Growing up as a biracial girl, I always had this sense of not belonging. I was never “white enough” for the white kids and never quite “black enough” for the black folks throughout my childhood. I was unable to put my finger on what the grey space was that I was seemingly held captive to, until more recent years. My light brown skin and Spanish derived last name often had me categorized as a Latinx woman. I remember the day I received a phone call asking me to speak on a panel to represent latinx women. “We definitely need a Latina like you,” was their call for me to jump into action. I remember sitting on the other end of the phone call, embarrassed to speak up. “How do I tell them I’m not Latina? How do I tell them I am a black girl?” Once the embarrassment quelled, I spoke up “well actually I’m Black, Native American, and white.” They were notably disappointed and responded, “Oh..I didn’t realize. You are so racially ambiguous.”
And there it was, the name to the identity I had been searching for since my youth: RACIALLY AMBIGUOUS.
The title gave me a new set of eyes in which to see the world. It allowed me the space to see the struggles of the lack of a solid identity as well as realize my own sense of privilege in a world swirling within a colorist agenda. I was relieved to find a racial identity. But what is that even?
Race is a social construct to distinguish a group of people based on physical characteristics which has no real biological merit. On the other hand, Racial identity is a very real thing especially in the US. Racial identity is how you perceive yourself as well as how others view you.
“ I met my mother in law for the first time and she says, “Oh are you Italian?” I hung my head and I said, “ No, I’m Puerto Rican.” I thought, “Here it is. Here’s the moment where she’s going to tell me to leave, think I’m not good enough for her son, or it’s going to be a private conversation later. She’s just not going to like me.” I still remember how she said “Oh, sweetie, pick your head up! It’s not a big deal! I was just asking. It’s totally fine.” But I know right around that moment, even though I didn’t really think about it, my racial identity did matter a lot to me. Once it was put under question, I was immediately ashamed and thought “No, I’m not the thing that you think I am.” They still talk about it and about how strange it was for them.”
Tiffany Meyers, Puerto Rican/White
According to an article posted in the April 2019 SSM – Population Health Medical Journal, “Racial/ethnic identity … moderates the relationship between racial discrimination and psychiatric disorders”. Racially ambiguous individuals often operate in between two worlds never seeming to find a true identity. Personally, it was not until my 30s that I began to identify as a black woman. I spent my life in a chaotic whirlwind of emulating how my mother, who is a white woman, taught me how to interact with the world. My responses were often met with disdain. The world sees your color first, and then your character. We all wish this was a lie but that would be the furthest thing from the truth.
There are several theories that pertain to racial identity development. The Nigrescence Model of African American Identity (often referred to as the People of Color Racial Identity Model) was originally published in 1971 and revised in 1991. It operates under the idea that “African Americans who accepted values of white society were thought to be more likely to experience self hatred and low self esteem, and those who accepted African American values and identity were assumed to have a healthy mental functioning and high self esteem.”
“[As a biracial person] I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to be raised as a “white child” because me and my sister were the only black kids in the entire school district. We had a target on our back. This second we walked into the school, and we were treated differently. Even being half white, we were the only kids of color in the High School. The minute we walked in I was automatically put in remedial classes and put with a teacher aide. I was never formally diagnosed with learning disabilities but automatically put in those in those classes. My sister when she was in seventh grade, her history teacher brought in a family heirloom which was a KKK uniform. It was a full robe and hood which still had blood stains on it. They had a student put it on in the classroom when my sister was sitting there in the class. So we were reminded that we were black every single time we went to school.. I knew very early on I was definitely treated differently than white kids.”
Carl Burwell, African American
Healthy self discovery creates the motivation to use “light privilege” to amplify the voices of others who struggle because of their darker complexion as well as other kindred spirits who find themselves dangling in the grey area of racial ambiguity. For many the struggle to understand racial identity creates a chaotic sense of self and may even manifest into a mental health disorder. This ideation is further discussed by research published in the May 2018 Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, which states “..findings indicate that youth of mixed race/ethnicity are more likely to be at risk for poor mental health outcomes.” From this statement, so much of a biracial child’s life is explained. We know we do not fit, yet don’t understand why or if it is even real.
“I grew up being told that I was lucky to be so light skinned or that I wasn’t dark enough to call myself black. My middle sister is darker than me and I saw what she went through in our own home being told she got enough sun for the day or that she needed to make herself look more presentable. On the other hand, my older sister faced a lot of discrimination and bullying from other Black girls in high school for not being dark enough. With all of that combined I’ve made it a priority to educate my children that it’s also wrong to judge people based on how light or dark they are. People should be able to identify as whatever race they are born as without feeling less than because of the shade of skin.” AC, African American/Italian
Lack of mental health resources and supports for BIPOC gravely affect the way they’re able to cope with the factors of dealing with the stressors of existing while black/POC in America.
“I would put myself in the category of someone who always believed in and stood for what is right, but I had never been particularly vocal about it. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent movement really changed that for me. It was an opportunity for me to really take stock of how good I have it and the fact that if anything my biracial background is largely an advantage for me rather than an impediment. It’s sure as hell not something that puts my life in jeopardy. Since June I have regularly donated to charity, I have made it a point to share and elevate black voices, and above all I am doing my best to stay engaged and not just get back to business as usual as so many people always seem to. I have also been using my platform as a performer to let people know where I stand and let them know where I hope and expect they will stand. I’m sure there’s always more I could be doing, but I do feel like the Black Lives Matter movement has stayed in the top of my mind, and I intend to keep it that way.” Adam Mamawala, Indian/Caucasian
It is important to remember during these trying times that silence serves no one. The United States has been under fire in recent months for blatant racism displayed not only by our current administrations but the lack of recourse with excessive police brutality towards black and brown individuals. These are not isolated incidents and it is important to intervene when injustices are witnessed. It is our duty to be allies in a shared space for all BIPOC, no matter how dark or light we are, we must recognize when racism is occurring and do whatever it takes to dismantle it.
“I find that in many spaces I am allowed access and valued as a member of the team because I look like everyone else. My skin color allows for people to feel safe in my presence which allows them to let their guard down because I am one of them.
Working in higher education this is a daily experience. I am allowed access to spaces and be part of the team, until I bring the marginalized parts of my identity in the room. Anger floods the space when I address white supremacy, followed by alienation for betraying the sanctity of safe Euro-centric spaces. I have come to learn that being my authentic self is unsafe in the presence of whiteness, and that to have access I must hide parts of my identity.”
Kristine D., Latinx/Multiethnic
By and large, it is important to remember life is not black and white, but rather a spectrum. We all share similar struggles and in order to move beyond the lows, we need to stand up for humanity, not for some but for all. We all have privileges that we must utilize to lift each other up. It may be uncomfortable at first but use your voice, use your platform, whatever it may be.
In order for us to do this we must recognize that despite what inherent societal racism many tell us, Black Lives Matter.
Carl is the CEO of Green Passion Industries and co-owner of Garden State Hemp. He regularly supports the Respect My Life Foundation which focuses on enriching the minds of people and encourages people to respect each other’s differences to allow them to live their lives with freedom
Tiffany is a Veteran of the US Navy and full time student of Religious studies. She encourages folks to look to their local communities to find organizers and causes that need assistance. To find organizations to support causes near you, visit The Racial Equity Resource Guide.
Adam is a NYC based comedian who regularly donates to Fast Feet NYC’s BLM Run Series to promote inclusion and raise funds for Fast Feet NYC and nonprofits that directly support the black community and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Kristine provides consultation and training on a variety of topics related to Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Collegiate Recovery Programs in New Jersey. She is the co-host of the Meeting at Intersectionality Podcast and recommends donating to The Wellness Coop, a radically inclusive recovery and coaching service. Venmo @TheWellCoop