“What do you do when you don’t look like you’re ‘supposed to’?” This is a question that I constantly grapple with. While I continually look for the answer, the one thing I do know is that no matter what you are, most people can’t get past what they see. I am black, white & Jewish, but to most people, I look Jewish/Middle Eastern or “just” white. For this reason, people will have any number of reactions when they find out about my mixed heritage:
“WOW! I would have never guessed!!!”
“No way! You totally look like my friend from _________.”
“Omg, are you serious?”… you get the picture.
Needless to say, these types of reactions are quite frustrating. For what its worth, I would like to address 3 points in this post:
Photo of courtesy of Rema
1) On passing for white I think it goes without saying that the good things in life are generally more accessible to white people. No matter how much Canadians love to boast that racism only exists in the US, it is simply not the case. Racism in Canada is just different because you will seldom hear outright racist attacks come from a Canadian. Instead, from the beginning, black children are generally viewed as troublemakers and unintelligent. It is also no secret that people are known to like, trust, and hire people that look like they do, so even if a young black person has successfully made it through the schooling system, landing a good job is the next challenge (and so on). Just look at the Presidents, C-levels, politicians and board rooms across Canada. Having said all the above, most certainly my life has been made easier by the sheer chance of having been born with white skin. I also get the sense that people want me to say that I’m white so that I don’t disturb their perception of what a mixed person should look like. So why not just pass for white and avoid the ridicule?
2) On asserting my beigeness
The fact of the matter is that I am very proud of my ancestry. It is a part of me, it is (in part) how I define myself and contextualizes the way in which I view the world. I understand why people have passed historically - it could literally mean life or death - but today we ought to be free to express & celebrate all of our backgrounds. Having said that, it is lonely to celebrate alone. In order to quell my perceived isolation I have long been searching for a place to belong to, especially in contrast to the stereotypical Gap advertisement of biracial, which I certainly don’t look like. To date, “beige” seems to be my racial Cinderella slipper and in particular, meeting and reading work by other beige people have helped tremendously. However, people are still reluctant to allow a white-looking person to claim a seat at the metaphorical “mixed-race table”. I have a feeling that it may be due to society’s fetishization of mixed people. Many seem to feel that being mixed is more relevant, more exciting and more attractive than being “just one thing” and thus it is a highly coveted title. So if you don’t look the part, you need not apply. Frankly speaking, it just gets plain tired trying to expand society’s view of what it looks like to be mixed. So how now, beige cow?
3) On making choices I have to admit that how to identify myself has never surfaced so violently for me than when choosing a partner. While some may think its cute that this white-looking woman runs around waving the beige flag, its a whole other thing when I “decide” on one race for a partner. In my case, my fiance is also mixed (black, Chinese & East Indian), but looks as black as I do white. I think Jennifer Adese says it best in her essay My Life in Pieces (from Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out); “Choosing, I think, has defined my and many other ‘mixed’ persons lives. From the day which we become cognizant (or for some of us are made painfully aware) of our difference from the majority of those around us we are thrust into a world characterized by the act of choosing. In my experience this choosing always had a companion riding side-saddle called “defending” - the act of defending the choices that we are forced to make.” Thus I march on defending my right to assert my rich racial heritage with the words of Rashida Jones as my armor: “I’m happy to challenge people’s understanding of what it looks like to be biracial, because guess what? In the next 50 years, people will start looking more and more like me.” Beige for life!