Mixed and Mixed Up

It can be tough growing up mixed in America. Sometimes it is a very isolating, lonely experience. It's often the case that it's one that one or both of your parents don't share, making relating to your experience difficult or impossible for them. It's easy to feel put upon by both sides.

One of my younger cousins on my mother's side of the family (she's my cousin's daughter, but I have enough cousins who were parents when I was born that I think of their children more as my cousins) recently posted to Facebook about how she felt like she didn't belong with either side the family. Her words:

It feels as if I'm an out cast to them, or something their not. Somedays are worst hen others. I sit there and they stare at me and make their comments about me. Is it the fact I speak my mind, and I'm not afraid to say what's on my mind? Or is it (for my dad's side) I'm parts black? Or is it the fact (for my moms side) I look white?

She's not the first, nor will she be the last mixed kid to have that feeling. And let me tell you, it's not exactly an unfounded feeling. I talked to my dad about this recently, and when I repeated what she said to him, he said "They do. They absolutely treat her differently." I don't aim here to speak for all mixed people in America, especially since I'm mixed differently from her – in fact my cousin's older sister (about my age) felt she should just change her attitude and pray (which, personally, sounds like a good way to achieve nothing, but she passes for white far more easily than her little sister does, so she also doesn't have the appearance of not being white going against her).

Now I don't know if my cousin knows this, but when her mother and father were dating her great-grandfather (my grandfather on my mother's side) was opposed to them getting married because his grandson would be marrying a black woman. And it was because he didn't want black grandchildren. According to my mother his exact words were that he didn't "want any nigger grandchildren." I don't know if he ever came around on that – he died in 1984, so I never met him, but I hope he did change his mind before he died.

My mother and a good chunk of her side of the family are rather proud of the mix of various European backgrounds that they have. From her side I have Irish, English, Scottish, Italian, German, and French. My mother impressed upon me at a pretty young age that we got a whole slew of different heritages from her side of the family, but that doesn't change the basic facts: my mother's side of the family is very white.

When my mother's family gets asked "What are you?" it's a time to reflect proudly on that ancestry, and I was raised to do the same. As I've grown, though, I've come to realize that when I'm asked that question it doesn't quite sound the same as it does to my mother's family. I feel put on the spot as a mixed person, as if I need to justify my existence. It's not a good feeling.

Like my cousin, when my parents started dating there was opposition from my mother's family – my uncle asked my grandmother why she let my mother date "that spic" (my father). My grandmother, and I love her for saying this and wish I had known when she was alive, told him in no uncertain terms that "that spic" did better by my mother than my uncle had ever done with any woman, and any man had done for any of their sisters.

So yeah, before you can even be born as a mixed kid, there's the possibility people will object not only to your parents being together, but your very existence. If you can get past the obstacle that is being born it doesn't necessarily mean smooth sailing. Your mixedness might not be acknowledged much at all.

I, like my dad, am mixed. We are Puerto Ricans raised far outside Boricua culture. My father doesn't speak a word of Spanish, and I only do because I opted to study it in high school and tacked it on as an extra major in college. People assume because of our name that we speak Spanish, which has led to interesting things. Spanish-language advertisements regularly hit our mailbox, based on the assumption that we speak the language. My father is military – we lived in Puerto Rico for two and a half years because the Army made the same assumption. It was neat to meet family I'd never have met otherwise, including my great-grandparents and several great-aunts and uncles, but I didn't appreciate it for what it was when it was happening. Living there when I did, I didn't feel like I fit in with that part of my heritage. I was too white, too Anglo. And that led to some trouble at school.

I got bullied while we lived in Puerto Rico by other Puerto Rican kids because I was identifiably white. Place me in a room full of people from the island and yeah, I look white by comparison, but put me in a room full of my mother's side of the family or my wife's and suddenly I look quite dark. It's not how we identify that matters, but how people identify us – and most people aren't going to look at us and say "Oh, you're mixed, a bit of both." They'll pick which seems farther from them in my experience – case in point my younger brother. He was bullied as well, but in a different context than when I got bullied in Puerto Rico. His bullying happened when we lived in Wisconsin because he was identifiably Latino. Worse he was identified as Mexican, and the inaccuracy stung worse than the racism. We got through it, but we learned that being mixed can mean getting it from both sides.

And getting it from both sides doesn't help us. Not all mixed kids do get through it. A 2003 study found that less than half of mixed race kids identify the same way at school as at home (Native Americans had a unique distribution "with 34% of those who selected American Indian only at school selecting White only at home, and 77% of those who identified as White/American Indian at school identified as White only at home"). Mixed race kids are at greater risk for substance abuse and general health issues. Those whose racial mix includes "White" or "Asian" show an increased risk of suicidal tendencies, and the researchers conclude that being mixed causes stress which leads in part to these issues.

Oh, by the way, don't try looking up suicide rates of mixed race people. It turns up a bunch of white supremacist sites using the research to support their view that the "mixing of the races" leads to the degeneracy of humanity, and is extremely shitty to read. Maybe, if these people actually read the research, they might understand that it is their attitude which causes the stress which makes us feel like we might want to kill ourselves and not something inherent in our genes.

Getting it from both sides. Definitely no picnic. Even the president has been there.

Does anybody remember how people talked about Barack Obama before the 2008 election? I do. Time was kind enough to put the question many asked in a headline: Is Obama Black Enough?

Is he black enough? Well, he's black enough for people to depict him as a witch doctor. He's black enough for Limbaugh to call him a thug, which we all know is just code for nigger. Oh, and he's black enough for people to just call him a nigger outright. Stanley Crouch, on the other hand, said that Obama doesn't have any claim to being black, because his mother was white and his father wasn't descended from American slaves. Obama's not black – he's half white and half African, someone who masquerades as black but doesn't fool "real" black people. Jeez, gag me.

Being mixed means, more so than for any other racial group, how we identify is out of our hands. We get identities put upon us, and it's only by coincidence that those identities match our own. Society doesn't make it easy to not fit in a single box, and if there are two boxes to choose from, we get pressured to choose one. Our monoracial brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers all police us to some extent.

In my family, the white box was where my mother's pressure tried to shove me. I was raised without speaking Spanish, though that's not my parents' fault - my grandfather, the only one of my great-grandparents' children to marry someone white didn't speak Spanish at home because she didn't speak it. I was raised with basically no ties to Puerto Rican culture. I was told to check the box for white on standardized tests as a kid (it used to be that you could only check one box). I was, in all ways, raised like a white kid and the fact that I was Puerto Rican was downplayed for as long as possible. I didn't even know I was Puerto Rican until my parents told us we were moving to Puerto Rico.

I remember when we lived in Tennessee and my mother took me to check out the local public school and see if it was a good fit for me to start Kindergarten at. When we left, I remember my mother's reasons why I wasn't going to go to school there. First, we were moving about five miles and crossing the border into Georgia and living in an actual house rather than an apartment. Secondly, she didn't want me to be the only white kid in my class – the entire kindergarten class was black - she thought I'd feel isolated and that I'd stick out.

It took me a long time to recognize what that was, because it took me a long time to recognize what I was. I did not know I was anything but white when I was small because I was constantly told I was and raised to be white. It was, I think, an attempt on my mother's part to get me to pass and mitigate against racism. I can't agree with her methods, but I understand the intent.

She spent a long time trying to get me (and my brother) to a position where I can get where she and my dad couldn't on the socioeconomic ladder. She sacrificed her ability to have a career to be at home for us, to be able to pick us up from school, ensure we could do school activities, have home-cooked meals, that we could go on to college like neither of my parents and none of my grandparents had been able to. And that was made possible by my dad going active duty in the army.

She's seen firsthand some of what it is to be a mixed person, but she'll never truly get it. I remember in high school how my mother took me to a cat shelter to see if there was any way I could do some volunteering there (to boost my odds of getting into a good college). I was turned down. They thought I was looking to volunteer because I had been ordered to perform community service by the county court.

My mother understood enough to know it was because I wasn't white, but she couldn't have guessed that that was only part of what was going on in my mind as a result of that decision. I knew it was because I wasn't white, but being mixed meant I was white, in a way. It meant that despite being every bit as culturally white as my white friends, I had this Latino baggage hanging over my head and seeped into my skin which did nothing but cause trouble. It meant that no matter how white I was, I wasn't white enough. I was always going to be ambiguously brown (most of the time people guess I'm Mexican, but I've had Iraqi coworkers peg me as Egyptian or Palestinian).

It wasn't even enough to even be eligible to most of the scholarships available to Latin@ students – most of them required you to be ½ at least. In the eyes of those with power I wasn't white enough; in the eyes of those looking to give non-white college applicants a leg up toward equal standing with white applicants, I was too white.

And when I started learning Spanish, self-doubt crept into that. I don't speak Spanish like a gringo – one of my dear friends has told me that I definitely don't exhibit the issues most white Americans seem to have with the language. But I don't speak like anyone actually does. My Spanish is the Spanish of a student of Spanish, not a native speaker, and my accent is mishmash of various accents which sometimes leaves my consonants indistinct and my emphasis slightly off.

This is a source of great anxiety for me. Stick me in conversation long enough with someone and I'll start to unconsciously adopt some of their accent. When I talk to my great-uncle in Spanish, I pick up his Puerto Rican accent – and it carries over into my English. Get me in discussion with a group of people from the Deep South and the third of my life I spent in Tennessee and Georgia will come out in my speech. It's something of an identity crisis. I don't belong to any group. I stand alone. I am the proverbial cheese.

It was around the time I really started to learn Spanish and I had that experience at the cat shelter that I realized that no matter how much my mother tried to get me access to whiteness, it wasn't going to happen.

And that was the best self-realization I ever had.

It led to a slew of other realizations. I realized I was Latino, whether keyed into my cultural heritage or not, and I was going to seize onto that and not let go. I realized that I had been socialized to be white, but that didn't have to define me. I started to develop the male version of what Gloria Anzaldua calls the "mestiza consciousness " – an awareness of how race and gender have intersected in the formation of my lived experience.

That was the big one. The moment I began to intuit how race and gender intersected, I began to piece together other intersections. Race and class. Gender and sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and race.

I began with parallels between those systems, and I started exploring deeper, to where they differ, where race and gender don't have quite the same dynamics happening, where class and race are wildly different. And I realized I stood in a multidimensional web of hierarchies where I was privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others.

Feminism, socialism, anti-racism, fighting for queer rights – these things are inseparable for me. They all tie together. And it's being mixed which opened the door for me to see the Gordian knot of oppression rather than just the few strands which pertain to me directly.

Being mixed isn't easy. It's damn hard. For me, at least, it led to becoming a better person. I wish I had had someone to help me understand a lot of it earlier. I know that when I'm a father I'll be trying to raise my kids with a mestiza consciousness so they don't feel lost and unsure of who they even are but rather are able to celebrate their unique position and vantage point.