On the very first day of sophomore orientation, I sat happily in the dining hall, excited to be back at college with my friends. We were discussing our dream of starting a club for Irish students. One of my deans sat down next to me and asked what we were up to. I said, “We’re going to start an Irish club! A lot of us are Irish.” He looked at me, laughed, and said, “You’re about as Irish as I am! My name is Patrick, so you would think I’m Irish, but I’m not!”
I tried to explain to Patrick that my last name is literally McDougall, but he continued to talk over me, not seeming to understand. After he finished talking and walked away, the excitement that I had felt a minute before subsided, leaving a simmering discontent. I felt like this man had made an assumption and then refused to hear anything that contradicted it. I tried to move past this moment, but even months later my anger hasn’t quite dissipated. I still avoid Patrick in the dining hall.
My awareness of racially-charged situations like this has been slowly sharpening since I started college more than a year ago. . I’m not completely sure what about the college environment has led me to think about race. It could be the fact that I am around so many more people of color than I used to be. It could be that my own experiences have been validated — when you talk about race with people who have had similar experiences, you realize that it’s not just you, that it’s not just in your head.
I am white, black, and Asian. People have described my appearance as “ethnically ambiguous” — light brown skin, dark brown eyes, and wavy, brunette hair. I grew up with a white dad, a black and Asian mom, and a younger sister, who I suppose is the only person I know who is the same race as me. I have two white grandparents and two black grandparents — my mom’s biological Asian father was never really in the picture. I’m not one hundred percent sure what Asian country my family is from, and I don’t think I quite comprehended that I was Asian until late middle school. The different facets of my racial identity can be confusing to navigate, and I’ve found comfort in the idea that sometimes I don’t have to break myself down into fractions. Sometimes I can just be mixed and leave it at that.
These days, I think about race all the time — this is new for me. As a child I was one of the only kids of color who attended my public elementary school in Pennsylvania’s rural Amish country, but I remember feeling pretty comfortable. I spent my time playing with my two best friends, catching frogs in the pond, holding chicken weddings on the trampoline, and taking my sheep on walks. At the end of the day, I felt like any other little kid. Yet when I mentioned to my mom a few months ago that I didn’t seem to think about race that much as a child, her eyebrows scrunched in confusion.
She told me that from her perspective it seemed like I definitely thought about race. She described to me an afternoon when I came home from preschool. “I don't know why you said it,” she said. “Something must have happened to you or made you think of something. I don't know.” But I came home and told her that I wished her skin was lighter. I heard these words and my stomach clenched, and it became a little difficult to breathe for a second. I felt sad and ashamed and horrified that I had said this and didn’t even remember. And I thought about how my mom must have felt when I said that to her.
I wanted to see what my dad and sister remember about our interracial family growing up in rural Pennsylvania. When I talked to them, their perspectives were starkly different. My dad definitely didn’t think about or notice race as much as my mom did. He actually seemed to think about my childhood in much the same way I did for so long. He told me, “My recollection is you had this kind of really cool, idyllic, unspoiled country childhood.” Our conversation ended up being more about his own transformation — having women of color make up his immediate family forced him to grapple with issues he otherwise wouldn’t have.
It was my sister, however, who experienced life with me as a child herself. I wasn’t surprised to find that, like me, she doesn’t remember thinking too much about her race. However, it was clear that when she did, it was in a different context. She told me, “My skin color is not very dark, like I was the same skin color as everyone else, but probably for me it would be my hair.” Our awareness of our race was shaped by our “less white” features — my skin and her hair. She described how she would feel differently about her own hair if she saw other people with curly hair in her classes. She said, “I think that's why I wear my hair in a ponytail and stuff, because everyone else had straight hair. And in fourth grade a girl in my class had curly hair and I was like, ‘Oh, she has curly hair. I’m not the only one.’”
I still remember living life without race in the forefront of my mind, but as I think back, memories do seem to resurface. When I was in third grade, my guidance counselor had our class play a game. I don’t remember what the point of the game was exactly — I think they must have been trying to introduce the concept of diversity to us — but I know it required us to stand on one side of the room or the other depending on how we answered a series of questions. About halfway through the game the counselor said, “Stand on that side of the room if you are not white.” I stood alone in the middle of the room, completely frozen by indecision. I turned to the counselor and blurted out, “But I’m both!” She smiled at me, and told me to choose a side.
I remember feeling utterly lost in that moment. My memory tells me I followed the rest of my classmates to the “white” side of the room, because I’m half white. But then I remember standing there and feeling like I got the question wrong. Was I white? I didn’t know.
The classic mixed dilemma — to choose a side or check a box. The choice I was forced to make speaks to the way we see race in the U.S.: You’re white, or you’re not.
A 2005 study conducted by Erica Chito Childs, “Navigating Interracial Borders,” examines various aspects of the lives of black and white couples. The chapter titled “Multiracial Problems for Black and White Families” finds that much of the opposition to interracial relationships is expressed as concern for biracial children. The U.S. perception of race is built on the idea that racial groups are fundamentally different.“Biracial individuals are a threat to these racial boundaries and groupings,” Chito writes, “because their very existence undermines the assertion that race is a mutually exclusive grouping.”
Racial boxes are clearly drawn, and the expectation is that people fit neatly into them. But mixed kids fuck up the boxes. We prove they aren’t real.
In his autobiography, “Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Barack Obama addresses and condemns the tendency of some mixed-race people to reject their non-whiteness: “The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around.” He continues, claiming that, in America, white is the only “nonracial” race. “And we, the half-breeds and the college degreed, take a survey of the situation and think to ourselves, ‘Why should we get lumped in with the losers if we don’t have to?’” he writes.
Going to elementary school in rural Pennsylvania, I didn’t think about ideas like this. I was surrounded by white people, and because I was half white, most of the time I could assimilate to the people around me — the “nonracial.”
I’ve focused a lot on the ways in which my mixed identity has caused me confusion and hurt. But being mixed has also granted me a lot of privilege. Colorism — discrimination based on the shade of one’s skin — turns people’s prejudices in my favor. The problem that Obama brings up is one that I do consider now. I am not trying to equate my experiences with those of other people of color, or discount those experiences. But by identifying as a mixed person, am I practicing my own form of internalized racism?
I don’t intend to portray a picture of damage either. In her study on black and white couples, Childs expresses that interracial opposition seemed to invoke the “traditional image of ‘tragic mulattoes’ predisposed to emotional and psychological problems.” She continues, writing that “the concern for the children conjures up the image that these children will have to ‘pay’ for the parent’s actions, reminiscent of the biblical injunction that ‘the sins of the fathers will be visited on the sons.’”
I assure you, I do not consider myself a “tragic mulatto,” or feel like every day of life is a punishment for my parents’ sins. The irony is that I would be perfectly unperplexed by my racial identity if it weren’t for the perceptions of others. The existence of mixed people in itself is not an issue. We are not damaged, but we damage racial traditions.
Obama does go on to soften his words from above, recognizing his own insecurity in his critique of one of his mixed-race friends. He adds, “In their mannerisms, their speech, their mixed-up hearts, I kept recognizing pieces of myself. And that’s exactly what scared me. Their confusion made me question my own racial credentials all over again.”
That feeling of realizing “I’m not the only one” that my sister mentioned is a feeling I’ve come to know well since coming to college. I’m now in a much more diverse place than my home, and college has challenged me to explore issues of race.
We grow up in a world that tells us to identify ourselves and others as this or that. But when I try to identify myself as this or that, I get confused. The one-drop rule would say that any drop of “black blood” that I have makes me black. But I don’t look very black. How much of that identity should I claim when my experiences have been so different? I’m also Asian. However, I don’t feel very Asian — is that bad? Plus, I’m white. Maybe I can even “pass” as white, when people praise the “tan” skin that I still have in the winter. But when does this praise of light skin turn into a racial fetish? Maybe it’s when I’m called “exotic,” or when I hear people go on and on about how cute mixed babies are. I have a lot of privilege and a lot of confusion and a lot to think about all at once.
I’m perplexed, and perhaps I always will be. I’m going to keep growing up and my concept of my racial identity will keep changing. It’s malleable and nebulous because it’s not real. And yet, as my understanding of my race becomes more complex, it also solidifies. I’ve learned a new vocabulary to describe the things that I’ve felt and I’ve discovered nuances that fill in the cracks. Moving into a new environment has complicated my view of myself — but also clarified it.
My resident tutors have a mixed-race, four-year-old son. Recently, I was waiting for the very slow and rickety elevator with his mom, and she asked me if I could suggest some mixed role models to show him. I went back to my room and immediately started brainstorming. I’m pretty sure that their son, like me, will always be somewhat confused by his mixedness. But he’s living on an urban college campus, there is a mixed-race girl living down the hall from him, and he’s probably already steps ahead of me in his conception of race at age four. Maybe he’ll be able to say earlier in his life than I did, “I’m not the only one.”
— Magazine writer Maya H. McDougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mayamcdougall2.