15 February 2011

"What Are You?": Shades of Grey, Part I

Can you recall the first time you realized a difference between yourself and someone else? Until this point in childhood, we know people only as Mommy, Daddy, Teacher, Friend; there are no distinguishing features.
For me, it was probably around first grade. One of my classmates asked me a question which I have been hearing all my life ever since. We were intently digging for earthworms in the playground sandbox, talking about our favorite colors and what we hoped would be in our lunchboxes, when she dropped a bomb on my innocent world.

"So,what are you?"

Honestly, I don't remember what my initial response was that time. But I eventually realized she was trying to figure out my ethnicity. My mom is Black. My dad is White. So, what was I? Clueless.

See the hair and the sass on the left? You guessed it.
And on the right? My sister.
That was the first instance of many when navigating a bi-racial childhood was awkward or confusing.
After school, I marched out of that classroom and demanded some answers from Mom and Dad. Imagine me. Three feet tall, all curls, and a whole lot of sass.

After my parents calmed me down, they explained to me this alien concept of racial differences, and that i was mixed, or bi-racial, and that meant I got the best of both worlds. I liked that idea. For Mother's Day that year, I gave my mom my Crayola Family Portrait, complete with her face in Mahogany, Dad's in Peach, and mine in Raw Sienna.  This was before the advent of People Colors.

The conversation I had with my parents that day built the foundation for my personal identity throughout the rest of my life.  I'm thankful for the literal and figurative gift of both worlds that my parents gave me.

Time Magazine's Healthland got me thinking about these issues, as the website has featured a lot of talk about mixed-race kids lately.

One article cites studies that show most mixed-race kids (particularly half-black, half-white or half-hispanic, half-white)  strongly self-identify with their minority race because outside perceptions often box them in that group, anyway. Another indicates that this concept of the "forced-choice dilemma" is outdated, and suggests that today's mixed kid is more well-adjusted when she embraces her blended heritage.

The article that really got my eyebrows raising was published today. The article speculates about whether race should be considered in custody determination, since racial identity can serve as a driving force for social issues in a child's life; it especially highlighted the potential custody battle between Halle Berry and her child's father, Gabriel Aubry. The article referred to Halle Berry's upcoming March cover story in Ebony, where she has been quoted saying [about her daughter, Nahla] "I feel she's black. I'm black and I'm her mother and I believe in the one-drop theory." 

Halle's March Ebony Cover

All I could think was "Oh. Halle. For so long, you have been my mixed-girl champion. You were my looks-like-me in the magazines as a teen. Please don't set us back like this."  Needless to say, Ebony can count on at least one more magazine sale in March. I have to give my girl a chance to explain herself.

My lunch-time reading left me with a lot of questions today. Who's White? Who's Black? Who's Mixed? Who knows?

It also left me with a sense of gratitude for the gift my parents gave me. Although I may have to answer it repeatedly, I never again have to ask the question "What am I?"