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The Day I Became A Mute: On Being Bi/Multi-Racial In America
August 16, 2017
“But you’re not really black.”
“What are you?”
“You don’t sound black.”
“Well, you wouldn’t really know what racism feels like.”
I relate to Hermione very well. She is caught between two worlds she adores; the muggle and wizarding world. She cannot betray either because she has deep roots in both. She cannot completely stand for one against the other, because for her, those worlds coexist in the same universe and cannot be separated. She is proud of her muggle upbringing and would risk everything to protect her parents, even if it means she no longer exists in their memories. But she is also fiercely loyal to the wizarding world because it is part of her identity. I can identify with her character, as I am multi-racial and have deep roots in multiple cultures. It’s hard to stand on any particular ground, because I feel like I am connected to so many in my ethnic background.
I have been holding back writing this blog post, because I have been belittled and silenced so many times in the past. In the wake of the current tension in our country, I felt as though now is as good a time as any. Let me begin by saying all of what I write is my personal history. It is what I have felt over the years, and as a result, the opinions and worldviews that I have created because of those experiences. I will never claim to be the most knowledgeable person in the room on any one issue, but I determined to be a change agent in the world using these personal experiences to the best of my ability. This is not the most eloquent or put together blog post, but it is simply a small glimpse into my world should you decide to come along.
The Day I Became A Mute
I remember the day well. Trump had just been elected president a few days prior and there were rampant wildfires on social media. I had purposely avoided looking at my phone. I took a small leap and checked my Facebook. I am not sure what possessed me to do this. Perhaps it was that this was a very open-minded friend that I had had many conversations with over social media in the past. We rarely landed on the same side of the fence on issues, but we always did so amicably and this friend always brought me another viewpoint which I had never thought of. Looking back, I should have simply left this person to grieve as they desired to grieve, and discussed at another time.
After this friend shared a status about their fear for their friends of color, I simply commented that I was a person of color, a female, and was not afraid of this new administration. Not because I thought Trump was a righteous man who could save us all. I will be the first person to tell you he is a morally bankrupt person….as essentially most of our presidential candidates were and have been for years. I stated that I was not afraid because I believed in the American people, my personal friends, held the fight for equality so tightly to their hearts that I felt safe. The response I received will forever be burned into my heart. In understandable frustration, I was told that I did not understand the true plight of people of color because my mother was white and I grew up in a middle class neighborhood. My family was put together, essentially, and therefore I did not suffer like the typical person of color here in America.
I was heartbroken. It was then I had realized I have no real voice. People will tell me otherwise. Even as you are reading this, you will pat my head and assure me that you really do care about my story. And maybe you do. But in that moment, I remembered all those times my voice was discredited because I was only part of an ethnicity. I remembered all of the times that those with much darker skin than me told me I didn’t act, talk, walk, or sound like a certain ethnic group. No, I had not experienced the same story as others, and was blessed to be able to make the statement that I did. I remember specifically feeling broken because I was not able to join the conversation. On countless occasions, I have been told I cannot be a part of the conversation because I am “not really black”. Obviously, by the way I look, I am also “not really white”.
Another friend very wisely shared the video “The Danger of a Single Story” by the novelist Chimamanda Adichie. She shares how she found her authentic cultural voice, and the risks that come if we only hear a single story about a person, culture, or country. By only listening to the single story, we misunderstand and misrepresent the uniqueness of the individual person. It was this TED Talk that was pivotal in finding my own cultural voice. And so, let me give you a little bit of my history.
Aren’t We All The Same, Mommy?
I was born, by home birth, in a trailer in the middle of the New Mexican desert to a white mother and a black father. That sentence alone should give you a little insight to the complex nature of my upbringing. Overall, I had a happy childhood. I can remember exploring the desert with my younger brother and my dogs. I cannot recall, on the other hand, the first time I realized that my parents’ skin color was not only very different from mine and my brothers’, but from each other. Most children have no concept of the differences. All of my neighbors were of Hispanic decent. I remember hearing Spanish and English interchangeably as well as the time our neighbors filleted a goat in the front yard during a big party. Nothing seemed strange about it. As far as I could tell, this was the way the world was. This was my normal.
I went to a private Christian school, and while there were fewer people that looked like me there, it was a very diverse community of people. Of course, I did not notice that then. We were all friends and primarily interested in food, running around outside, and when our parents were going to take us out for ice cream. We were all just kids and would not have known there was anything different about each other.
My mom always told me to love all people. There was no contingency plan. All people were deserving of respect and kind treatment. There was a boy in my first grade class who had something wrong with his brain. Looking back, I am guessing it was Asperger’s syndrome, but what kid knows anything about that. I just remember he smelled a little funny and nobody liked to be around him. He couldn’t sit down in one place and he said random things when the teacher was talking. I was his only friend. One year for my birthday, he picked out a movie about mountain lions from the thrift store. I never remember talking about an interest in mountain lions. But Curtis thought they were great. He wanted to share his love of mountain lions with me, and so I was awarded this video. Turns out that mountain lions are actually pretty interesting.
By the end of elementary school, my world included many of different colors, religions, and abilities. It felt so normal for me. Although we were different in many ways, I thought those differences were what was normal. I had no concept that we were different in any way. I can honestly say I never noticed the differences. I only knew these friends as special parts of my world that I cherished. I could not make the distinction that people are very different from each other. This was my life and I could not imagine any other kind of world.
What Do You Mean, I Am Different?
The first time I encountered the idea that I was considered an “other” was in fifth grade. I was playing with my cousin, and her friend came over. She asked why I was black when my cousin was white. She wasn’t being mean. She simply did not understand. But neither did I. What did she mean that I was black and my cousin was white? I can paint the exact picture of where we were, and what we were doing because the memory was so pungent. It was the first time my brain tried to understand the idea that we have different skin tones. The idea did not compute. What do you mean that we are different? We aren’t different. You are human. I am human. We are the same.
My mom had the difficult conversation with me that we are indeed all different. And some of those differences come in the form of our skin colors. It doesn’t mean anything; it just makes us all unique and beautiful in our own way. All I can remember thinking at the end of the conversation was, so what?
Middle school was a particular time of hell in my life. I bloated up a few size from my scrawny self, my parents got a divorce, we got shunned from our church, my favorite Grandfather died, and for the life of me I could not get puberty to happen according to my watch. I do not understand how middle schoolers these days get to skip a lot of the awkward that I experienced. I had no concept of flattering jeans and was determined to wear my hair like my personal hero Mulan. NOT a good look. But my mom believed in allowing me to be who I was. It would have been nice if she would have forced some fashion sense in there, but looking back, I am glad she raised me to have such an independent spirit. Thank God for my mother.
Though it was a trying time for me, it was the beginning of the expansion of my worldview. I was thirteen when I signed up for my first international mission trip. I spent two weeks in Costa Rica working in orphanages, jails, and foster homes. We had cute little dances and we shared our stories with the locals. My little world was expanding. I knew that I would forever be changed. One thing that stood out to me was that everyone thought I was a Costa Rican. Many times, they would begin speaking to me in Spanish. Luckily, I was from deep Southern New Mexico and I had grown up hearing Spanish spoken frequently. I had an amazing accent, and though I was not fluent, I could understand much of what they said. I was in heaven.
Just a little disclaimer here. I went on many mission trips when I was younger. They were deeply impactful to my worldview as well as my faith. Since then, I have readjusted my personal ideas about how to approach overseas humanitarian/mission trips. Okay, continue:
Throughout my middle school and high school career, I dedicated a month of my summer to overseas missions. I could not get enough. I was in love with the idea of adventure and travel. While wanderlust was one of the greatest gifts I ever received from my mother, the love of culture was the penultimate. I LOVED learning about other people’s’ cultures. We were all different, but in my mind, I could only see how we were all the same. We were all people seeking purpose in the world. We all still rolled our eyes at our parents, wanted to eat dessert first, talked about who our crushes were, felt deep sorrow and pain, but also great joy and peace. We talked about our faith and our worldviews; why we believed what we believed. The language might change. And the way people looked might change. But the essential essence of a human being NEVER changed. Thus began my quest to not judge someone based on their outer appearance. I was not perfect at it. But I knew enough to know that I had to overcome this in order to see people genuinely.
As my worldview expanded through my adolescence as I travelled the world, so did my encounter with the effects of hatred. Hatred was not an American problem. It was a worldwide human problem. I saw children abandoned, people left on the streets to starve, women and children sold into slavery, the elderly forgotten, and the disabled or handicapped left to fend for themselves. Above all, I experienced racism on a global level. Not me personally, but I saw people hating each other based on their skin color. I saw what that did to a person and vowed that could never be me. Never.
I would come home utterly wrecked emotionally as I experienced culture shock time and time again. The things we complained about here in America seemed so trivial to me. On every trip I took overseas, people assumed I was a local. Because of the particular tone of my skin, it was easy for me to fit into almost any culture. This felt like the way things should be for everyone. I felt so comfortable in my own skin and embraced all the complexity of who I was. It was still very difficult for me to separate people based on their differences. I could understand the concept that we were all different, but I still could not understand why people were separated because of it.
You Cannot Go To The Ball
Before I went to college, my mother sat down with me and explained that if I followed through with my plan, I would not be attending a diverse school. She explained that I would be a minority. She knew I had really yet to experience this in my life. Thanking her for her preparation, I shook my head, still determined to go to school in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
When I showed up to college, my mother was right as I was one of the few people of color. Of course, this was not something that I was looking for. This was something always pointed out to me by others. I always made jokes about it like being surprised when someone noticed that I was not the same color as them. I had learned over time to let these sorts of comments slide. To turn them around on the questioner. It was never hateful, rather, ignorant. I personally never felt like I was different, or that I was treated differently, so these questions always took me by surprise. I was especially surprised when other people of color would ask me how I felt attending a college of primarily white people. It was very difficult because I felt like I was assumed to be a victim of some crime. Except I was never sure what the crime was exactly.
Though my college experience was amazing, I can look back and see where my worldview began to shift. All of a sudden, I was thrust into a melting pot of worldviews, theologies, and experiences. Though I had met many various people in my life, there was something about us verbal and fired up young people that I had yet to experience.
I became acquainted with the term social justice, which seemed to mean you were vocal about the obvious opposition to the -isms in the world. To me, opposing things like racism, ageism, sexism, and more was the only thing I ever knew. I had rubbed shoulders with many people who had been victims of these types of oppression. I had seen their effects on others. But my narrative did not fit the ones that others were talking about. It was a whole new experience hearing from others who had experienced something so differently than I had. It was also a whole new experience to hear people reiterate something that I intrinsically knew: racism is wrong. Obviously….
It was also the first time I experienced white people tell me that I could not possible understand true racism, and therefore, could not join in the conversation. I am still not sure what they meant by true racism, but it became very evident that I was missing something that they needed for their social justice narrative. Without even knowing the complexities of my upbringing, I was excluded from the conversations about racism in particular because somehow, they knew better. It was very difficult for my mind to understand this. Nobody was in my face screaming racial slurs. But I began to be aware that I was being deemed an “other” on certain occasions. Of course I was always welcome to be the “token black person” should I desire to be.
I can look back now and see my mind forming these opinions and trying to understand what was going on. But at the time, it just felt like a blob of information I didn’t have a shelf for.
I Am Not Your Victim
There is something demoralizing about not feeling safe or welcome to participate in any culture. It can easily feel as though you have no voice and there is no safe place for your feet to land. Many from varying ethnic backgrounds have experienced this in different ways throughout the course of history. As someone who is multiracial, I find my experience to be much like Hermione. I feel forced to pit myself against my own identity, siding against white and with black. But how could I do so when my mother was white and taught me how to love people holistically? How could I tell my mother she was a racist when she has been scorned throughout her life for standing up for the marginalized?
At times, I feel unwelcomed to join into the conversation, lament, or celebration of particular cultures. I am not allowed because I do not look a certain way. I feel thwarted from holding up my brothers and sisters because I could not possibly understand. Though I do not have their same experience, I have a father who does and a family lineage on both sides to prove that racism is indeed a very, very bad thing.
I can honestly say that God has blessed me with the kinds of experiences that exclude blatant racism. I have experienced more subtle things. I have been told it’s called micro-aggression. It’s an indirect or unintentional discrimination against a marginalized group. I hate being labeled. I understand that the lightness of my skin has given me certain privileges that might not be present should I have been closer in likeness to my father. I try my hardest not to take that for granted. Nor do I try and express the totality of what many people of color in this country have faced. But as I have continued in my life outside of college, I have continued to feel more and more like an “other”.
As a result, I have tried to understand, in my own way, how this cycle of hatred works. Everyone is dealt a certain hand at the beginning of their life. Everyone is born with certain privileges. Certain societies make more or less room for those with more or fewer privileges. For example, the fact that I was born with a tad bit lighter skin than my fathers, without any disabilities, within a family that had means to provide a quality education for me, cisgender, and in a strong community of neighbors in a neighborhood free of crime gave me a significant advantage than perhaps others. There was nothing I did or did not do to be dealt these cards. It was the environment in which I was born.
As a result of these environments that we are born into, we develop prejudices. Prejudice is defined as the preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. To me, this means that the environment we interact with from an early age leaves impressions on us that can become certain prejudices. For my husband, his homogenous conservative environment left him with certain prejudices about people outside that experience. It wasn’t something he decided to have necessarily. What he heard from his friends, what he watched on the news, and the school district that he attended all affected the prejudices that developed.
I personally believe that prejudice is the result of the fear of the unknown, which in return people create categories of “other” in order to understand. What we have not experienced can frighten us, and therefore, we create an “other” grouping in order to try and understand these things without having ever interacting with this “other”. A prejudice is formed, and without proper care, can eventually become an -ism. In the case of my husband, he eventually met me, experienced my culture, traveled the world with me, and rid himself of certain prejudices he did not even realized existed in his heart. I can say the same about myself on other issues. Prejudice is like a small weed that grows in the heart. If we do not uproot it, primarily through experience, in my opinion, it becomes the hateful root of an -ism.
Perhaps that is a very rough rendering of the process to an -ism and I am sure a PhD in the field could explain it with flawless eloquence. But again, this is simply how I have personally interacted with my life experiences. I never experienced being profiled based on my skin color. I never got pulled over because I “looked suspicious”. I never was asked to speak English because we are in America now. I have never experienced some of those hideous stories that you hear happen to people of color or those who look different. I once had a customer at the bank come in and say he couldn’t believe we put a black man into the presidency (referring to Obama of course). Then followed up by saying women should not be put into any kind of leadership either. That stung. But I can also say that was about the most blatant incident that I have ever experienced.
I feel tired. Tired of being told by those who are trying to bring equality in the world that I must be silent because I do not fit in any one category. Because I have multiple ethnic backgrounds, I cannot participate in any one culture. It honestly hurts. I feel as though my family fought hard to live in the gap of equality that we so desperately fight for. I am a living, breathing example of what an uphill battle against -isms, particularly racism, can look like. Because of the hard work of those who came before me, I do not have to experience the same level of hatred that they did years before me. I am tired because I do not feel as though it is fair for someone who does not share mine, or others’, experiences to be the only one allowed to talk about our struggles.
It is a dangerous thing to put someone in a box. If you have read this ridiculously long blog, I implore you to be careful how you speak out about injustices in the world. My husband said it well, “the way in which we condemn injustice matters”. What an eloquent way of putting it.
For those of you who will read this, you will get to this point and applaud my bravery and saying some of these hard things. You might even click the share button and tell the Facebook world that this was the point you were trying to make. All of that is fine and good, but I do not need you to rehash the story of oppression in this country to prove to me that you care. Posting an article about how racism is wrong does not actually do anything about that oppression if your daily life includes placing people into the narrative of a single story.
Everyone has struggles. That is part of being human. We cannot pretend we know what each person has felt along their journey. Battling racism is a good thing. Battling sexism is a good thing. Battling ableism is a good thing. Battling any sort of -ism is a good thing. But the way in which we do that matters. We cannot forsake one oppressed group to save another oppressed group. If we want to defeat any -ism that presents itself, it starts in the heart. It starts with pulling out the weeds of prejudice we have in our hearts and beginning to see each other as human. It means embracing the differences and recognizing we are much more alike than we think. We all share the same space. While we all experience this life differently, we must fight to protect the unity of the space we share.
These are simply highlights of my life and how I have tried to understand the complexity of it all. I personally see all of this through the lens of my faith, the foundation of my worldview. Though we may differ in many ways, remember that you and I are both human sharing this beautiful space called Earth. How we condemn injustices matters. How we choose to love matters. How we embrace our differences matters. We cannot condemn one -ism without condemning another because they grow from the same root. I have always advocated for a holistic approach to justice. You attack the root, you attack the entire system of -isms.
I challenge you to love your enemy. We are all capable of insurmountable evil. No one can escape that. When we condemn the wrong of this world, we must do so void of hatred and violence. How many white supremacists are you praying for? How many racists have you engaged to find the root of their fear? How often do you seek opportunity to share the benefit of your experiences with others different than you, in person, with kindness instead of sharing a quick little blurb on Facebook? How often do you feel uncomfortable when someone presents you with their experience that does not fit your prior narrative? I challenge myself to do the hard work of rooting out hatred with kindness and love. I am not saying we make light of the evils of this world. I only challenge myself with the realization that when I look in the mirror, I am just as capable of the evil that I condemn.
Thank you for reading. Through my life-giving and painful experience, I hope this finds you well. If you are in my boat, I understand. If you have unintentionally silenced someone because you fear their story, remember that fear is the root of hate. If you find yourself quick to share an article on social media but slow to interact with people who differ from you in real life, then know that we have all been there at one time or another. You have a choice in that moment. How you choose to live matters.