Ambiguous in america: passing, microaggressions and self-identification

As a follow-up to my last post on being racially ambiguous, I'm going to expand on some of the nuances of being mixed in America. I can't claim my experience is the same as others who are mixed, so I'm speaking solely from my personal experience. Some may relate, while some may not when it comes to passing, microaggressions and self-identification. Regardless, it's interesting for anyone who enjoys gaining perspectives on race.

I've grown up checking three boxes on census forms: White, Black, and Native American. 

My mother's grandparent’s emigrated from Germany in the early 20th century. They came to America to escape the sociopolitical climate that eventually lead to WWII. My dad's grandparents were part of the Great Migration north from southern Louisiana to Chicago. His grandmother was Choctaw Indian, while his grandfather was born to black sharecroppers. According to family history, my great-grandfather was a business owner who did not head north out of his own volition. Instead, the KKK burned his housing development, effectively destroying his business. BTW, my great-grandpa rebuilt his business in Chicago.

Since I was a child, people have often projected their racial curiosities, insecurities and over-all cultural in-competencies onto me. Many have experienced this phenomenon. Below you will find a list of microaggressions I've personally experienced from all shades of people:

  • If I am just with my mother or my father, people are sometimes surprised when I call them mom or dad.
  • My blonde mother was frequently asked if I was actually her child. Heaven forbid a child doesn't phenotypically "match" their parent.
  • I've been asked if my father is still in the picture once someone finds out he is black (he is very much so in the picture). 
  • Once a professor at Notre Dame told me that, “It must be hard to be mixed. It’s probably confusing. You are an edge person like me.”
  • A black friend of mine in college once said, “White women are just a phase for black men,” which definitely rubbed me the wrong way since I don’t see my mother and father's marriage as a phase.
  • I have been told that if my dad was really my dad that I would be darker.
  • Sometime when someone is trying to understand why I look the way I look, they will ask me, “What nationality are you?” I can't help but giggle and say that I'm American.

Even when taking the instances above into account, I have passed as white; I do pass as white; and I will pass as white. I would need my fingers AND toes to count the amount of times someone who is white has said something blatantly racist about minorities at large. I hit them with “I’m half black” right before I watch their problematic, racialized view crumble. While in college, an acquaintance asked me about my hair texture and type. I turned my head vaguely perplexed and told the person that my dad is black if that helps answer their question. Queue the absolute melt down. This person had their head between their hands like it was going to explode. They said they couldn’t believe it because I “didn’t act black" and I didn't "look" that black. Our relationship was rocky from that point on to say the very least. Self-identification is confidence in the face of microaggressions to a certain extent.

During a university political identity course, I was asked how I self-identify. I surprised myself when I said that I'm an American who doesn't exactly identify as white, but I do identify as a minority, that I definitely identify as mixed, and I don't entirely identify as black. If someone is going absolutely make me choose, then I identify as black more so than I do as white. I think the main sticking point to my self-identification is that I will always identify as a minority. Since I do often pass as "white enough," I don't identify as black right off the bat because others generally don't identify me as so. That's what it means to be ambiguous in America--balancing your self-identification with others perceptions. I have to take how others perceive me into account, but only as a way to explain the complexities of race. For instance, I sometimes wonder if I should call myself a WOC or if I should call myself anything at all. It's good to ponder and wonder but at the end of the day, I profoundly and intrinsically make sense to myself and that is enough. I'm me and that is my power.

When I identify as mixed, I feel I am personally taking a step toward the America that I desire--one that allows for identities outside of the wildly inflexible racial binary. I dream of an America where inclusion for everyone is a national priority and multicultural backgrounds are understood. I hope to do my part in building that understanding by sharing my experience. As Yara says, "I've been blessed with this cool heritage."

Lena MadisonComment