“What Are You?”- A Biracial Woman’s Identity Crisis

Never white enough for the white kids, never brown enough for the brown kids — being simultaneously both and neither — that was my experience growing up biracial in the United States. If this was also your experience, know that you’re not alone!

I have an Indigenous Mexican-American mom and a white (British) dad. And though I have lighter skin than my mother, who is undoubtedly, gloriously brown, my teachers and peers always regarded me as not-white.

I have also, of course, seen less complicated acts of racism and othering towards my mom. People would assume that she was our nanny, or follow us around in shops because they assumed she was a thief. Or, they’d ask her if she even spoke English (she doesn’t even speak Spanish, which is a point I’ll get to later). Another popular assumption was that she was using a stolen credit card. My parents didn’t invite my paternal grandfather to their wedding because he didn’t approve of my dad marrying a brown woman. He later came around once the babies started coming… but that’s a story for another day.

“What are you?” is a question I grimace at being asked, but one that I encounter regularly. They’re basically asking what I am mixed with, what has tainted my whiteness. The one drop rule has historical roots in eugenics and systemic racial oppression, and was used to oppress and discriminate against anyone whose whiteness had been tainted with any amount, even one drop, of non-white blood. Once I learned about this, things became clearer.

I used to not be able to articulate why that question upset me so much, but at almost 30 years old, I am finally understanding what my racial identity means to me — and to the racialized world we live in. Sometimes I wonder if I should answer that question by curtly saying “I’m mixed” or if I should proudly, almost defiantly, say “I’m biracial, Indigenous Mexican is what my whiteness is mixed with.”

Some scholars have suggested that experiences shape our racial and ethnic identities more than DNA, which is interesting. My maternal grandparents, whose first language was Spanish, raised their six children using only English. Their names were John Delgado and Helen Briseño-Delgado. They felt so pressured to assimilate into white America that they chose to not use their mother tongue at home out of fear that their kids wouldn’t be “American enough.” (Side note: there is nothing wrong with speaking English, or any language, with an accent. It’s a sign of bravery, not to mention some impressive multilingualism.)

This began a tragic legacy of cultural erasure that has lasted generations. They saw speaking any other language besides flawless English as a departure from the Americanness that they had to fight so hard to be a part of. My grandpa John used to tell a story of being beaten by the nuns at his grade school in Texas for speaking Spanish. Later, as a sergeant fighting for the USA in WWII, I can only imagine the racism he experienced firsthand, even while putting his life on the line for this country.

As biracial people, we should talk more about the lived experiences that the construct of race produces and how that shapes our identities. Despite looking mixed, my lived experience is more English-American and white than Mexican-American and brown. I benefitted from having a white parent, particularly a white father, so I have an English surname and hold a UK passport. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the privilege in those things.

What’s more, I am documented in the US as well, and I’ve never had to worry about being discriminated against on a job application for having a BIPOC sounding name, like so many of my brown brothers and sisters. I’ve never had to wonder where I was going to get the money to pay for college, or help my parents pay the bills, so I benefited from economic privilege as well. And although I reject the term “white passing” because it centers whiteness, my own lived experience, mostly, has been that of an upper middle class white person. I grew up with immense white privilege because of my father, and I see that now clearer than ever. And this is an ugly thing to say but we’re here to say the ugly things so I’ll just spit it out: my brown mother benefitted from her marriage to my father because you don’t have to be white to benefit from proximity to whiteness. As it happens, I am also married to a white man.

But my skin color and features are far enough away from the white center that it gives (usually white) strangers reason enough to pause, stare at me a little too long, and then ask the dreaded question — “what are you?” The world still looks at me and sees a racially ambiguous person and wants to know which box to put me in. I attended grade school in Northern California, where the student population was primarily white and Asian. They bullied me a lot, and my skin color and features were a favorite target area. The other kids would sometimes call me a beaner or a wetback. I used to wish for a “ski slope” nose, smooth blonde hair, and a small petite frame. Instead I had curves, a broad nose, olive tan skin, thick dark hair and literal sideburns. My gorgeous mama gave these features to me, and are all parts of myself that I now love and cherish and am proud of, by the way. I was visibly different and discriminated against for that, which is part of my lived experience, too.

I used to be ashamed of my desire to claim and own my brownness because of my lived experience, but also because I don’t even speak Spanish. I mean, I can get by in basic conversational scenarios, but heartbreakingly, I am not even close to being fluent. This is a fact that continues to torment my soul to this day (cue the tiny violin, I know). It almost feels as if I can not claim my brownness, my Indigenous Mexican ancestry, because I don’t know the language and didn’t grow up experiencing much of the culture. Other Mexican/Chicano folks, including some members of my family, look at me and see a white girl. I feel somewhat removed from the identity that I am seeking to claim, but I don’t want it to be this way forever.

Even my grandma Helen, who helped raise me, repeatedly ignored my parent’s pleas to speak to me in Spanish. I can only imagine that she thought she was doing what was best for me. She’s now passed on, but I wish I could talk to her about this. It breaks my heart that my beloved grandma would be so ashamed of her mother tongue, so worried about her children and grandchildren not fitting in, that she kept her language and culture hidden from us, locked away in the back of the closet like something dirty and embarrassing. It hurts, but it’s one of my ongoing life goals to become fluent, celebrate my heritage, and repair the cultural erasure that white America has inflicted upon my family.

There would be moments when grandma Helen’s culture would seep out of the closet despite her attempts to thwart it. We’d watch telenovelas together, make tamales from scratch on Christmas Eve, go to Mexican family parties, listen to mariachi, and get cursed at in Spanish when we did annoying little kid things. Culture is not easily suppressed because it’s the fabric that makes us who we are. It’s who she was. And as much as she tried to stop us from experiencing it so that we could fit into white America, it was always there, rattling the doorknob of that closet, ready to burst at the seams if someone would only unlatch the door.

It wasn’t until college, as I studied sociology and the intersections of race, gender, and identity, that I started to put some brainpower behind this topic. I came to terms with my own racial identity and what a unique experience it is to be mixed race. Now as I approach my 30s, I feel more confident in my identity than I did when I was in my early 20s, but it’s still an ongoing journey.

I’m biracial, mixed, half Mexican and half white, Mestiza. I don’t identify as Hispanic because we’re not from Spain. I also don’t identify as Latina because we’re not from Latin America. And please don’t call me white because that completely ignores one entire half of my identity, culture, and lived experience.

I wanted to write this piece because I don’t see enough conversations about the experiences of mixed folks. Particularly Black or brown mixed with white, which from a sociopolitical standpoint is such an interesting dichotomy. I haven’t heard similar stories to my own, but I hope to be a part of this conversation in the future. As I’m sure many other mixed people will attest to, it can be quite isolating that many white folks see us as not-white and many brown folks see us as not-brown.

I know that if my biggest gripe is being asked ‘what are you,’ or dealing with racists in grade school, then I really have little to complain about. Non “white-passing” (for lack of a better word) BIPOC deal with much, much worse. Black and brown people live in fear of white violence every single day, and ultimately, those of us who have benefitted from whiteness or proximity to it need to leverage those advantages to dismantle and sabotage white supremacy. That is the least we can do.

Hello! I’m Paige. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Dual UK/US citizen. Traveler. Mixed. She/her. Site -> always-away.com

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