Choosing a Racial Identity

When filling out any standardized forms, one of the questions everyone has to answer is “Ethnicity”. A list of choices is given (and, of course these choices may vary, dependent on the part of the country where you live and the purpose of the form). You are asked to choose which ethnicity “best describes you”. What exactly does this mean? Does it mean how it best describes how people see you? Does it mean how it best describes the language you speak? Does it mean how it best describes the hue of your skin? For some people, checking the box on this form is a no-brainer; for me, it always becomes a moral conundrum…

Let me just explain. I had a crush on a certain boy for several years during elementary school. While I worked very hard to keep this crush a secret, I let the cat out of the bag during lunch in the fourth grade. Yes, I can remember exactly where and when it happened, for this incident is burned into my memory as the first time I was introduced to the concept of race. During this particular lunch, I told a friend of mine that I had this crush, and he promptly turned to me and stated, “You can’t like Landon. He’s white and you’re black.” I was very confused, and after glancing down at my arm, I noticed that I was, indeed, browner than everyone else around me. I just mumbled something out of embarrassment, and finished my lunch quietly. (You may think that a 10 year old would have already understood racial differences by then, but I am not lying when I say that I had absolutely no idea. I had been well-protected by my parents up to this point.) When I returned home that afternoon, I quickly found my mother and asked her if that was, indeed, true. Was I black? Were all the rest of my friends white? What did that mean, anyway?

My sweet, patient, black mother softly explained to me that our family was different than most of the families around us. Our family had a black mother and a white father, and that is the reason why we four children were browner than our friends. She then went on to discuss how we lived in an area that was mostly all white, so a lot of the kids may think our family was strange because we were different. She didn’t go into all of the social implications of being a mixed-race person in a world that forces everyone to choose; I would find out all of that stuff eventually, anyway.

My childhood progressed on as normally as possible after this initiation, except for one small change: from then on, I always checked the “Other” box on my standardized forms, and then carefully wrote in “Mixed Race”. I am sure that whoever read those forms rolled their eyes at my precociousness, but I felt better about not leaving either one of my parents out of my heritage. My little brother chose to switch every year; and I am pretty sure my older siblings checked both boxes. All I know is, we sure confused our school district when it came time to demographic charting!

As I have grown older, I have become more and more frustrated with society’s relentless need to categorize all of us into racial groups. Haven’t we all learned enough to realize than no one is entirely one race or the other, no matter how we look? Throughout history, children automatically assumed the race of their father, but of course we now understand that that is a ridiculous assumption. Two of my siblings have married “white” spouses, and their children have blond hair and blue eyes-does that mean they are now “white” and can forget about what it means to embrace their black heritage? My husband is black, so our children clearly look “black”, even though a large portion of their relatives are not-do I continue to mark “Black” on their forms, ignoring the entirety of who they are? This question may be a moot point to some observers, but to them I say: have you ever considered the implications of that box you are checking? You are telling the world that you understand who you are and the journey your family has traveled to make you who you are today. That is of utmost importance, at least to me. I think only one time, when I was a student in New York, I came across a form that had the choice, “Mixed Race, please explain.” I loved it! I wrote a dissertation about my family: we are black, white, and Native American, as far as we knew. I was so proud to get to encompass all of our heritages. I want my own children to understand that, to love who they are, and to never have to choose “Black, White, or Other”.