Can We Talk

Please check one of the following boxes:

Black

White

Asian

Indigenous

Métis

Other

 

In my younger days I remember filling out a job application and staring at that question about race for so long. Do I check the ‘Black” box? What the hell is “Other?” My hand hovered over the question for a long time …

The more I write about life as a mixed-race person, and what this means to me as a mother, woman, writer etc, the more the writing itself tends to be less about race and more about missing pieces, and figuring out the order of these pieces and how to put them together. And not only the pieces I’ve never had, but re-working and making do with the ones I do have.

My dad and I have never had a face to face conversation. We’ve written emails back and forth here and there over the course of 15 years. I’ve been struggling for a while now, stuck in the two parts of myself, wondering where I am supposed to fit. What stories are mine? What stories do I have the right to tell? I hold on tightly to fragments. I wonder if he knows the complexities of what I went through growing up. I wonder if he would have constructed a conversation with me as a young girl and given me advice on how to deal with questions about where I came from. I wonder how that conversation would have sounded.

 

From: Dad

To: Chelene

Sent: Sunday April 28, 2013 6:37 p.m.

Subject: Re: Uganda 1972: An Erasure Prose Poem draft

Oh my god, this is very good Chelene. How did you do this? It has some really good depth in how you constructed this. If anyone who reads both the articraft in your creation with the context of the true reality for those who were ousted as well as the dictatorship of what happened especially without changing the order of the words, tells a story almost in a biblical way.

 

From: Chelene

To: Dad

Sent: Sunday April 28, 2013 5:45 p.m.

Subject: Uganda 1972: An Erasure Prose Poem draft

Uganda—the pearl of Africa.  The beauty of a peaceful sun setting could not erase our growing feeling that the flavour of a once promising land was evaporating.  African kingdoms: The Bunyoro kingdom, the Buganda kingdom—it’s strength abolished and divided.  The people were divided, shaken by the expulsion, the elimination—Amin’s brutal reign of terror.  Carpenters, mechanics, shoemakers and tailors—the middlemen.  The sting of a privileged position?  Never.  The political winds transformed into a choice.  Minority eyes prevailed that day.  Identify yourself; breakthrough for Uganda.  The Asian presence of Kampala.  His palace.  His tombs were woven thatched roofs that swooped to a point high above the straw-laden floors below, lending a cathedral-like silence to the sacredness of the earth below where royal attendants continually watched over the remains of their dead kings.  Kampala—the arched and pillared windows were endless.  Nestled behind sundown, an Indian dialect of silks and cottons.  Our eyes lettered names like “Patel” and “Desai” “Bombay Emporium.”  The ashes of Uganda walked many miles and carried their heads.  It was tedious work.   It took years.  The image was small, this image.  It was the same image they left behind.  Why should we wait in line for justice?  Help us begin to drink the pain of Uganda.  The mountains appeared at sunset.  The hillsides of women flowed in the breeze.  The men brought comfort but their eyes told accounts of death.  In their minds, their birth.  Like precious jewels in a hairdo or turban, we heard stories of escape.  They looked back on the homes they built.  They looked back on the tiny store their grandfather established.  A mirror of minority alone in their difficult hours.  Uprooted.

*

I considered the pieces. I re-ordered the pieces. Using ONLY the pieces I had, I created a conversation between my father and I:

*

Uganda—the pearl of Africa.  The beauty of a peaceful sun setting could not erase our growing feeling that the flavour of a once promising land was evaporating.  African kingdoms: The Bunyoro kingdom, the Buganda kingdom—its strength abolished and divided.

“If anyone who reads both the articraft in your creation …”

A mirror of minority alone in their difficult hours.

The people were divided, shaken by the expulsion, the elimination—Amin’s brutal reign of terror.  Carpenters, mechanics, shoemakers and tailors—the middlemen.  The sting of a privileged position?  Never.

“With the context of the true reality for those who were ousted …”

Uprooted.

They looked back on the tiny store their grandfather established.

The political winds transformed into a choice.  Minority eyes prevailed that day.  Identify yourself; breakthrough for Uganda.  The Asian presence of Kampala.  His palace.

“The dictatorship of what happened …”

In their minds, their birth.  Like precious jewels in a hairdo or turban, we heard stories of escape.  They looked back on the homes they built.

His tombs were woven thatched roofs that swooped to a point high above the straw-laden floors below, lending a cathedral-like silence to the sacredness of the earth below where royal attendants continually watched over the remains of their dead kings.

It has some really good depth in how you constructed this.” 

The mountains appeared at sunset.  The hillsides of women flowed in the breeze.  The men brought comfort but their eyes told accounts of death.

Kampala—the arched and pillared windows were endless.  Nestled behind sundown, an Indian dialect of silks and cottons.  Our eyes lettered names like “Patel” and “Desai” “Bombay Emporium.”

The ashes of Uganda walked many miles and carried their heads.  It was tedious work.

“How did you do this?”

It took years.

The image was small, this image.  It was the same image they left behind.  Why should we wait in line for justice?

“… tells a story almost in a biblical way …”

Help us begin to drink the pain of Uganda.

especially without changing the order of the words.”

“Oh my god, this is very good Chelene.”

—Dad.

With these missing pieces, I answer my own questions: am I even “mixed race?” What is this and what does it mean? I remember thinking about the terminology used to define those who did not fit neatly into categories of race. Mixed, bi-racial, blends, etc. I wonder if we can do better. I’ve been picking sides all my life. Switching sides when it suited me best, and always wondering how to “construct” this conversation with myself. Do I have to self-identify? Do I have to check a box on a form? Who wants to check “other” box? I don’t.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

continuing studies shots of chelylene for brochure

Chelene Knight lives in Vancouver, BC and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio 2013 in the poetry cohort. Chelene is a Library Assistant at the Vancouver Public Library, and Managing Editor at Room. Previously, she worked as a Manuscript Consultant through SFU, and as a proofreader at Montecristo magazine along with other editor gigs with a poetry focus. She has been published in Amazing Canadian Fashion MagazineSassafras Literary MagazineemergeThe Raven Chronicles Literary Magazine, and in Room 37.4. She just finished her second manuscript, Dear Current Occupant, a collection of sonnets, prose poems, and letters which is forthcoming with BookThug in 2018. Chelene is now dabbling in short short SHORT fiction. Her first book, Braided Skin, was published by Mother Tongue Publishing in Spring 2015. Find out more about Chelene at cheleneknight.com and @poetchelene.


Braid My Hair on the Train

you are not your hair it’s all political

drama, an intricate poking of brush

on canvas, of paint, of ink, black and light

brown—your skin, your blend of ethnicities is shadow,

and cuticle, nail, and bone a harvest

of marrow, tunnel, suction, severing —

dismounting—easy. claiming sides—easier,

but a climb upside down—takes grip. no one

allowed to touch, characteristics will hinge

on back and forth, to claim, to choose, to pick

sides. what other defining features will

you feature to define these edges

will shrink like the slow burn of paper,

and a shifting of colour—I’ll get used to the rippling.

you promised to keep it simple. Remember:

hair is entirely public;

but my background is not they’d say this hair

is a separate entity from the rest of my body.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

continuing studies shots of chelylene for brochure

Chelene Knight lives in Vancouver, BC and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio 2013 in the poetry cohort. Chelene is a Library Assistant at the Vancouver Public Library, and Managing Editor at Room. Previously, she worked as a Manuscript Consultant through SFU, and as a proofreader at Montecristo magazine along with other editor gigs with a poetry focus. She has been published in Amazing Canadian Fashion MagazineSassafras Literary MagazineemergeThe Raven Chronicles Literary Magazine, and in Room 37.4. She just finished her second manuscript, Dear Current Occupant, a collection of sonnets, prose poems, and letters which is forthcoming with BookThug in 2018. Chelene is now dabbling in short short SHORT fiction. Her first book, Braided Skin, was published by Mother Tongue Publishing in Spring 2015. Find out more about Chelene at cheleneknight.com and @poetchelene.


Mouthing Along to the Words

…He turns the pages like this on purpose and it sounds like the loud screech of a crow’s claws sliding down a wall of freshly rained-on metal—that kind of sound that makes you want to cover your ears and slap someone all at the same time. He sits there reading “All the Light We Cannot See” while mouthing along to the words. His upper lip moving much slower than the bottom, he smiles at certain parts, clears his throat at others. Occasionally, he will stop to bite a piece of hanging skin by his nail, say “hmmm” then glance out the window and take a monstrous sip out of his giant mug of over-creamed coffee. He returns to his book, furrows his brows as if he doesn’t know what the words on the page are trying to tell him, but really, he’s probably just trying to look intense. Or maybe, it’s just a really good book. But what can be said about reading a book? There’s so much more to be seen that no one notices, but I notice. I notice the steady but slow rocking back and forth and the way he holds the spine of the book in his hands like one would cradle the neck of a new born baby and I wonder just then, what he’s thinking. I realize how beautiful he is and how the whiteness of his skin looks so soft from here and how I wish I was the spine of that book, that holds together all the pages that make him mouth along to the words.

The above is something I wrote while staring at my boyfriend while he read his book in bed with a morning coffee. I sat across this room from him, on the floor on a Saturday morning and simply watched him turn the pages. A simple act. A blink of the eye type moment. Something that would normally go unnoticed to most.

I have always struggled in relationships. There was always a fear planted, watered, and wedged deep in the back of my mind. This fear was like a hand-written sign, painted in blood-red ink that said: You’ll never be good enough, you’ll never fit the mold, you’ll never be what they’re looking for. Now whether or not race places a role here, I do not know for sure. What caused me to label myself as “not good enough”? Did this have anything to do with the confusion I felt growing up mixed-race? Again, I do not know for sure, but I did this in every relationship I have been in because I was never allowed to be myself… until now.

Something is different this time around. The things that I cannot answer, are wrapped in the comfort of my own understanding that for the very first time I am not worried about mixed-race relationships, or being in one because no matter who I decide to be with, it will always be a mixed-race relationship. I am not worried about how people see me, or what they may say about me, or us because something feels like it goes a bit deeper. For me to sit and write a description like the one above, to free myself from the clutter and blur, and see the details, from just glancing across the room, must mean something has changed in my life. Something must have clicked, or fell quietly in to place like a lost puzzle piece that was hidden under the bed for the longest time leaving that 10,000-piece puzzle incomplete for years. I feel like I found that piece, without ever realizing it was missing, or that I was looking for it.

Even though that description was written about him, I was only able to write it because I am seeing myself for the very first time, in all my entirety. I have all the pieces and I know exactly where they go.

I’ve judged myself and allowed others to judge me based purely on my exterior appearance for so long, that I began to paint—and even write—a distorted image of what I see every time I look in the mirror. I realize that what I see will always be different from what he sees, and different from what everyone sees, but he has helped me to de-blur and to look deeper. He has helped me to hug the details, cradle the spine, and shown me that I can turn the pages as loudly as I want and mouth along to the words—just as long as they are my words.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

continuing studies shots of chelylene for brochure

Chelene Knight lives in Vancouver, BC and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio 2013 in the poetry cohort. Chelene is a Library Assistant at the Vancouver Public Library, and Managing Editor at Room. Previously, she worked as a Manuscript Consultant through SFU, and as a proofreader at Montecristo magazine along with other editor gigs with a poetry focus. She has been published in Amazing Canadian Fashion MagazineSassafras Literary MagazineemergeThe Raven Chronicles Literary Magazine, and in Room 37.4. She just finished her second manuscript, Dear Current Occupant, a collection of sonnets, prose poems, and letters which is forthcoming with BookThug in 2018. Chelene is now dabbling in short short SHORT fiction. Her first book, Braided Skin, was published by Mother Tongue Publishing in Spring 2015. Find out more about Chelene at cheleneknight.com and @poetchelene.


I Wanted to Tell Him

Never sure how the word “dad” would sound coming out of my mouth or even the way it might feel as it slides off my tongue. What would it feel like for him to place a triple-scoop vanilla ice cream cone in my tiny five-year-old hand, and wipe the drips off my chin with a crumpled up napkin from his pocket, while we hear the people passing by whisper,

 

she looks just like him.

 

I wanted to tell him that when I think about how I grew up “mixed” the only word I taste is confusion and how it seemed to tower over my teenage mind like a translucent fog full of “what ifs” “how-comes” and “are you sure’s”. My Black mother raised me the best she could by herself, but I was angry, I’m still angry. My East Indian-Ugandan father, not visible, never visible, I can’t hug him like I want to. I can’t hear his voice like I want to … even when nothing else is audible.

 

I wanted to tell him that whatever memories I have of him always show up blurry and unrecognizable, fragmented and sparse except for the fact that we both like massive amounts of black pepper on our over-easy eggs (I learned this when I visited him at eleven years old and we both covered our eggs in the black sprinklings)—the very first similarity.

 

I wanted to tell him that it’s ok to call me his daughter, but whether or not he sees me as such I do not know.

 

I don’t want to know.

 

I wanted to tell him that I do not look like anyone else in my family. Some of the younger cousins are mixed in some way—but not my way. I don’t possess the soft beauty of my half Black, half White cousins. I do not possess the deep dark beauty of my mother and aunts because they hold the very things I always wished I had—there’s a beauty in knowing who you are.

 

I wanted to hide so that I wouldn’t have to answer questions about my father:

 

Is she Black? What is she? I think she’s East Indian. No, look at her hair, she’s definitely not Black. Where’s she from?

 

I wanted to tell him that when people ask who my father is I tell them about the eggs.

 

I wanted to tell him that I live in a city where everywhere you go, there’s mixed people. People dipped in all 364 shades of brown. People in coffee shops, bank lines, grocery stores, hair salons, libraries, crowded buses and over-booked restaurants. And when I walk down the street with my mother, my daughter, or my cousin, I don’t want to have to prove we are related by answering a series of questions, followed by a series of follow up questions, and then long stares, and “are you sure’s?” ending with my own deep sighs.

 

I wanted to tell him—to confess—that I wasn’t sure who I was back then or now, and that I told terrible lies to avoid the questions that always came:

 

You’ve got good hair. Why do your hair up. Let your hair down. Look how long your hair is when you straighten it. Smile, your hair is beautiful. Your hair looks good against your light skin, don’t you think?

 

I tell terrible lies.

 

I wanted to tell him that my then eight-year-old tri-racial daughter who’s now fourteen, used to ask me why she doesn’t have a grandpa, and that I had no answer for her because no one had an answer for me.

 

I wanted to tell him that when I look into the mirror now as a thirty-five-year-old mixed-race woman I still have no idea what I am supposed to see, and that I still wonder if living in between is ever a safe place to reside.

 

I wanted to tell him that when people tell me I’m beautiful it hurts for days and days.

 

When my daughter says she does not want to go to her dad’s for the weekend I tell her to hug her dad while she can. When she says her dad doesn’t understand, I tell her to explain things to her dad while she can. When I sort through old photos of my baby daughter smiling and posing with her dad, I say to myself, she will need these someday.

 

I tell her to write down all the things she wanted to tell him.

 

Then tell him.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

continuing studies shots of chelylene for brochureChelene Knight lives in Vancouver, BC and is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio 2013 in the poetry cohort. Chelene is a Library Assistant at the Vancouver Public Library, and Managing Editor at Room. Previously, she worked as a Manuscript Consultant through SFU, and as a proofreader at Montecristo magazine along with other editor gigs with a poetry focus. She has been published in Amazing Canadian Fashion MagazineSassafras Literary MagazineemergeThe Raven Chronicles Literary Magazine, and in Room 37.4. She just finished her second manuscript, Dear Current Occupant, a collection of sonnets, prose poems, and letters which is forthcoming with BookThug in 2018. Chelene is now dabbling in short short SHORT fiction. Her first book, Braided Skin, was published by Mother Tongue Publishing in Spring 2015. Find out more about Chelene at cheleneknight.com and @poetchelene.

 


Pause

I was once asked if I would prefer to be White

It gave me pause

Would I prefer to never have to think of the tone of my skin?

The texture of my hair?

The size of my hands?

The strength of my legs?

Would I prefer to be called beautiful, rather than exotic?

A mulatto gem?

An Oreo?

The Whitest-Black friend they ever had?

Would I prefer to not be followed in stores?

Stared at for looking at the finer things?

Scoffed at for dreaming big?

Deemed a miscreant in societies’ eyes?

Would I prefer to be able to walk down a street, unnoticed?

To not have someone clutch his or her bag as I passed?

To have a stranger smile back a hello?

To care for my little brother without judging looks of disgust?

Would I prefer to have “pretty hair,” rather than that for a “mixed girl”?

A “beautiful smile,” rather than, “wow your teeth are shockingly perfect”?

“Perfect nails,” rather than, “what brand do you use?”

To not be asked where I got my “weave” done?

Would I prefer to be blind?

Shallow?

Ill-Informed?

Dismissing?

I was once asked if I would prefer to be White

I smiled, threw my long natural curls over my shoulder, and said

“I’ll take wisdom over ignorance any day.”


 

DeannGraduation1a Keenan lives in Upstate New York and recently graduated from Binghamton University with B.A.s in Psychology and Africana Studies, with honor’s in Africana Studies. She is currently a Copy Editor for Africa Knowledge Project – a publishing house that has a wide range of journals that discuss various aspects of the African Diaspora. She is also currently the Guest Blog Coordinator for Mixed Roots Stories. She also holds a position as an Adjunct Lecturer at Binghamton University for the 2016-2017 school year, teaching Africana Studies 101. She has been published in the journal ProudFlesh twice, with two pieces in production, and has presented at the American Public Health Association (November 2015). She hopes to continue her education in Developmental Psychology, researching Mixed Race identity formation, among other topics regarding the population.


Are We Black Enough Yet?: A Look at the Mixed Person’s Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement

I’m mixed – African American and Irish. My mother is Black – I was raised solidly within the African American culture alongside a firm understanding and embracement of my Irish roots. Both sides of my heritage are steeped in oppression and slavery – histories that people want to forget and ignore. I have been told by my Black friends I have “that good mixed hair,” “that good light skin,” and “dem good pretty eyes.” I know I’m different – I’ve been told that my entire life from family, friends, and teachers – sometimes even strangers when they do the inevitable “guess Deanna’s race game” without my permission. People pass by me on the street or in the mall and they see one of two things: I’m Black with something or I’m Dominican with something; it’s never that I’m White and something.

With the entire world knocking at my door with my “otherness,” feeling the necessity to exclaim that I am not White alone, why do I feel unwelcomed in the conversation surrounding #BlackLivesMatter? Why have I gotten into multiple arguments with – mostly – Black women on Facebook telling me I’m not allowed to be a part of the movement because of my light skin and nice hair? Because of an assumed privilege both of those phenotypic qualities, among others, may or may not have given me in life? Because they assume my mother is White and did not raise me within the lens of a Black person in the United States (not that I’m saying whatsoever that mixed race peoples with White mothers deserve less access to this movement – this is just an argument I’ve gotten into with another Black woman)? Why am I devalued in the eyes of African Americans (most of whom, sorry to say, have White in them thanks to the prevalence of rape during slavery) when I have just as much soul, anger, and desire for equality as they do?

An article written by Shannon Luder-Manuel, a mixed race writer in Los Angeles, really hit me hard with her opening line: “When I talk about my family culture, I’m mixed. When I talk about racism, I’m black”.[1] Praise God, Hallelujah, Shannon you just said what we’re all thinking – we as mixed raced individuals live on this tight rope where if we lean to one side we identify ourselves mixed and embrace both sides of our heritage, but on the other side we have the option to choose which portion of our heritage we want to fall upon. When Trayvon Martin was murdered back in 2012, I was in my first year of undergrad. I cried for days. I saw in him my cousins – Black men I had been raised with and loved by and guided by my entire life. I saw in him my future children – kids who, regardless of the race I marry, will be “others” just like me, just like Trayvon. When Sandra Bland was murdered for a failure to signal, I saw myself – a woman of color who forgets to do the boring tasks while driving. I have never been pulled over (knock on wood) but I have never been as terrified or aware as I am today.

I’m not trying to say that my ambiguous looks do not give me some headway in regards to potentially being harmed by police brutality – I know I confuse people and that’s in my best interests. I know that because White people can’t pinpoint my exact ancestral heritage (I’ve gotten as far out as Indian mixed with Dominican), I have a better chance at not being targeted for the historical no-nos for Blacks, such as DWB (Driving While Black). I know my designer clothes (because my mother buys them for me, I’m poor guys) and my fancy car aid in my assimilation into the “White” culture. I know that the preference for my lighter skin and fluffy curls, both within and without the Black community, puts me at the head of most ethnic status quos. However, even with these “privileges” (I don’t necessarily see them as such because the fou
ndation for my body is still “other” and I will never, ever be able to fully be accepted by the White community) I am still at risk, my family is still at risk, my future family will still be at risk – as long as my body and the bodies directly connected to me, now and in the future, are deemed as “not White,” I will forever fight for the Black Lives Matter Movement.

When the whole of the Black community accepts me – and others with the same intentions and racial ambiguity as myself – the Black Lives Matter Movement will only grow stronger – it will prove to White people that nothing, not even the fact that someone has White directly in their ancestry, will break us. We will always stand together and we will fight until our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones are protected against outside harms. Are we Black enough ye

[1] See: Luders-Manuel, Shannon. (2015). “What it Means to be Mixed Race during the Fight for Black Lives.” For Harriet. Accessed August 9, 2016: http://www.forharriet.com/2015/08/what-it-means-to-be-mixed-race-during.html#axzz4Gt2dOOi3.


 

DeannGraduation1a Keenan lives in Upstate New York and recently graduated from Binghamton University with B.A.s in Psychology and Africana Studies, with honor’s in Africana Studies. She is currently a Copy Editor for Africa Knowledge Project – a publishing house that has a wide range of journals that discuss various aspects of the African Diaspora. She is also currently the Guest Blog Coordinator for Mixed Roots Stories. She also holds a position as an Adjunct Lecturer at Binghamton University for the 2016-2017 school year, teaching Africana Studies 101. She has been published in the journal ProudFlesh twice, with two pieces in production, and has presented at the American Public Health Association (November 2015). She hopes to continue her education in Developmental Psychology, researching Mixed Race identity formation, among other topics regarding the population.


I’m Not Confused: Identifying as Mixed Race

These days it has become more common to find mixed roots people who identify as biracial or multiracial. The days of ‘passing’ are a part of American history and unimaginable to most people today. What does this mean culturally and for multiracial people personally? As someone who has always identified as biracial, I wonder about this often. How do we reconcile our individual identities with the realities of society and the way mixed racial identities are perceived? Is that even possible?

 

A 2015 literature review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science explores the psychology of multiracial identity. One of the findings is that multiracial people can have higher self-esteem if they are raised with an understanding of all of their racial heritage and identify with both parents. When they are asked to choose only one race, they experience a decrease in self-esteem.

 

Personally, I can identify with those findings. Being asked to choose one race not only doesn’t make sense to me, but is a painful experience because it would mean a part of me is missing, or I am actively rejecting my white mother. I believe it is especially damaging for young people to be told or encouraged to identify with only one part of their background. This is the time when we are forming our sense of selves and starting to figure out who we are. For youth of any race, self-esteem is fragile or nonexistent. Therefore, outside pressures have more influence given this impressionability. When it comes to being mixed race, even adults can have a hard time placing themselves in the world and often default to the path of least resistance, whatever that may be in their environment.

 

Despite some benefits, having a strong mixed race identity comes with its challenges. As a mixed race family and individual, intolerance can come from all sides. Intolerance from white people is damaging and has the power of institutions behind it, but I’ve found intolerance from black people to be hurtful in a more personal way. All people of color endure racism from the race in power at some point or another. So if I’m rejected by a fellow person of color based on my racial identity where does that leave me? It can be a lonely place to identify as mixed race in a world where external and internalized racism creates an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.

 

I don’t think any of this is new. The difference could be that now we have the freedom to identify however we want so the issues that always existed are simply out in the open for us all to grapple with. We no longer have to choose one side (though the pressure is still there) and this freedom comes with a need for dialogue and understanding. That’s a challenge that multiracial people face in our culture today. How can we reconcile- within ourselves and others- the divisiveness of racism with our right to accept and love the whole of our identity?

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Bio PicAisha Springer is based in Baltimore. Her writing primarily focuses on issues of race, feminism, and personal essay. She is a Contributing Writer for Hashtag Feminism, a blog examining feminist topics through a media lens, has written book reviews for STAND, the ACLU magazine, and was a 2015 Social Good Summit Blogger Fellow for the United Nations Association (UNA-USA). During the day, she works full-time at a civil rights nonprofit.

Aisha has a Master of Public Administration from American University and a B.A. in Spanish and International Affairs from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

 


How an Anxiety Disorder Shaped My Mixed Race Experience

One of my most vivid memories is from Kindergarten. Holding my mother’s hand, I walked into the school building. An adult bent down to speak to me; I don’t recall her words or who she was, but she said something as simple as hello and asked for my name. At that moment, my body took control. I froze, my body temperature shot up, my heart raced, and my mind went blank. I was physically unable to say or do anything. The feeling of terror from being trapped inside my own body lives in my memory to this day.

 

This was not a singular event. I had a childhood social anxiety disorder called selective mutism, in which a child is unable to speak in social settings, but has no problem speaking in settings where they are secure and relaxed, such as at home. Some children are able to speak only in a whisper or a few words while others are unable to speak at all. This anxiety is often inherited from one or more family members. In my case, my mother struggled with the same disorder as a girl.

 

Because of this disorder, I was very isolated and unable to connect with my peers. Isolation, loneliness, self-consciousness, and self-hate led to self-harm starting in middle school and depression that I manage to this day. As traumatic as all of this was, I look back and see how it protected me from some of the deeper race-related issues that many multiracial people experience. Most of my life has been spent working around social anxiety and its effects–any other problem couldn’t stay on my radar for long. How could I worry about fitting in with a racial group when I would have been overjoyed just to be able to socialize with anyone like a normal child?

 

I was never confused about my racial identity. It was and is a simple statement of fact that my mother is a white German woman and my father is a black Bajan man, therefore I am biracial. It never occurred to me that I might describe myself in any other way. My limited social contact in school, including through the college years when I studied Spanish and lived in an intercultural living exchange dorm, provided few opportunities for that self-identity to be challenged.

 

This is not to say that social anxiety protected me from all racial influence, either negative or positive. Like anyone living in this racialized society, I had many of the experiences that are common among mixed and minority people. I dealt with microaggressions like any other person of color, both from black and white sides. The difference was that I was hyper aware of my disorder and self-conscious of how I was perceived, so I attributed any negative social experience to my anxiety and never to my racial background. Although it is true that my anxiety affected every aspect of my life, in hindsight I now remember some instances when my race also had something to do with it.

 

Even with a social anxiety disorder, I realize that my race could have played a more central role in my youth had I grown up somewhere else. I grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The public schools I attended and the neighborhoods where I lived were racially and culturally mixed. I had classmates of all races and religions. I don’t remember any instances of blatant racism, though there may well have been some that didn’t register with me at the time. But my diverse and generally tolerant environment sheltered me from in-your-face racism that I would have had no choice but to confront. Anything short of blatant bigotry would not have been enough to distract me from my intense fear and anxiety.

 

Now that my social anxiety has become less severe, I’ve been able to breathe and take time to examine my racial experience more closely instead of being consumed by anxiety. I am steeped in social justice issues because of my full-time job at a civil rights nonprofit and the light that is now being shone on racism in this country. As a woman of color who participates in activism and social justice work in a majority black city, there is no escaping racial issues. Due to the nature of my work and its connection to current social movements, I have had to confront race head-on not only externally, but also in an internally reflective way, for the first time.
It’s clear that a wide range of factors affect a person’s lived experience with race. I’ve noticed a lack of non-stereotypical stories when it comes to the mixed experience. Unless you are a tragic mulatto or identify with only one side, your story is rarely heard or shared. As multiracial people like me increasingly claim all of our heritage and become comfortable with ourselves as the whole, complex people that we are, I hope a greater diversity of mixed roots stories begin to emerge.

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Bio PicAisha Springer is based in Baltimore. Her writing primarily focuses on issues of race, feminism, and personal essay. She is a Contributing Writer for Hashtag Feminism, a blog examining feminist topics through a media lens, has written book reviews for STAND, the ACLU magazine, and was a 2015 Social Good Summit Blogger Fellow for the United Nations Association (UNA-USA). During the day, she works full-time at a civil rights nonprofit.

Aisha has a Master of Public Administration from American University and a B.A. in Spanish and International Affairs from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

 


What Exactly is the Mixed Experience?

The idea behind a shared lived experience is that different people can identify with similar things that happen as a result of some part of their identity. Unfortunately, I have met too many people who don’t understand or accept that the mixed experience is on equal footing with any monoracial experience. I’ve listed five common experiences that I have noticed as a black and white biracial woman, but that apply to other mixed backgrounds, as well.

 

  1. Explain, Justify, Defend

Multiracial people are very familiar with constantly having to explain, justify, or defend who we are, our experience, and essentially our existence in the world. The most obvious example of this is the question that all mixed or racially ambiguous people know well: “What are you?” However, the issue goes much deeper than an inconvenience or awkward conversation starter. Sometimes, the answer to the question doesn’t satisfy the asker. It may lead to further explanation or in rare cases, even to an argument.

 

I am often mistaken for Afro-Latina. More than once, when a Latino person has asked me what I am and I respond, they can’t believe my answer so they continue questioning me. “Really? You have no Latina background at all? But you have the face of a Brazilian. (I don’t know what the ‘face of a Brazilian’ looks like, but it has been said to me.) And you dance salsa? You must have at least some Latina in you.” In this situation, my reaction may be amusement, annoyance, or simply boredom with the conversation. In situations involving monoracial black people, things can go a different direction. The dialogue can get much more heated and emotional due to a perceived betrayal or rejection of blackness. In my experience, any negative reaction is more commonly a subtle change in tone of voice or mood. I have a visceral reaction, as well, because I know this to be far from the truth and am hurt by the questioning of my right to accept myself as a complete human being and acknowledge my lived experience.

 

I often avoid these conversations entirely because even the most subtle slights become exhausting and the conversation has never resulted in increased understanding or even acceptance of my experience. Despite what some have been made to believe, acknowledging and validating different experiences among people of color does not create division; rejecting them does.

 

  1. Rejection

No one likes rejection, but everyone experiences it at some point. For mixed roots people, rejection can come from one or all sides of one’s heritage at different times. This reality is what leads to the common feeling of being an outsider and not knowing where we fit in in a racialized world.

 

Some multiracial people, myself included, are most comfortable in racially diverse environments because there is less pressure to conform to the group along racial lines. There is a certain trauma that comes with being rejected over and over again. After years of rejection based on race, you develop defense mechanisms and learn to avoid situations where rejection is more likely, such as a monoracial group setting. But when that avoidance happens, it can be seen as thinking you’re better or rejecting the race. Since we are rarely given a space to talk about mixed experiences, resentment and misunderstanding continue unaddressed.

 

  1. Acceptance — With Conditions

The other side of rejection–acceptance–still involves rejection in a way. Acceptance into a monoracial group often is contingent upon mixed people subverting their own unique experiences as mixed people. If you mention your mixed experience, you risk having to justify or defend it. (See #1) But if you never speak of your experience of being mixed, unless it’s to acknowledge light skin privilege, then you are acceptable. Again, I tend to keep those experiences private because I don’t want to be put in a position where I feel compelled to defend my lived experience.

 

Groups want to claim or reject multiracial people whenever it is convenient- to some people I am black, period. To others, if someone has a parent of any race other than their own, they’re not truly a member of that person’s race. To some white people, as long as you’re some shade of brown or ethnic looking, you’re a minority and that may be enough information for them. At least in my case, I’m sometimes treated as an honorary Latina because I can pass for Latina, I speak Spanish, and dance salsa. All of this can be confusing, especially for youth, and it is why I believe it’s incredibly important for mixed race people to have a strong sense of self despite what anyone else decides to project onto them.

 

  1. Fluidity

Fluidity, when it comes to the mixed experience, means the ability to move between different racial categories and having a variety of experiences with and entry points into different cultures. This wide experience can provide deeper insight into race and the way it plays out. It also means that your perceived and internally felt identity can change depending on your environment. While this is a privilege because it allows increased access to a variety of spaces, there are also downsides. In a world where everyone wants to put people in a box, fluidity can be confusing and very isolating. There is a particular kind of certainty and solidarity that comes with a singular racial identity, something multiracial people do not inherently have. As convenient as it can be to blend in with multiple crowds, it is human nature to desire and seek out one stable community that feels like home.

 

  1. Letting Things Slide Off Your Back

The term “microaggressions” has gotten more attention lately due to the increased dialogue around race. Multiracial people experience microaggressions just like any other minority group; some that are shared with monoracial groups and some that are specific to multiracial people. The difference is microaggressions come from all of the races to which we belong. Sometimes I feel on edge, ready to brace for the impact of microaggressions or outright aggressions from either side. A simple, dismissive “oh, but you’re light-skinned” can throw someone off balance regardless of the intention behind the statement. On top of that, multiracial people are not supposed to speak of the unique experiences they encounter. As I mentioned before, speaking one’s own truth can somehow be seen as a betrayal or statement of superiority.

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None of this is to complain about being mixed race; there are ups and downs to everyone’s experience and I am not a fan of the Oppression Olympics. However, I do believe there needs to be more listening and understanding of the fact that our experience as mixed race individuals is no more or less valid than anyone else’s. It is my hope that one day this fact will not need to be stated because it will be implicitly known.

 

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Bio PicAisha Springer is based in Baltimore. Her writing primarily focuses on issues of race, feminism, and personal essay. She is a Contributing Writer for Hashtag Feminism, a blog examining feminist topics through a media lens, has written book reviews for STAND, the ACLU magazine, and was a 2015 Social Good Summit Blogger Fellow for the United Nations Association (UNA-USA). During the day, she works full-time at a civil rights nonprofit.

Aisha has a Master of Public Administration from American University and a B.A. in Spanish and International Affairs from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


Being Mixed

Throughout the course of my life, interactions with men have taught me three things as a mixed woman: one, I will be hit on with the original technique of men attempting to guess what my ethnic background is, with them more often than not guessing incorrectly, and while I have become used to the initial conversation that starts with commentary on my hair or appearance, men especially derive pleasure from asserting their predisposed racial inclinations onto my bi-racial self; two, depending on which region I am within the United States, men will guess my ethnic background based on their own fanatical notion that because I am mixed I am also exotic- the two don’t necessarily coincide for every mixed person, yet Men will make an otherworldly association based on magazines, media, and a misconception of what being multiracial is; three, if it’s possible to overcome, or even avoid, the first two lessons, stereotypical beliefs then hit me in the face- it’s believed because I am mixed, my children will be beautiful with the rationalizations that because my skin tone and hair color/texture (for some even eye color) do not fit within their established racial frameworks, equates to a genetically fruitful family appearance they can fictionally place in a frame.

Hailing from the melting pot of Killeen, Texas. I spent the majority of my life surrounded by people who look like me. When I say like “me” I mean racially ambiguous people who are multiracial and perhaps not easily identifiable culturally to a stranger. People of blends so rich and beautiful that responding to being mixed or multiracial is more of a norm than an anomaly. Being mixed in this environment never made me feel like an outcast or a trophy in a case because there were plenty of women, and men, just like me. Having blended families and heritage was never associated with the primordial beauty described above in my hometown-something other regions of the United States I have lived at or been in seem to fetishize. It’s not uncommon for soldiers to come back from deployments with wives that further builds the community of interracial families in our city. Maybe it was due to the large population of military families and the deepness of military culture/life, but I can say that Men where I grew up never found being mixed a groundbreaking concept; nor did they find sport in creating conversation based around my culture.

I spent six years in the lovely city of San Antonio, Texas and currently reside in Chicago, Illinois where more than ever my mixed heritage feels like an invitation to an auction and the highest bidder walks away with a prize-me. Unfortunately, there’s a specific set of dialogue and rhetoric I have become accustomed to having with men who feel that because I am mixed, they have the authority to commentate on my hair, body type, or vernacular. I’ve become so conditioned to having conversations about phenotypic aspects of myself- that some men find, due to what they perceive as easily identifiable traits like my hair which is always a dead ringer, … I sometimes think when I see a stranger there must be some cartoon quote above my head that says “What is she? Take a guess!” Here in Chicago, I have had the labels of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Portuguese thrust upon me because of my skin tone, only to find disappointment in the respondent when I inform him or her that I am half Mexican. In that moment, I can see the spark of curiosity fade because I am not the vision of an “exotic beauty-” he or she wanted me to be. To be honest, I’m always eager to break that bubble because explaining what I am is easier than engaging a discussion on what I’m not.

After the bubble of eroticism is gone, I typically get the famous rebuttal of, “I don’t know; you just look it.” To this day I have never been given an educated answer for an assumption of my racial heritage that can be traced back to any culture, such as my language, accent or even a phenotypic feature other than of my body type (of which many women in many races can relate). I hate to break it to men that I’m not the exotic fantasy they envisioned and don’t come from Latin America or Europe, but in the same instance I won’t apologize for their misconceptions of who I am based on being multiracial. There seems to be a strong correlation between the exotification of mixed race women with men; As demonstrated in this paper, I have had this notion engaged through dialogue, body gestures, and sexualization of my mixed self in order to serve the carnal desires of the man. Of the three lessons I have learned throughout the years, the most disturbing one to me is being complimented on my potential to make beautiful children, as if being mixed gives me genetic superpowers. At times it feels like an uphill battle because I am not sure how to educate a man who believes my physical appearance, void of whatever my partner could be, is enough to produce what they believe to be an ethnically beautiful child.

In an era where feminism has become just as much a symbol as the ‘S’ Superman wears, I find myself questioning how my mixed identity alone warrants men the belief they can superimpose their sexual fantasies onto me. As a double minority, I believe it’s partially out of curiosity and the lack of dialogue on how to properly engage conversation with a mixed person depending on one’s motives-whether he or she is intending to truly educate himself or herself, or if he or she only has the desire to date or bed them down. My ethnic beauty should not be what engages or invites men to a conversation with me, but as I’m growing more confident in my mixed identity I’m learning how to subvert that dialogue and pluck myself off the pedestal they chose to put me upon. I’m no one’s dream girl, vacation hottie, or ticket to a pretty family, and the more we move away from associating beauty standards with skin tone, body type, and “good hair,” the less applicable the term “exotic” will be with someone who is mixed.


Desiree Johnson is Texan Lady living in the windy, sometimes temperamental city of Chicago where she is getting her MFA in Creative Writing.

She has publications with The Rivard Report, NSIDE Publications, Study Breaks Magazine and Unite 4: Good. Her approach to writing whether fiction or non-fiction is to keep it as eclectic and diverse as her interest so she is ambitious in wanting to have her writing cross all platforms. She seeks to continue to improve in her skill set as an author, writer, and storyteller while educating others on being bi-racial and interracial relationships. As she continues finishing her MFA she looks forward to the new opportunities that lie ahead and embracing whatever life throws her way. She is currently a contributing writer for Swirl Nation Blog, EliteDaily.Com, an Editorial Fellow with The Tempest, and created the new “Your Hair Story Series,” with Mixed Chicks Hair Products.