Imma be honest. It’s…difficult for me to write about the nuances that come with being a mixed person. Not because there aren’t any, because there are A LOT, but because…I’ve never felt validated to complain.
As my black cousins would say, “You’re exotic, but not threatening.”
As my white cousins would say, “well…uh…you get to say the n word, right?”
I get their point.
I don’t even know where to start the breakdown of my racial identity and what it means to me. I mean, technically, I’ve always gone by ‘black and white.’
My father’s side is white, but I don’t know where they’re from. My mother’s side is black. There are other ethnicities on my mother’s side, but black is the dominant. My family never talked about it. I never asked. I never really cared either. All I know is that I was never quite…enough.
As much as I hate labels, they are forced upon you, because that’s how the world works. It probably started from the moment of my birth, which surprisingly dramatic. Was it because my family was so excited to welcome a new bubbling bundle of joy?
It was because I was…
“A girl??” my grandmother’s nose crinkled at the news. “We don’t have girls.”
“Well. She’s a girl,” my father tried to reason. My grandfather just shook his head, getting up from his chair and leaving the room. They were in such disbelief, my father probably showed them visual confirmation of my genitals.
“No, son, you don’t understand. Our men never had girls.”
Insert lecture about family blood line.
The conclusion, my mother MUST have cheated on him. There is no way the baby would have come out a girl otherwise. Or, my grandmother lowered her voice, “so dark.”
SURPRISE – or rather not – after forcing me into a DNA test, it was determined that he was in fact the father. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get me into the “in” crowd at their household functions. They never said anything to my face about me, not that I understood at least, but I could tell something was off. It was the same feeling you get when a group of people tell a joke in a different language, and you’re the only one not laughing when the punchline lands.
I was acknowledged, but barely. Like a passing breeze. Or a cobweb in the corner. You occasionally notice it, but it was quickly forgotten in the grand scheme of things.
I didn’t get any presents, I wasn’t invited to family photos, and no one called to check if i was still alive after going through treatment for thyroid cancer. But OkAy – maybe they were busy.
I wasn’t the only mixed kid running around my grandparents’ house though. One of my older cousins had light brown curls that fell down to her waist in loose ringlets. Jackson was the same age as I was, but with rusty red hair. They both had freckles and straight noses. Meanwhile I had dark hair and a not-straight nose. Perhaps it was just coincidence that those cousins got their own rooms upstairs while I slept in the finished basement.
Once, my grandparents threw a house party and all of my cousins were there. But I was the only one asked which country I was adopted from. They not only assumed I was adopted, but now I’m also suddenly from a WHOLE DIFFERENT COUNTRY.
I remember staring at my face in the mirror, confused on the feeling that stirred inside of me. Why didn’t I come out like them?
Let’s fast forward a few years. My father passed away, my mother was deployed to Afghanistan, and I was one year away from middle school. As you can imagine, I was pretty angsty. I moved back to live with my maternal grandmother in a not-so-affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles. Aside from a few trap houses, it wasn’t bad as long as we came inside after the sun went down.
My cousins liked to say I “acted white.” I read too much. I listened to too much Linkin Park. My grades were too high. I couldn’t dance. Y’know, classic white people stuff I guess. They weren’t outright malicious and it was mostly harmless teasing, but again, it felt like I was on the outside. I was dark enough to watch Tyler Perry movies with them, but I got the side eye when the main character’s love interest cheated on her with a lighter skinned woman.
I was black, but not quite black enough.
My grandmother said it was because I was “high yellow.” Has anyone else heard that term?? She never explained what that meant, but I eventually picked up on the mixed (no pun intended) signals given off by colorism.
I could complain about the effort that goes into my hair care, but if I dared mention anything about cutting it, I was met with either utter dread or an annoyed eye roll. I had what was deemed “good hair,” so the audacity I had to suggest shaving my head because “I didn’t feel like dealing with it” was appalling. The fact that I was so tender-headed that I cried every time my hair was brushed was irrelevant. My opinion didn’t matter.
If I applied sunscreen, I was taunted or accused of hating my skin. If I didn’t, I was scolded for ruining my skin. Was I afraid of getting “dark like them?” my cousins jeered, nudging me out of the shade. I was always too quiet in every situation. They assumed I either didn’t like them, or that I was stuck up.
But at least I wasn’t in a basement.
I didn’t have any friends in 7th grade. I was new, and I was weird. Not the cute and *~*quirky*~* Zooey Deschanel weird either. I was weird-weird.
Anyways, I usually ate lunch alone, which I actually didn’t mind, but one day, this girl from my English class walked up to me.She had straight black hair that went all the way down to her hips. Her name was Ariel, we sat next to each other in English class and she drew anime characters in the margin of her notebook. “Hey, you’re Kay, right?” I nodded, because I hadn’t spoken to anyone in 2 weeks and wasn’t sure my voice worked. “You should come sit with us!”
I didn’t actually want to, but it would have been rude to say no.
She led me over to the table where her friends are sitting. They looked up from the table, pursing their lips as they looked me up and down.
“Guys, this is Kay, she’s going to sit with us.” Ariel introduced, plopping her backpack on the table and sliding onto the bench.
“Dominicana?” one of the other girls asked, tilting her head at me.
“Are you Brazilian?” another one asked, her tight curls gelled back into a ponytail. “Where are you from?”
They stared at me, expectantly. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
“You’re raza,” they dismissed the conversation with a wave. La raza, at least how I understood, was the equivalent of “my people.” They probably assumed I was some kind of latinx, or at least close enough.
That was how I was adopted by the cholas.
I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, but my neighborhood was dominantly black and latino (and Korean, but that’s another story), so I understood the lingo. I ate lunch with them every day, quietly at the edge of the table. I related to them (oh yeah, my mom used the chancla too) and everyone in my family also wore bamboo hoop earrings and drew on black Monroe moles.
There was a dance at the end of 7th grade. I, naturally, assumed no one would want to go to the dance with me. But it was still exciting to listen to my new table mates gush about who they thought would ask them. Bianca was the only one with an actual boyfriend, but Maria was pretty sure Jose from math class would ask her out. Even Andrea had a hunch that someone from the the boy’s baseball team had a crush on her.
Ariel seemed to be the only one worried. But finally, two days before the dance, Jesus strolled over to our table. His jet black hair was slicked back and his hand was confidently in one pocket. And of course, he asked out Ariel. The entire table squealed with excitement. “We can all go to the dance!” Maria danced.
“Wait,” Ariel paused, looking at me. “What about Kay? Jesus, do you know anyone Kay could go with?”
Jesus thought about it, blankly smiling in my direction. “Yeah, I think Chris wants to go!”
The day before the dance rolled around, no word from Chris. The day of the dance rolled around, still no word from Chris. “Don’t worry Kay,” Ariel tried to hide her own excitement for the dance. “Maybe he’s just nervous.”
The day after the dance rolled around. Chris had never gotten back to me. After lunch, Maria caught up to me. “Hey Kay,” she started, tucking a curly strand of hair behind her head. “I know Ariel is too nice to tell you, but I thought I should just let you know.” She lowered her voice, leaning in. “He just doesn’t like las morenitas, you know?” She explained with a shrug.
She explained with a shrug. Morena, at least how I understood, was a term used for someone with a dark complexion, usually someone afro-latina or with black heritage. Maria added to -ita to sound to make it sound nicer. She smiled at me, reassuringly. “I think you’re cute though.”
But not cute enough I guess.
You never really know your place in the world, however, until you are an adult. Or at least, a quasi-adult.
My freshman year of undergrad, I was a 17 year old in charge of her own destiny, but also couldn’t quite sign legal documents just yet. I was going to find myself, and hopefully find a place I fit in.
I was excited to be in a completely different state, I moved from California to Oregon, but I didn’t realize how incredibly different Oregon would feel.
I wasn’t expecting it to be so….white.
The lack of diversity sticks out like a neon light. My classes were predominantly white, though maybe in my 500 student lectures, I would get lucky with a handful of other brown kids. There was solidarity just seeing someone else that might have felt like me. We all probably felt more or less…out of place, and that was enough. At least, it felt like it.
The demographic in my primary friend group in university was mostly Asian. In the beginnning, my new friends would ask me “what I am,” ethnically speaking, but I was determined not to go down that path. I was more than just my ethnicity gosh darn it. So I would jokingly say “probably human,” or “I actually don’t know,” or “oh take a guess!” – and then never confirm or deny their guesses.
Eventually, they stopped asking.
My family was never too big on pictures, but the pictures I did have of my childhood, I ripped all of them up in high school. In that sense, it felt like a new beginning.
One day, we were all playing a card game. We had dedicated family nights where we would all hang out and play games. This particular game, everyone played a role and one person was the emcee. The king and queen were both chosen, and then for the princess, my name was picked. I didn’t think anything of it.
“Lol,” the emcee laughed. “Their baby came out black.” It was more of an off-handed comment, but I don’t know why it put me off. Maybe it was because I looked around at my friends -my university family- who were all laughing. Maybe because it reminded me that I didn’t quite fit in with everyone else. Maybe I was just overly sensitive that day. I bowed my head until the game moved on.
No matter how neutral you attempt to be, there will always be a label.
I just stopped trying. It was exhausting. If someone misidentified my ethnicity, I didn’t bother correcting them. Maybe I should have, maybe it would open their point of view to all the different shapes and colors mixed people can be. But also maybe it would be a waste of time, and frankly I didn’t care enough.
“What really? Are you sure you’re not ____”
Oh, sorry random stranger, you ARE right. I must be whatever box you think I fit into. My apologies!
Now that I have a settled job, a solid three friends, and a step-dog, the only time anyone asks me about my ethnicity is either when I’m traveling (see above paragraph) or within the travel community.
I don’t know if you’ve seen or noticed them before, but there are something called “feature pages” on Instagram. They are accounts that repost pictures from other people that fit whatever kind of theme or “image” their account is focused on. There are tropical accounts that post gorgeous beach pictures, there are adventure accounts, and then there are accounts that feature minority travelers!
I’m a blogger and, hey, I’d like a shoutout, so naturally I tag them. I tried a few of the black travel accounts, and one or two even followed me! But after a couple months of tagging…err…nothing. No one reposted any of my pictures. Not even the accounts that followed me. Okay, noted, maybe my pictures are bad. No offense taken.
But after more general travel accounts occasionally began reposting my pictures, I started to regain some confidence. Maybe I had improved! I tried again.
Well shoot! I looked at the black feature pages, more closely this time. What was different about my pictures and the ones they decided to repost??
And then I saw it. It was me. Bein’ all mixed and whatnot. But that wasn’t the whole story, because there were other mixed individuals featured! I suddenly felt like I needed to prove myself yet again. Logically, I should have just dropped it. I was totalllyyyy OVERR trying to fit in. Remember? My whole speech I gave a few paragraphs ago? It shouldn’t have bothered me.
But, illogically, I figured I might as well try.
For my trip to Hawaii, I decided to get my hair braided. Combined with a tan, slowly but surely, a few travel blog accounts actually reposted a few of my pictures! Was it worth the 5 hours of squirming and whimpering as my hair was braided? I wish I could say it was, because now at least they would KNOW I was black, right? Because…I was!
A few months later I took my braids out. The reposts stopped. I think I would have preferred thinking my pictures were garbage.
Every February in the United States is Black History Month. There is a lot I can say to explain it, but basically it’s a month long recognition, learning, and celebration of Black America. The energy is filled with inspiration, dedication, and support by and for the black community. This February, all across Instagram, my favorite accounts were sharing their favorite black travel companies, products, and bloggers.
Guess who fit one of those categories?!?!?
I watched as my fellow black travel bloggers were given shoutouts and their blog posts shared across social media platforms. I wiggled in my seat those weeks, patiently awaiting my shoutout.
I’m not gonna lie. It stung. Just a tad. Even to my friends who knew my ethnicity, was I not black enough for Black History Month? Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t jealous. In fact, I was elated that so many wonderful bloggers were given the spotlight! It wasn’t about the spotlight or getting more exposure, Black History Month is about recognition. Acceptance.
Maybe I should braid my hair for next year.
I am predicting that for the rest of my life, I will forever be right on the edge of different worlds. Right between too dark, but not dark enough. Between too frizzy, but not coarse enough. Between mixed…but…not quite the right ratio. I would probably never be “enough,” not even to myself.
Surprisingly, I’m okay with that.
You literally CANNOT please everyone, and you certainly cannot be everyone’s perfect definition of how they think your racial identity should look/act/sound/behave/think. The conflict you have with your identity and your place in society might always be a struggle, especially as a mixed individual. That’s okay too. It takes some time getting to a place of accepting your own different-ness. It’ll feel lonely at times, maybe a lot of the time, but those that see you for YOU and not just some checklist will be worth more than gold.
Be you, boo. Be you.
To hear more from Kay, find her on Instagram: @theawkwardtraveller or click here for her amazing blog.
Would you like to share your experiences of growing up on the precipice of two worlds, never quite belonging to either? Leave us a comment below!
Great article guys! I found it surprising that Kay was expecting black blogger shoutouts during Black History Month because I’m sure that not a lot of people know she’s half black based on her visual appearance but also the fact that she doesn’t really share her background/identity or tell her travel stories from a racial/ethnic lense.
I think that we have these preconceived notions in our mind about what a black person is SUPPOSED to look like the same way people have stereotypes about what an AFRICAN person should look like. Personally I would like to shatter those stereotypes by showcasing people within a racial group who don’t look typical. Like, if Kay tagged herself to be featured by a black traveler account and they wanted to post her picture, they could always send a DM asking about her ethnicity. I co-admin a feature account and I definitely ask questions before posting pics from people. So why do we always need to look a certain way in order to be accepted within a culture? Not hating on you, just coming at it from my personal perspective.
Yes I agree we should definitely have a wider spectrum of what African American or African looks like! My point was I never knew Kay was half Black because from what I’ve read over the past years of following her identity wasn’t central to her perspective on traveling or apparent to me in her storytelling. I think that if she keeps opening up on this topic she may get more exposure in the black travel community if that’s what she desires.
Great post! When I was younger I never felt like I belonged either. I was embarrassed of my curly hair bc it wasn’t like other black girls. And I was also embarrassed that I was Puerto Rican but couldn’t speak Spanish 🙁
I was embarrassed about my curly hair too because all the other brown girls has perfectly pin straight hair! Now I have embraced it but when I think of all the stupid ways I tried to make my hair straight, I can cringe. Also I hear you about the language part. It still grates me that I can’t read & write in Hindi but at the same time, being a first language English speaker is what I have built a career on so I can’t really complain too much.
There’s a lot I can relate to here. First of all, I found it interesting that her birth was so controversial and that her family ‘blamed’ her for not being what she was ‘supposed to be’. *eye roll* This is SO f’n Asian. How many Asian girls were not the right gender at birth? Uhhh, let’s not get into the infanticide numbers because it’s utterly horrendous.
Also, California! Hahahaha. We think of Cali as diverse, and yes, some places are, but that’s where I encountered some weirdness about race, too. But Oregon – yes, yes, yes – it is NOT diverse. It was the first segregated city I ever lived in. I have a love hate relationship with that entire State, but esp. PDX.
But the reason why I can relate to her story is not because I’m mixed (unless you count mixed Asian!), but because as an Asian American in Asia, I’m not what people expect me to be. Just the other day, I was trying to put money on my phone at 7-11 and when I was trying to explain what I wanted, these two female customers looked at me with such disdain for not being the right Asian or whatever. Like my BF after we left was like, “Whoooweee, they did not like you!”
And yesterday at the market, the saleswoman’s eyeballs popped out when the BF said I was American.Hahaha. Yeah, you’d be surprised. I get stared at a lot too. And I’m just Asian in Asian, yo.
Be you, too, Kay!
While I can’t comment on the diversity of U.S. states, I will say that I identify with the feeling of not being what you’re supposed to be; for example, once someone told me not too laugh so loudly because its ‘not what we do’ meaning that demure women like myself should be giggling quietly behind a handkerchief or some such drivel. It happens all over the world, in all societies which is why I think we should just be who we are and ignore those stereotypes instead of conforming to them.
Love this! My nephew is bi-racial and although he is young he has already had his struggles. Thank you for sharing!
Knowing that children aren’t inherently prejudicial makes it sadder that they find themselves facing such struggles due to their race because it must mean the kids around him have prejudices passed down from their parents. We need to teach our kids better! Glad you enjoyed the read!
That’s disrespectful as hell. My best friend is also mixed and she had a fair share of struggles with coming to term with her identity or rather pushing other people into believing her. It’s terrible. Stay strong Kay!!