medina‘s website.  Tune in!

“A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

You are on the subway, on your way to work, the train hurtling through the tunnels, when suddenly it screeches to a halt.
“We are experiencing delays,” the conductor announces over the aged, whistling speaker system. “There is a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us.  We expect to be moving shortly.”  Maybe he expects to be moving shortly because he’s new in town.  You, however, have been riding the subways for 20 years.  You know that “a sick passenger” on the train ahead equals roughly a 45 minute wait.  So you settle in.  You sigh, you look around the train car for a kindred spirit with whom to make eye contact, share a sigh and a headshake.  You’re a woman in your thirties.  Chances are the one with whom you make eye contact is also a woman, also in her thirties, or else forties, or twenties.

Or maybe you’re not heading to work; you’re going to the zoo and have your child in a stroller.  Your child fusses with the sudden motionlessness of the train, the noise of the speaker.  Some riders glare at you as the baby gets louder: maybe it’s not your fault we’ve stopped, but it is your child making the wait less pleasant.  But now a woman, clearly a mother herself, smiles at you.  It helps because you guess that she’s been in your shoes.  Another woman offers a baggie of crackers she usually saves for her child in situations like these.  She asks how old your baby is and tells you a story of her child at that age.  And just because of who you are and what you represent: a mother with a child, you have a community.

Your child is calm now, munching away on crackers.  You look up to notice that two elderly black men who did not get on the train together, who were not sitting near one another, seem to have introduced themselves and struck up a conversation.  Now they are laughing, warmly, with the acknowledgement of some shared experience.  They are too far away for you to hear what they’re saying but you can feel it between them: community.

And those college age girls, both dressed in black, eyes outlined in thick kohl—now they’ve exchanged the eye roll, the headshake.  Community.  You’re like me; I’m like you.  We’ll be here for a while.  But at least we’re a we sharing this nightmare.  And that we-ness, belonging to a group defined as much by who we are as who we’re not, really helps you get by sometimes.

Sometimes the we-ness comes from age, gender, being a parent or not a parent, sometimes from religion, class or marital status and sometimes from race.

Ah, race.  I see it as just one of many aspects of the person, but it’s often the one you see first, the one that’s most loaded, hardest to talk about and therefore the one I’ve been asked to discuss in the context of this current election.

How much does racial solidarity impact how we vote?  How important is it to have a “Like-me” president?   And when a candidate reflects our race, are we more likely to approve of him?  Are we more likely to find fault with a candidate of a different race?

In some ways, this election, like the last, is all about identity.  The issues that matter to a voter depend on his or her personal history,  socioeconomic status, education level and yes, in some cases, race.  Each of us wants our president to suit who we see ourselves as being.

Last time around each ticket had its own flavor.   We had the dynamic, black community-organizer-attorney and the older white guy with down home appeal.  On the other side was the aging, white war hero and the plain-spoken hockey mom who said things like “you betcha”?  Which ticket felt like YOU?  Were you one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies?  Or were you an Obama Mama?  Were you a member of the chai-drinking, tree-hugging liberal elite?  Or were you a gun-loving bible thumper?  Wherever you stood, whatever the candidates’ styles and values, right there in all our faces was this brand new development that meant something in history and to most everyone in the country as well.  The next president might be a black man.  A big deal, no matter how you felt about it.

Before 2008, only white, straight, Christian men had the option of picking a “like-me” candidate.  But with the last election, for the first time in history, it seemed that people of other descriptions might get that choice in the near future.  Those who supported a “liberal agenda” (and I mean liberal in a good way, going by the dictionary definition which is something like “applauding progress”) came in all persuasions, all races, orientations and religions.  Many saw themselves in Obama.

For affluent, educated blacks, Obama was more than a black candidate, he was a stereotype buster.  He made very public the image of a black man that we identified with and wanted the country to see.  Educated, well-spoken, passionate and above all, a family man through and through.  That the number one criticism of Obama, as he campaigned through the grain belt and the rust belt, was that he was too elite, too aloof, didn’t understand the concerns of the “working man” (remember Joe the plumber?).  For all of us who’d been living in the shadow of the angry-lazy-violent black stereotype, this was vindicating.  So you guys don’t want him because he’s too smart to be president?

Jump ahead four years.  It’s 2012 and we’ve been living with a biracial president for four years.  The fact of his race is no longer a novelty, but  there are those who still see the president first and formost as a black man.  He has been accused of hating white people, and at the same time, due to his mixed heritage, of not being black enough.

In any case race still matters in this country.  I know this when I Google words like African American, or black women, or interracial families.  I come up with blogs where strong opinions are voiced on everything race-related.  Some of it’s intense: white-separatist, Afro-centric, and everything in between.

Alas, we are not a post-racial society—as some jumped the gun in declaring, back in 2008, popping open the champagne bottles, tossing the confetti, cheering not just the election of the first African American president, but also the end of the Age of Race as we know it.   I think it was foolish to believe that electing a black president might somehow make racism a moot issue.  The higher any minority rises, the more of a threat he is to bigoted haters, the more vocal those haters will become.  All over the blogosphere are so called “patriots” who “love” the country and are heartbroken to that anyone with roots in the African continent should be running it.  They openly admit to hating Obama because of his race.  They call him horrible names, and the caricatures—don’t get me started.  But I believe those so called “patriots” (who flaunt their rabid disrespect for the president of our country) are on the fringe.

For the many of us who want him around for another four years, I think it’s less about Obama’s race these days than what he stands for. This time, it’s about the president’s policies.  How do you think he handled the mess he was handed?  Do you believe Obama truly saved us from another Depression?  And what about his approach abroad?  Do we want to keep him at the helm going forward?   Regardless of race, I do.

I won’t vote for Mitt Romney—not because he is white or Mormon or rich.  I won’t vote for Romney because I have no idea who he really is.  I don’t believe a word he says; I don’t trust him.  And maybe I think it’s cool that the president is biracial like me, but it’s not why I’m voting for him.  I’m voting for him because his worldview—not his skintone—matches mine.