Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Reflections on Being Mixed-Race

I recently bought this book that has stories in it from black college students about growing up black. So far, many of the stories I've read have included details about trying to prove themselves to other blacks, as well as whites, and not feeling like they fit in with black people. Whether or not the blacks are biracial or multiracial, the story is the same. Something similar is true for the mixed blacks who have stories in another book I read last year that focused specifically on mixed kids.

Lately, I've been thinking about how I write a lot about being black and black issues but never talk about a mixed identity. I'd actually started a post about it, too, but stopped because I was having a hard time telling what it was like to grow up as a mixed kid. I realized from sitting down and reading, about, three stories tonight that...I was having a hard time because I don't really feel like being mixed was a problem or an issue. It's like trying to make a story where there is none. Sure, there are stories about relating to black kids or white kids, and that has always been a problem for me--particularly relating to black kids. But I don't think the problem was unique to being mixed, and the stories I'm reading confirm that.

Unlike a lot of mixed black kids and even some "full" black kids, I did not think a lot about any problems I had growing up and race. Really, to me, when I look back on some issues--my sexuality and race, in particular--I really was just a dumb, unthinking kid. So much of what happened to me when I was younger was only understood or really thought about in retrospect. So when I was having a hard time with other kids, I wasn't thinking that much about race or really asking/analyzing why. Thinking about those things in retrospect, though, especially when people try to connect adolescent difficulty for mixed kids to being mixed, I don't hesitate to realize that so many black kids had similar problems as I did to some degree.

I've told bits and pieces of my story throughout my blog, and I really don't care to repeat. I just think that, while I was different from most black kids, I also had a different experience growing up mixed than a lot of mixed kids do. I don't think I ever really cared about being mixed, either, until I became an adult. I think mixed kids who look white, part-Asian (particularly black/Asian kids) or racially ambiguous have a harder time, honestly. Because I looked either black or mixed to most people, I thought of myself as black and so did everyone else. My parents didn't have those "you're white and black" discussions with me. If anything, I feel my parents encouraged me to be black--both of them. There were racial discussions going on in the house, but not about our races. I probably heard "she thinks she's white" in a negative connotation about other blacks from my mother more than anything else. When I was a teenager, some Latinos moved across the street, and suddenly I was hearing about them--negatively. Before that, it was mainly whites and blacks being talked about negatively, usually--if not always--by my mother.

I remember writing at various points here about the schools I've attended and the racial demographics. In conjunction with my parents being like they were, I think this also really set my experience apart from other mixed kids, because all of my schools were mixed enough, except for college and law school. I've also lived in really different environments. The first neighborhood I lived in was, I would say, mixed at one point. Then it got more black and started going downhill. Even though I spent about 12 or 13 years living in the city, I don't consider myself a city girl. There are very few "real" cities in the South, and where I was from is definitely just a wannabe city. But we deal with an extreme case of white flight, and, for us, whites move to the same areas at the same time, then middle class+ blacks move to those areas and so on. Whites were fleeing to the "outskirts," the countryside suburbs, and that was the bandwagon my parents got on as middle class+ blacks. I ended up in a white neighborhood, going to a predominantly white school that was still more mixed than most schools in white areas across the nation are.

When I was younger, I was definitely into whiteness. I'm not sure there are ever really black, Asian or Latino kids who weren't. I've discussed this a bit, too. But, basically, I found whites more physically attractive, valued white friends more somewhat, made a couple efforts to fit in with whites and like "white" things--music was the biggest thing, which I'm thankful for now. Other than music, I didn't try to fit in too many other ways because I don't think I knew what to try. I feel confident that my older sisters dealt with a little racial pressure, because they pressured me racially (and because one of my sisters told me how badly blacks treated her white best friend once they got to high school, and that was the end of their friendship)...and I don't think minorities, particularly blacks, pressure others about race unless they feel that pressure on them, as well. After all, you get it from somewhere. For me, with them, this came in the form of music.

When we were young and I was pre-elementary school age, we watched MTV all the time and listened to rock music. I distinctly remember them picking out "boyfriends" from Van Halen videos, and I would jump in and pick out one, too. Then suddenly something changed, and there was a new sound in our house. LL Cool J was on the radio, we were watching BET all the time, and they were bringing home rap tapes and records. At first, I forgot all about rock and listened to nothing but rap and R&B right along with them. But after a few years, I was sneaking to watch MTV and VH1 and was finding rock and pop radio stations on the radio, mainly because I was going to be bused to a predominantly white elementary school and had learned through my sisters that white kids allegedly liked that kind of music. I got my parents to buy me walkmans so that I could listen to this music without being teased by my sisters, because they made it clear that blacks weren't supposed to listen to that stuff. I was a tad confused because I could remember them watching Van Halen, ZZ Top and U2 in the past on MTV. They had liked Madonna and the Bangles, but they would talk about me if they caught me watching their videos later on.

At school, I would only tell my closest black friends that I didn't just like DJ Quik, 2 Live Crew and NWA. They didn't tease me; in fact, I ended up playing my favorite "white songs" for them and, because some of them were looking for my approval, they would learn the songs and "like" them, too. The funny thing is many of those songs are now my favorite songs ever as opposed to rap and R&B songs, and I have them under a playlist on my mp3 player that is composed of all my favorite songs ever. There is only one rap song on the list, and I believe all the R&B songs on it were "crossover" hits, i.e. white people liked them, too. There are probably more country songs on the list than R&B and rap ones combined, and I started listening to country music a few years later based on what my white friends seemed to like to listen to. While I would have been nervous to show anybody who was black that list 15 years ago, blacks have lightened up a bit on the music front and my family can admit to liking "white songs" now. Ironically, they are probably the only people who know I love Celine Dion and don't think that's cause to be a jack@ss like a lot of whites now do.

People talk about blacks as if there is one culture. Personally, I don't think blacks have a culture...but if you were going to talk about blacks in those terms, I think you'd need to acknowledge three race/ethnicity-based cultures within the culture: being mixed, being African and being "full" black. In retrospect, my experience was "full" black females were more aggressive, manipulative, intimidating and--I'll say it--meaner than I or white girls were. It's hard to ignore how class plays a part in what kind of black person you're dealing with, but when I was younger the black females were definitely not middle class. I've noticed since college that, though in high school some of them were middle class for our area, those black girls were not middle class in comparison to the black women I know today. I'm not sure I even am. But I do know I was not raised to be like other black girls, as I'll discuss a little more later when I write more about my father.

I still find the black women I knew in college and know in law school to be intimidating, but more so because of race than I did when I was growing up. When I was growing up, I didn't know a lot about being "black enough" or light skin vs dark skin, though I knew something about "good hair." Nobody ever commented to me about those kinds of things, other than my hair. I've never been accused of not being black enough, though in high school I probably had an inkling that some black students regarded me that way and that kind of thing is a lot more uncomfortable now than it used to be since I'm now aware of it...which is a huge reason why I find black women intimidating. I mentioned this to say that when black girls were mean to me as a kid, I had no idea why and I still don't know why...because they never said anything that would hint at a reason. The older I've gotten, the more open black women have been to me--at least on the surface, i.e. I feel they are being fake. I don't feel accepted by them, and I've only consciously not felt accepted by other blacks because of racial issues in my 20s (I'm almost 27).

Still, unlike a lot of the stories I read, I don't particularly care if I'm not black enough to others. I don't understand caring about that. What would be in it for me if I were--a black community? Why do you want friendship from and acceptance by people who can't accept you for who you really are? It's not worth my time. And, frankly, as much as I complain about white people, I've consistently found way more accepting and supportive whites without my having to do or prove anything. When I was younger, I think most whites liked me because I did seem "different" from other blacks. Now that I don't relate to whites anymore, when white people become my friends and support me it is totally for who I am, not because of how "white" I am.

When I was younger, I did have a lot of white friends, but that initially wasn't on purpose. I really did try with blacks because I had gotten indirect messages from my family that my friends were supposed to be black. But I just could never get along with the black girls. I think the women in my family--the blacks--both understood that and didn't understand it, particularly my mother. Whenever I came home crying or a teacher called my mother because a group of black girls and I had drama at school--usually because they'd told a lie about me, were making fun of something about me or were intentionally trying to keep other black girls from being friends with me--my mother would go off about black girls. But my parents would also later want to know why I didn't have many black friends and got upset because they felt I was too influenced by whites. But after years of the same thing over and over again with black girls, I got tired of the drama and started hanging out predominantly with whites. Black guys treated me well, so they were fine also. But I guess I also felt some societal expectation that I hang out with girls--even though I often preferred guys--and white girls were the most accepting girls.

But I could never have a real friendship with white girls back then, and that was something I never understood at the time, either. We were fine at school, but they never invited me anywhere. The one time one of my white friends did, her father was a racist @ss to my mother over the phone. Most of my white "friends" never called me. On Mondays, I would sit in class and listen to them and other white girls talk about what they did together over the weekend, wondering how I could get close enough to them to be included. Every time I did meet their families and/or end up at their houses, I would put my best foot forward but there would always be tension with their parents.

It's really hard to describe the looks whites gave me, but they obviously were not happy. And the more I tried to seem impressive, the more unhappy they were. Despite the popular rhetoric that blacks need to prove themselves to whites, sometimes whites don't like blacks who are intelligent/middle class/well-behaved/etc, especially if those whites aren't those things and/or want to hold onto the belief that blacks are not those things. A lot of whites want blacks to remain in their "place," so your proving yourself makes them even angrier. A lot of whites acted as if I'd told them 2x2 is 5 when I told them I was in all advanced courses or told them what college I was going to attend, including some white kids at my high school. Other white kids really respected me and wanted my respect. It was weird, but it was still better than how I'm completely ignored in law school.

I could keep talking about the past, but the stories are all the same--these are similar to things many other blacks deal with. To me, they aren't about being mixed. The only things I remember specifically relating to being mixed are being asked about my parents and having the racial boxes I checked on forms being changed. Being asked about my parents was nothing. For example, one time we were sitting in class and my father came by. One black boy asked me if he was white, and I said yes. That was the end of that. Another time in high school, a white guy looked at me and asked me which one of my parents is white. In college, I was asked where I'm from a few times, with the askers wondering if I was from another country. Once, it was because of how I look. Another time, this Latino kid told me I looked like this Latina he knew. Another time, it was because I pronounced a French word with perfect French pronunciation. Whenever I've told people my father is French, that has tended to be the end of that, though it was a perk in French class since one of my professors was actually French and another one wanted to be French really badly.

On that note, I'd like to say a bit about how I think of the white French vs white Americans. First thing I want to say is, yes, I have huge problems with white men. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere before in my blog, when I refer to white men I mean white American men. I think there’s generally a difference between white Americans and the white French, particularly as it relates to race…and, as a result, I don’t feel the same way towards the white French as I do towards white Americans. I don't have the problems I do with white Americans when interacting with the white French. My experience has always been that once they know I'm partially French, we're cool. That can never happen with white Americans, and that almost never is enough with black Americans (to be part-black or "full" black). Like I said, my French professors loved me.

That said, though, I have noted times when my father demonstrates annoying characteristics my friends and I associate with American white men. Both my mother and I have told him he acts like white American men sometimes, we mean it kind of as an insult and he knows we do. Examples are acting like he knows more than everyone else, being condescending, making fun of people/treating and talking to them like they’re stupid, trying to force his opinion on people by acting like it’s “right”/THE answer/simple “logic,” acting like people are supposed to accommodate him or as if he’s entitled to things and acting crazy (getting loud, non-violent threats, arguing over set rules/methods, etc) in public in order to get his way. These are arguably things all kinds of people do, but white men do it in a way that exudes privilege and domination (not to mention makes people without that privilege want to knock their teeth down their throats).

I think having that kind of parent, though, particularly as a white male, has been beneficial for me. This is especially so as a female who identifies more with men, because I feel I learned a sense of entitlement, fearlessness and confidence that borders on arrogance in some areas. I think this is very uncommon in black women but, I think, those traits help people—particularly white men—succeed. In other words, I learned how to think and act like a white man. Had I identified more with my mother in terms of personality, I would have less confidence and would tolerate more things I don’t like. I believe that when you feel entitled to things and when you rarely think anything is an obstacle to you, you achieve more because you never really envision having to settle for less. In general, when I want something or want something to happen, I get what I want and really can’t tolerate otherwise. While I don’t do some of the things I said my father does, we are very similar people.

In addition, even though people tend to view black women as too overbearing and emasculating, I view them as taking way too much crap, particularly when it comes to black men. Oftentimes, the kind of black women who just go off do so about relatively silly things but let important stuff that they should rip people's heads off for slide. I do think black women are picky and have high standards romantically. But black women, to me, tend to be a weird combination of feminists and traditionalists--the ways in which they are feminists turn men off (i.e. always ahead of non-black women in terms of independence, strength, place in the home, etc) while the ways in which they are traditionalists causes them to willingly be subservient to men (even if the men don't realize it), let [black] men walk all over them but keep coming back/letting them stay/insisting only on dating black men, and spout/support chauvinistic ideals. I, on the other hand, am a little too "spoiled" to put up with the nonsense other black women allow.

There are also a lot of black women who, I feel, are too afraid of whites (i.e. concerned with not being seen as the b!tch, so they won't stand up to whites or try too hard to seem like a "good black" for whites) or buy into the "prove yourself"/"work twice as hard" crap...whereas I don't care who you are. I'm not going to act like anybody is better than I am, just like white men never do. I feel that I'm better than most people and they need to prove themselves to me, not the other way around.

One misconception I think people have about people in interracial relationships is they aren’t racist or they won’t disapprove if their kids get into interracial relationships. Please. I’ve read several stories from mixed kids—all kinds of mixes, not just black/white—and transracial adoptees who grew up with parents making racist comments, telling them to date this race and not that one (sometimes one of the races was one of their own), don’t talk about race at all/deny racial problems/can’t or won’t help their kids with racial issues…just all kinds of sh!t that illustrates that a lot of people have no business with multiracial or minority kids.

You know I like to say everyone’s racist, but my mother is definitely more racist than my father or I am. Neither of my parents are fond of white Americans. My only real problem with Asians and Latinos is too many of them are into whiteness. While that’s one of my mother’s problems with them, that is most certainly not her only problem with them. And I know that my parents have a hierarchy for me—they would prefer a black [male]. My mother thinks I essentially have no choice but to date a white [American male] because I’m going into a profession that is whited-out and most black guys will not be “on my level”—that is really the only reason she’s okay with that.

A Jewish person would not be celebrated nor expected. You might be able to flip a coin on whether an Asian or a Latino would cause more of an upset, but I really think an Asian would take the cake. My mother also really hates black men dating non-black women and other races dating whites. Yes, really. She has also said she does not like dark black men and that mixed blacks are the prettiest. Hmmm…thinking about this, she reminds me of some of these people with fetishes for mixed people or internalized racism. And she is pretty sensitive about being a somewhat darker black person.

My mother and father…I don’t know what they have in common, but that might be why I like people who aren’t like me. My father is generally open to people. He is very sociable. He makes offensive jokes about Asians and Latinos occasionally, but I think he’s one of those people who has no idea what’s wrong with those jokes. I don't think he really dislikes Asians or Latinos. But I know my mother does. My mother tolerates people, in the negative sense of “tolerate.” My father is nice to and friendly with everyone regardless of race. He can’t stand to hear my mother going off about black men not liking black women. I think ultimately he would be the parent who would be laid-back if I became serious about an Asian or Latino. As far as coming out, I don’t know but I suspect the same thing is true.

Although my mother is also part-Native American, I would never claim to be that in any way other than saying it's in my blood. My understanding of Native Americans is they are almost the exact opposite of blacks. Blacks call anyone who has black blood "black," sometimes even if they don't look black, and want them to claim their blackness, identify with black stereotypes, etc. Native Americans will challenge you if you say you're Native American. You have to prove it. You have to know the culture, live the culture. I don't, and I shouldn't. After all, we're Native American via rape. How would I know about being Native American? And to Native Americans, running around talking about your grandmother was Cherokee is a joke to them. There are also other white ethnic backgrounds in my family, since my mother is also part-white and there is one Italian surname in my father's family tree. (Shrugs) I'm black and French. I don't know anything else about being anything else, culturally.

I started identifying as black and French more when my father's mother died when I was a teenager. It wasn't really until then that I'd heard anything about his family's background. My father is not close to his family, not because of race but because that's how he is. We'd been to see his family before, but I was too young to really remember. I've actually been told that his mother wanted to raise me, but my mother didn't want that. My sister (the one who had the white best friend) and I had asked my mother when we were kids if our father was white, but that was it. We weren't interested in his family. When his mother died, that's when we started hearing more about his background. I'd always thought French stuff was cool--after all, my idol was a French-Canadian singer--so it wasn't hard for me to want to learn the language and learn more about the culture. I wanted to go to high school in France, study abroad in France, attend McGill University in Montreal, etc. I think my other sisters were too old to care the same way I did by that time.

Even though I feel I'm mature enough not to be concerned about racial acceptance and, with few exceptions, don't think I ever was all that concerned/messed up about racial acceptance relative to other blacks...as I said, I still do feel intimidated by black women--and, honestly, blacks in general. I am still thinking somewhat in terms of the past, i.e. I'm used to dealing with negative blacks by simply not dealing with blacks. And I still expect negativity and expectations from blacks, although that is not just based on the past. I just don't have the energy to pretend or defend, and I think I am still defensively waiting for the day when some blacks will try to make me defend who I am. I try to avoid it.

There are very few blacks whom I don't feel I'd have to do that with in my environment, and those are the blacks I have as friends. Being in an environment as white and alienating as law school is makes me wish just being black was enough to bond, but it's not. But, ultimately, weighing that conflict of sometimes wishing I could relate more to blacks with liking who I am and not wanting to be something I'm not for others...I am happier with things like this. I'm aware of how this makes me look to other blacks who expect us all to gravitate towards each other just based on skin color. Like I said, I'm too old to worry about fitting in. And I have really good, supportive white friends with a few good Asians and blacks thrown in.

I don't automatically connect with people based on race. Unlike other mixed kids, though, I attribute this more to my naturally having always been different from others, growing up in diverse environments and not having the luxury to be picky about who I hang out with like whites and more "typical" blacks do since they have more people who are like them to choose from and reject. Ninety-Nine percent of the time when I meet someone who is like me or with whom I click, they aren't black. I can't discount them because they aren't black, or keep looking for blacks who fit the mode.

I do think it's sad that it's sometimes easier to find a helping hand or a community among whites than among blacks, but I think this is an issue all blacks need to address in terms of the way they sometimes treat other blacks, regardless of being mixed or not. I read a comment from a guy in one of the books about Asians that he admires blacks because they have more of a sense of community than Asians do. I would say that the black sense of community is actually either similar to or less than that of Asians. All this "community" stuff blacks talk is bs; blacks do way too much alienating for way too many reasons. I suppose sometimes it can be about being mixed, particularly if you don't identify yourself "correctly," i.e. Tiger Woods. But it has never really been about that in my case.