Rachel Dolezal has me thinking. As someone who actually is racially mixed, who appears white but is of afro-caribbean heritage, I've been feeling pretty vexed by her actions. But also something else. Jealous? Understanding? She is white and has spent years passing as multiracial. I am multiracial but could never pass as anything but a Swedish ski instructor.
When I was very young I remember being confused by my image in the mirror. I kept expecting someone with black eyes and brown skin to be there. Instead it was a blonde haired kid with blue eyes. My father is Caucasian, my mother is Afro-Jamaican. Together they made Macaulay Culkin.
I like talking to people about race and my racial and cultural background. It's always interesting, and usually people have a lot of questions and I get to talk about myself. I'm proud of my family and my English and Afro-Caribbean heritage. But, as my sisters and I have discussed, at times it can be tiring. (see my sister's very elequant article about being mixed race here). Sometimes I just don't want to talk about myself. Sometimes I resent needing photo evidence of my family to convince people I'm mixed. Sometimes it just shouldn't matter. And so, sometimes I just don't bring it up.
I've never hid it, but I have the unique luxury of being able to select when and to whom I reveal my racial identity. The race I present as happens to be the one with the most privilege. I've never had to worry about cops or suspicious store clerks. I sail through TSA lines. I go day-to-day without being concerned that I may be gunned down because of the color of my skin. Unless you live with that daily, I don't think you can understand it. I can't.
But as anyone who is racially mixed can tell you, when you look very different from what you are, strange and confusing things can happen. It feels strange to have a black woman on her phone at an airport refer to me as "a sweet little cracker boy." It's confusing to hear the racial bias in people's voices that they don't even seem to know they have. That they don't confront unless someone who visibly challenges them is standing there in the room.
Sometimes I feel like I'm undercover.
But perhaps the strangest thing is wrestling internally with biases that go against all the different things that I am (as Afro-Caribbean/Caucasian there is a lot of room for internal conflict). Ashamed to catch those biases in my own voice; to use passing to an advantage; to use being mixed to an advantage; of having the luxury to choose. It's a particular brand of off-white guilt.
But outside of my own head, what does it matter? What are the consequences of what I choose? Am I only mixed on the inside and what the f*ck does that even mean? No matter how much I think about my race or feel my racial identity, I am, in many ways, what we say I am. In this country, race is still very much either/or. I can check all the "other" boxes I want, but when I wear a polo shirt I still look like one of the bad guys from Pretty in Pink and no amount of checked boxes, dark makeup or hair braids would change that.
But I also know how I see myself matters. I identify as multiracial. So I wrestle with this question of choice and racial identity. What rights to our own racial identity do we have? Do we have any? It would seem there's what we are, what we say we are, and what we are allowed to be. To me they each carry different weight depending on the day. Is our experience the major determining factor? Right now I'm inclined to say yes. Inclined to believe that how we are perceived and treated based on our skin color is the most important piece. But that also doesn't make me feel any better, or any more whole.
Then again, isn't everyone mixed? Does the one drop rule apply to me? Will it apply to my son whose mother is white and Jewish? My grandson? To anyone? What if my son is darker than me? If we could all agree race is a social construct, would it eventually stop mattering?
Or maybe my ambivalence is just a result of the fact that interracial identity is still relatively new in public discourse and we're still figuring out how to talk about it, still figuring out how to think and feel about it. Despite it being as old as life, being mixed is still somewhat exotic. Perhaps we are so blinded by fascination that we can't see the heart of it. In this, I think there are some similarities to our emerging views on gender. Even though mixed race children and interracial couples have come to dominate our advertising (the cynical part of me thinks this is just advertisers trying to be cost effective in hitting all their demographics), we're still working on the basics. Based on the last few months, I'd say we still have a long way to go.
I suppose what Dolezal and I have shared is an internal racial struggle. But that's where the similarity ends. I've spent a lifetime thinking about my race. Ten years ago Dolezal seems to have made a choice about hers without really thinking through the consequences. She chose to create an external lie to square away her internal struggle (and maybe further her career). She took all the questions and confusion that I, and many others have spent a lifetime thinking about and said, "I'm going to say I'm this because it benefits me, history and truth be damned." In some ways I identify. In some ways I admire. In most ways I'm appalled.
Anyway, I'm glad this strange lady with a confused sense of self, a faulty moral compass and a messy family life has me thinking and all of us talking. Onward.
(Apologies to Swedes, ski instructors and bad guys from Pretty in Pink.)
Additional items of interest:
1) This originally was just a Facebook post that ended up being longer than I intended. The reaction to the post and the attention it received led me to believe that there may be something in here others would benefit from. I hope so.
2) Huffington Post asks me to choose a category for this blog post. There is no Mixed Race option, no Race or Identity category. I chose Black Voices, but obviously am not sure that totally makes sense. Just further evidence that we're still sorting all of this out.