I can no longer count how many times I’ve been asked this question, which comes from long-time acquaintances and strangers alike. I hear it awkwardly phrased by colleagues months into a new job and approached sheepishly by new boyfriends, whom have all wondered the same thing but don’t quite know how to bring it up.
“So what are you?” they’ll ask.
“What do you mean? As in, what ethnicity am I?” I’ll reply.
“Well, yeah. Just, like, where exactly does your family come from, or whatever,” they’ll repeat, looking anywhere but at me.
“Oh. I’m a lot of things,” I’ll reply if I don’t feel like getting into it that day.
Thanks to a history of interracial couples on both sides of my family, and especially my parents’ marriage, I suppose I’m an amalgam of anywhere between six and nine ethnicities; a one-stop-shop for half a dozen cultures all rolled into one human being. But what I usually tell people is, “my mom is Puerto Rican and Black, and my dad is white.” It’s simple, if a tad inaccurate.
Growing up, my siblings and I had experiences that only people of mixed race can relate to – like, never looking like any of our cousins or knowing which box to check on the racial identification section of standardized tests. I wasn’t really able to share beauty products with my mom because her hair was more textured and her skin darker than mine. And she has told me stories about how people used to think that she was the nanny when she would take me to the grocery store as a baby. Initially, we had no idea that we were different, but as we reached an age of consciousness about those types of things (and as people began pointing it out) it became increasingly clear.
Many children of mixed heritage can relate to the confusing process of trying to figure out which crowd to run with. If I felt like I had one foot on either side of the divide in my own family, I certainly felt that way in social settings. The white kids would gather around me in awe as I explained my background and the black kids would parade me around like, “This is Sabrina. Can you believe she’s black?!” Now that I have this perspective, I can tell that it led me to feeling like all I ever wanted to do growing up was blend in. People just didn’t know where I fit in or what to do with me, and neither did I.
I think, in a way, the confusion that I am sometimes met with due to my race is similar to the type of treatment women still experience in societies that have only recently begun a conversation about female empowerment and gender equality. For women who don’t fit into traditional gender roles – those who dare to start their own businesses, thrive as single, working mothers, or become active in politics – it can feel as if they are constantly being asked to validate their purpose and position in life. It isn’t uncommon to stand beside relatives and strangers alike and still feel alone.
While, thankfully, I have never been subjected to outright discrimination due to my racial background, I have felt as if I was upsetting the status quo on multiple occasions as a woman, even from where I stand in western society. Whether we are deemed different because of our actions or simply because we were born that way, women and people of mixed race know all too well the feeling that you don’t quite belong with a particular set of people or blend seamlessly into a particular profession.
Maybe it’s a conscious effort on your part to do things differently. Or, maybe, like my brothers and I, you look around one day and suddenly come to this realization that your very essence speaks volumes about how far we have come as a society.
By Sabrina Willard