Tag Archives: Multiracial

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

Today on Multiracial Media, author and founder, Sarah Sarita Ratliff poses the question to the multiracial community: How do We Self Identify? Which got me thinking … 

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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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 in America: Closing the Arch

New Profile picIn my last post, Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children?, I introduced my White Umbrella Project, including a survey, about the experiences of other black and biracial people whose early guides to the world were white parents. Since the survey went live, here and on various multiracial Facebook groups, responses have been coming in steadily—people sounding off on what it means to reside on both sides of the bridge between black and white.*

This project has been brewing in me for years, but there is a reason I’m launching it now.

This past fall and winter, in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in the wake of the protests and the speeches and the clashes, the calls for justice and calls for dialogue, I kept hearing about an America divided along racial lines. It wasn’t a new phase by any means, but one that rears up and becomes prevalent every few years.

There is a black America and a white America and never shall the two see eye to eye, was the message—expressed most eloquently in the New Yorker cover of December 8th, 2014, by Bob Staake, a “post-Ferguson” depiction of Eero Saarinen’s iconic Gateway Arch, centerpiece of the St. Louis Skyline, in this case shaded black on one side, white on the other, the arch broken, its ends reaching in vain for reconciliation.

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I took in that cover with a heavy heart, registering the sentiment loud and clear. I am one of many Americans—the president of the United States included—for whom black and white are inseparable. It is what we are.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that all the blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos I know have varied and nuanced views of the events, to say nothing of the fact that the protestors and police defenders seemed to come in all races.

I’m not naïve. I recognize that the black/white rift is more stark in some parts of the country than others, that the multiracial mobs with linked arms hailed mostly from the two coasts and from university towns. But it’s my pet peeve when the press oversimplifies and disregards those who live in the middle. With interracial marriage on the rise, as well as more multiracial people than ever identifying as such, the racial “grey” area is becoming more and more populous.

It goes beyond America too. Trevor Noah, the South African comedian of black Xhosa and white Swiss parentage, who is slated to replace Jon Stewart in the Daily Show, also grew up in two separate worlds—being shuttled back and forth between his mother’s home in black Soweto and his father’s apartment in largely white Johannesburg. In a New York Times article, Noah describes being alternately embraced and rejected in both settings.

This echoes the experience of so many mixed-race Americans. The both/and-ers, the neither/nors. For some of us, like Barack Obama or Halle Berry, our African ancestry is plainly visible. For others, like Wentworth Miller and Carol Channing—not so much. Many of us have identities that resonate sometimes black and sometimes white, depending on where we are, which side of the family we’re with—regardless of what we look like.

I was raised by a black father and a white mother, but because of their work schedules, it was my mother who accompanied me most places. My early view of the world came through her eyes. Whether we went to her friend’s pool club in the summer, or shopped on the Upper East Side, I assumed—correctly or not—that I would be accepted and embraced. I didn’t grow up feeling particularly different from the white or black people I met. It was not until college that anyone demanded I choose my allegiance.

Everyone’s experience of being biracial is different, but I suspect I’m far from alone in my cringe-reflex when I hear about the irreparable chasm between my two sides.

Multiracial? Or Multicultural?

imagesCASDTSYLA few months back, I wrote a post called A Daughter by Any Color, about the experience of parenting a child who looks like me, after being raised by a mother who doesn’t.   Today, I wrote another post for the Montclair Patch, our local online paper, that addresses this issue from a somewhat different perspective.  You can read it here.

So far I have one comment from a reader who objected to my use of the word “Multiracial,” suggesting (very respectfully), that I use “Multicultural” instead.   As it got me thinking a lot, I responded (equally respectfully, I hope).  I would love to hear what followers of this blog think of the discussion.  Comment here on this blog to weigh in.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Lisa