Not Just a 'Black' Girl

10/16/2015 11:43 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2016

I'm often approached by people who are curious to know what I am. If I were to use sarcasm, as I'm apt to do, I would reply "I'm human," but I know that's not what people mean when they inquire about my pedigree. Throughout the years, I've experienced my share of negative encounters because of the identity people assume I should have based on my physical attributes and race.

I am a woman of mixed heritage, primarily Black and Puerto Rican, yet I do not look like either. I look like an "other." Because of my long, blackish hair and sienna skin tone with slight olive hue, many people think I'm either African or some type of Indian (Mexican, Native America, actual Indian, etc.). My looks haven't changed much, and frankly speaking, I don't think my looks are bizarre. However, some relatives and random strangers have attempted to use those innocuous features to define me. To those relatives I am just a Black girl, not multiethnic. To everyone else, I am everything but. In my eyes, though, I am more than a mere racial label.

Outside influences are typically what contribute to the creation and use of stereotypes and profiling. For instance, if Black women are usually portrayed on television as women who always wear long weaves or wigs, then that assumption may be inadvertently applied to any woman of color on the street. This example of perception and stereotyping reminds me of an encounter I had not too long ago in the Midwest.

Dressed in jeans and a plain white shirt, my hair loose down my back, I made my way to an office building for an appointment. Once inside, I gave my information to one of the receptionists behind the counter. No sooner did I sit down with an outdated magazine did the receptionist call me back to the desk. Naturally, I assumed it pertained to my appointment, but no, she had a personal question to ask me.

"Are you Indian or something?" she asked.

By this point I was used to this question, so I answered it. But then she replied, "Oh, I figured you were something. You couldn't be Black looking the way you do."

I'll never forget that exchange. Not because of her rudeness, but because she openly vocalized what people have tentatively confessed to me all my life. Many people perceive my physical attributes to be something other than just that of a Black woman.

I'm constantly reminded of the "one-drop-rule." The rule states that a single drop of "Black blood" in a person's ancestry makes that person Black. The use and definition of the term dates back to the days of slavery and during Jim Crow segregation in the South. This rule has led people to believe that anyone with even a trace of Black heritage should identify solely with that culture. Sadly, some of my Black relatives fed into this belief.

Please understand that not all of my relatives have an issue with my mixed heritage. Both sides of my family inhabited different floors of the same apartment building in New York City, and because of the friction between my Black family and my Hispanic family, I grew up not knowing much about my Puerto Rican heritage. To this day I do not fully understand why the friction is there, but at an early age, I got a glimpse of something that left a lasting impression.

When I was about 12, I had to fill out a document for school that required me to color in a blank circle next to the race I considered myself. My options were White; African American, not of Hispanic origin; Hispanic; and Asian. I didn't know what circle to fill in. To me, acknowledging one group meant to ignore the other. That confused me since I knew I was multiethnic. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my pencil poised over the paper for quite a while trying to figure out which option made the most sense.

A few moments later, a close relative came by and noticed my hesitation. I explained to her my dilemma. That's when she made the statement that continues to resonate with me.

"You're not mixed," she said. "You're Black. That's what people see when you step out of your house everyday: just a little Black girl."

At the time, I was too young to understand why she would think such a thing, but now as an adult, I am reminded of the one-drop-rule. What I gathered from that exchange at the time, however, was that because I had darker skin, I was viewed as Black and nothing more. Yet, I also knew that to be false. Were my looks important enough to negate my heritage?

The problem with the one-drop-rule is that using it assigns a minority status to people of mixed race. Biracial individuals are considered not as equal members of both heritages but as belonging more to one group than another. This is unbalanced and unfair. Who you are and what you are made of is not about picking sides. It is about accepting all yourself. That's where your true personal identity lies.

I owe a lot to my mother. She was the one who helped me sort through the confusion I felt growing up, faced with people who thought me to be one thing over another. She taught me to love every aspect of myself. With her, I didn't have to choose if I was Black or Hispanic. Long hair is just hair, and brown skin is just skin. I am all of this and more.

I am a daughter, a friend, a writer, and a sarcastic homebody. I love the color blue. I can be easily overwhelmed when stressed, and I have battled the occasional migraine for years. I also eat too much ice cream.

It is time to stop allowing other people to define us. Accept who you are. Embrace all of it. People of color come in various skin tones, hair textures, eye colors, backgrounds, and genetic makeup. No two people are the same nor should they be treated as such.

I refuse to bend to other people's assumptions of who I am or what I'm supposed to be, especially when it comes to my heritage. I know I am Black and Hispanic. I do not have to choose a side. I do not have to behave or wear my tresses in a manner that dictates what society says my heritage should be.

My name is Kris, and I am more than just a little Black girl.