Artwork by Hallie Anderson
It’s a common conversation starter. I hear it from anyone, whether I have known the person for years or am just meeting him or her on a plane (usually accompanied by the unpleasant realization that I was forced to sit next to this person for an entire flight).
Their curiosity makes them bold. Unashamed, they stare at my quickly-reddening face with a tilted head and confused look; they are puzzled by my Caucasian features painted onto a canvas the color of milky coffee. I can anticipate the words forming in their mouth as they continue to examine me:
“So, what are you?”
This question is sometimes even accompanied by haphazard guesses of my background:
“Are you Hispanic? Italian? Middle Eastern?”
I inhale, contort my face into a polite smile, nervously laugh (as proof that no, I am not bothered) and begin the response that I have rehearsed since my early childhood, “Well, my Mom was born in Canada … she’s white, and my Dad was born in India. He came here when he was younger.”
They nod slowly; the picture on the puzzle has come into focus. More often than not, they will answer, “Oh. That makes sense. I thought you might just be a tan white person.”
This response usually elicits an internal sigh of relief not only because the uncomfortable conversation is over, but also because I have succeeded in “blending in” with the majority of those around me. This feeling is then followed by deep shame for the comfort I take in passing for white -- it is far more comfortable than allowing my racial background to speak for me.
Race is never considered a part of someone’s identity until they aren’t white.
Powerless to others’ perceptions of me or my race, I lose my sense of control over my identity when I am noticed as “non-white.” I would much rather tiptoe around my truth than embrace its complexity.
Since I grew old enough to begin shaping my own identity, I started to avoid race as a means of accurately labelling myself. I use my ability to fly under the radar as a “tan white person” to delay the messy process of defining who I really am.
I am uniquely privileged because I can rely on my Caucasian features and lighter skin tone in the winter to evade identification or scrutinization from others; however, I still find myself staring at my reflection in the mirror, trying to reconcile this disconnection between my identity and my origin.
Standing between my parents, I am an obvious mix of their colors and faces. I am proud to join the spectrum of our family which fades from the deep tan of my father to the fair skin of my mother. I am content knowing that I can “make sense” within my family; however, this comfort does not extend past our front door.
When I stand alone, I am as enigmatic to strangers as I am to my own self. “What are you?” becomes much harsher when I must ask the person in my reflection — at least I can put in my earbuds or pretend to be asleep next to strangers on a plane.
I am steeped in American culture, more specifically, white culture; however, I will never be able to fully identify as “white.” My darker skin tone, dark brown eyes and non-white father are obvious indicators and reminders that I am unable to be categorized in this identity. It would be wrong of me to elbow my way into a racial group that was never fully mine to have.
On the other hand, I am far removed from my Indian side. A couple summers ago, my family travelled to India to visit some of my father’s friends and family. It was the first time I had been completely surrounded by Indian culture and people; however, I felt even more out of place. My fairer skin, lighter hair and white mother still separated me from finding a community where I could feel a sense of belonging.
In addition to looks, I do not share religion, customs or even language with Indian culture. If I were to claim to be Indian, I would feel that I was appropriating a racial group, even though I share half of my DNA with it.
As a multiracial person, I find myself stuck in the middle, straddling the expectations of society and of myself. Identifying as either racial group seems to lead to the acceptance of one and the exclusion of another.
I have lived 17 years with a deep divide between the perception of my own race and the world’s view. For too long, I let the “What are you?” question shake my identity because I was afraid of confronting the truth.
I cannot challenge the prejudices of the world without challenging my prejudice towards myself first. When presented with the possibility of joining the MoSAic Multiracial Affinity Group, my instant reflex was to decline the invitation out of fear of claiming the “biracial” label. However, I am now given the opportunity to explore and accept this facet of my life. I am still learning to overcome this hesitation.
I have come to realize that the questions about my race are not going to stop anytime soon, so I might as well discover the answer for myself.
For & By Students
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