All Mixed Up
It’s hard to recall a time when I wasn’t thinking about race. I have always been aware that something was off between me and Ms. Blonde, blue eyes sitting next to me in kindergarten class. Just as time is connected to watches and light to the sun, so was I with race. But though it was always something I knew I was connected to, it was only through being told what I am in conjunction with being questioned the same thing, that I realized early on that race mattered.
Race mattered. Especially during those sleepy recess days when a tiny, quiet latte colored girl tried to socialize with a group of African American children as they chanted in unison, playground rhymes and played a game of jump rope. Because I was soft spoken with my nose in my books, had a tendency to pronounce words differently than most of the children, had large almond shaped eyes that prominently stood out against my lighter brown skin, and my hair was a different texture from the other brown skinned children, young black girls would accuse me of believing I was better than them based on several factors I had no control over. I was ostracized for “talking white” but not before they could crowd me with inquisitions, directly asking the drumroll question, “whatcha you mixed with?”
Fast forward a few years to middle school and high school and my environment changes, but my experiences of feeling different perpetuate. My school environment was dictated by the type of classes I took, which were Advanced Placement classes. With the classroom make-up being predominantly white students with the one or two of the occasional Hispanic, black or Asian, my friend group averaged out to the majority being white, leaving me with no black or Asian friends until senior year of high school. My most memorable racial experience during my middle school years was when one of my closest white male friends would stop me in the hallway to say hi, but address me as “Oreo,” or “Coconut” and all I did was playfully brush it off and internalize it as something that was okay for my white friends to say. This seemed like the acceptable way to behave since at the end of the day we were friends and he, “didn’t mean it to sound offensive.”
As my time in middle school and high school progressed, I got more defensive about the names I was called and when black girls would criticize me for “talking white,” and not being “really black,” I would explain to them calmly (or passive aggressively, it’s hard to say), that I’m not really black. My family is from Panama and the Philippines. I combated all of their acquisitions because I was not one of them. I was moot from any presuppositions of race they had. I didn’t want to be associated with anyone’s definitions of black or Asian because I didn’t like it and could never relate to it. My experiences and interests were completely different. With this new defense I had put up, also came a herd of people challenging me to “prove” to them my multicultural background. I would have to pull out a family photo from last Christmas with my light skinned, Filipina mother, my darker skinned father and the array of fashion, skin color, hair textures, and body shapes from me and my three siblings. And what’s the reaction to this forced presentation? “Oh.” pause. swallow. blink. “That’s so interesting.” pause. swallow. blink. “I had no idea.” And I swear, you can almost hear them bite down on their tongue after that. It’s laughable now, but it highlights a type of ignorance and brashness that many communities have and it wasn’t until my last two years of high school where I finally starting connecting the dots.
My junior year of high school is when I stopped relaxing my hair to be straight and grew out my natural curly hair. There are several stories of black hair politics that you can read about online, but what you basically need to know about mine is after I stopped agreeing to relax my hair, I stopped caring what my hair looked like compared to other girls in school. When I looked in the mirror and saw my naturally curly black hair twist and groove in several directions on my scalp, I didn’t feel like it was “nappy,” or busy, or unkept. I had never felt more like myself and that was releasing.
Much like my hair twists and curves in all different directions, so does my identity. Being multi-racial is its own race, its own hairstyle. But each experience is unique and circumstantial to each person’s individual story. The preexisting racial confines that we are expected to identify with aren’t relevant to us. Speaking strictly from my personal story, I am incapable of seeing the world in just black and white. Though I have always been aware of my race, I never looked through a binary lens that compartmentalizes human beings based on ascriptive traits. No matter where we fall on the spin wheel of nationalities and cultures, we have two parents who make us who we are. There are overarching issues many multi-cultural people face such as looking one way but identifying with something else, but in a “post-racial” America, it is difficult for many to see that just because we don’t look like them doesn’t mean we need to be put against them. Joining a “side” won’t make understanding us any easier.
I don’t know the black experience, or the asian-american experience. All I know is my beautiful Filipina mother’s petite face, floating in an a sea of black Panamanian family members from my dad’s side on major holidays, which she will inevitably excuse herself from early. It’s not understanding why I was never allowed to do the same. It’s going to Filipino birthday parties growing up, when the other Filipino children let you play with them, but only because their parents were watching and my mom didn’t want me to feel left out. It’s obsessively connecting to Euro-centric characters in music, literature, and movies and connecting it with a certain standard of beauty, interests, and personality that looked like nothing like what I saw of myself in the mirror. Its riding in the car with white friends and hearing them say something hateful about a person of color and then turning back to me and saying, “Oh sorry.” or “I’m so glad you’re not like them.” As if the problem is that I’m there in the car, not that I’m there witnessing their own racist inclination towards someone they’ve never met. Its census reports not acknowledging your existence. It’s the confusion from strangers on the street when I’m standing next to just one of my parents. It’s being fetishized as a sexual entity because I’m “exotic” or “interesting” by men. Its feeling loved and coddled by friends and romantic partners that feel obligated to “help a sista out” because my experience is so tragic, and I shouldn’t have had to go through all that. It’s the feeling that you belong nowhere, and not knowing what to do about that, and not knowing who to ask. It’s having to prove that my story is important to people with privilege and that is extremely connected to who I am today.
My experience is also a lot of coming out. Coming out to friends, strangers, partners with hopes that I might help them understand that race isn’t one size fits all. Its challenging and explaining certain societal presuppositions about race and reaching out for empathy and acknowledgement. The Mulatta stereotype has been at troupe in society for quite some time now, and the description of someone who is a “tragically beautiful woman on the outskirts of her communities” is extremely incorrect. Beautiful? Yes. Difficult. Also yes. But not tragic by any definition of the word. Being multi-racial is an empowerment. It is an identity singular in all its ironic plurality. Its an identity that is culturally complex and cannot be quantified by societies perception of the cookie cutter American lifestyle we have accepted as the norm. Multiculturalism in today’s society should be about confronting racism, power, and privilege. Not pigeonholing individuals.
I don’t feel pigeonholed anymore. But that is a process I had to come to on my own. Conversations about race are immensely important in a so-called “post-racial” society, because without it, several cloaked inequalities perpetuate. Today, I constantly have the desire to turn up the noise of race because even though some bite their tongues, race, without a doubt in my mind, still matters.
Ashley M. Thomas is a third year film student at the University of Texas at Austin a huge supporter of Austin breakfast tacos. She is a massive theater nerd, a coffee-tea equality supporter, and highly skilled in napping. She was once described as “painfully enthusiastic” and is still mulling over it.