on being mixed (part one of many)
The other night a white friend of mine posted a rant on their instagram story that the term “nonwhite” is racist because it assumes white is the default and everyone else is then unjustly lumped together. This is a sentiment that I agree with, and also something about that struck me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realized it was because “nonwhite” is a word I have used for myself as a mixed person. Because sometimes that is the only word I can think of to describe my experience. I have always felt as though the term “person of color” is reserved for folks who are darker than me, who don’t pass as white in the winter, or whose cultural background goes unnoticed just as much if not more than it gets pointed out, and so I don’t use POC for myself unless a person of color chooses that label for me from their perspective. I think the dismissal of the term “nonwhite” troubles me because the truth is, the way white people relate to race in America IS different that the way everyone else does. BECAUSE America was made for white people, there is a distinction between “white” and “everyone else who the country wasn’t made for.” That doesn’t mean those people have the same experience as each other. Even within a racial group, folks have vastly different relationships with race, privilege, culture, and oppression. That is what intersectionality is meant to address. But this post bothered me because I feel like as mixed people who don’t belong to the binary that exists in our current cultural narrative, we are in the margins of race relations and conversations. Which is strange, because we are the fastest growing racial group in America.
I am both white and Latinx. Both colonizer and colonized. So when instagram posts express absolutist views about what white people should do or what POC should do, I don’t know where I fit into that conversation. There is no space for nuance in this revolution language, and nuance is all I am. The racism I have experienced is nuanced, as is the racism I’ve benefited from. The ways in which I have assimilated or embraced the multiple cultures that swirl around inside me, those are nuanced. But there’s not a public space for that in this conversation, or at least I haven’t found that space for myself yet.
I was in a training program for young and emerging artists a few years ago, semi early on in our cultural widespread use of the phrase “person of color.”
We were going into a day of racial equity training and the coordinator of the program, a white person, came up to me and said
“for this workshop I need to know if you identify as a person of color or a white person”
“oh!” I said, realizing this is the first time someone asked me this question in this way, not knowing that I would be asked this question again and again and again and again in the coming years.
“Um…neither, I guess, I’m biracial, I’m white and Cuban.”
“Oh..” they frowned, “well we need you to pick one for the training, we're separating people by racial identity because people will get different training..so..do you want to be in the white space or the POC space?”
“Well...neither” I said, more firmly, “is there a third space?”
“Um…no, we only have facilitators for white people and people of color, let me talk to the leadership to figure this out.”
An hour or so later, the director of the program, and the artistic director of the theatre we were doing the program through, a white man, addressed the whole group, somewhat exasperated, and said,
“Okay everyone, we’ve realized people need another space, so there will be a room for POC facilitated by [Black person] a room for white people facilitated by [white person] and a third room for discussion for those who are still figuring it out.”
My face got hot and both anger and embarrassment rose up inside me. He had mistaken my expression of racial identity as confusion. The coordinator quickly came up to me and said “we have this room for you and anyone else who wants to join you and we were hoping you could lead the conversation.”
I am a seasoned facilitator and educator now, and I do teach some around equity, identity, and social justice, but at this point I was not at all qualified to facilitate this conversation. Other people were receiving trainings led by experienced facilitators. I wanted to learn about racial equity, but instead had to lead it, which was both a detriment to my learning, and the poor people who had to sit in a room I was “facilitating” clumsily. We went into our rooms and we had a mostly cathartic discussion, although upon reflection I’m sure some aspects of that conversation were somewhat problematic, probably due to the fact that I had very little idea what the fuck I was doing.
The night after these trainings I wrote an email to the artistic director explaining that to assume mixed race people just haven’t done the reflection to decide which side they are on is insulting and deeply misguided. I wrote this email with the sweet and forgiving tone of a young woman trying not to piss off a powerful potential employer. He briefly but sincerely apologized, and we moved on.
CW: this next paragraph includes a racial slur
This is one of many experiences I’ve had as a mixed race person where my identity has been devalued, dismissed, or erased entirely because I’m not all one thing or the other. These experiences happen often, but they vary in size. Being fetishized or mislabeled as another race, or someone assumes I would be willing to play someone Indian or Arab or even a light skinned Black person. Being denied an audition to play Latina roles because I didn’t really look as dark or as typical as the casting director thought I should. Being able to tell that me being young and female and Hispanic is influencing the amount of respect or space I am allotted in a professional environment. Moments when white people have assumed racial jokes about me are funny and not harmful because I’m half white. I have been called a “wetback”, and it was painful and demeaning, even though the context was not as dangerous and deeply hateful as it was when this word has been used against members of my family before me.
AND - with all of these things there is a true duality in the privileges that come with my racial identity, because in many instances, the privileges do outweigh the disadvantages.
CW: this paragraph includes mention of racially charged violence
I write this with the understanding that this current moment is not about me. This current moment is about Black people, and the relationship they have to America, and fixing the deeply discriminatory and dangerous way we’ve been treating Black folks since the founding of the United States. This movement, while it is relevant to me, is not about me or my racial group. Since the murder of George Floyd, there have been more murders, of Black Trans women, of Black people in nooses that the justice system despicably named suicides in hopes of sweeping the ugly truth of our country under the rug, of Black people at the hands of police. There have been empty gestures by large organizations and corporations “in solidarity” while they continue to stifle and devalue Black voices. But there have also been actions by people who have been doing real work in the direction of progress. Defunding and even abolishing the police has gone from unthinkable to attainable in a matter of months thanks to relentless protesting, calling, emailing, posting, and donating. The fight is far from over, but for the first time the many people in the country are fighting it with their full presence. I am hoping this means momentum for a long time, but if the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that Americans have short attention spans and stubborn minds. And that is a dangerous combination. I hope that we can hold ourselves to the normalization of saying to ourselves every morning “what have I done to assess how I may be contributing to or dismantling white supremacy?” or “have I read/watched/listened to something by a Black person or Person of Color?” or “have I sent an email or called a public servant about ending qualified immunity?” or “what can I do today to create a more just and holistic world?”
I also think I have maybe been using this moment as a scapegoat to not face some of the processing I need to do when it comes to my race and culture. I have always loved and felt intimately connected to being Cuban. But there is also this strange aversion I have to diving deep into the work of supporting and educating myself about the broader Latinx experience in America. I have read way more books and articles, watched more media, and listened to more music about and from the Black and Indigenous experience than I have the Latinx experience. I have participated in more activism advocating for Black communities including and before this current movement, than I have around the ICE camps or migrant rights or antiracism as it relates to my Hispanic community. I am not sure if this is because I lack the resilience and courage to face these atrocities head on, or because I am prioritizing other people in an attempt to address what is most urgent first, even though these issues should ideally be addressed alongside each other instead of one at a time. This might sound strange, but it is almost like it is too close to my heart. I am immobilized by the heartbreak I feel when I try to deeply dive into injustices against Latinx immigrants and refugees that are particularly horrific, because I cannot distance their experience from that of my family’s. I've spoken with friends of mine who are Latinx Americans about this, and often they echo that close feeling. Whenever I engage with something from a Latinx perspective, I feel a wave of shame. Shame of not being Latina enough, not doing enough to protect my people, not knowing enough, not speaking Spanish well enough. But also, I think I still in 2020 have shame about being Cuban. No one talks about the fact that when you sometimes pass as white, in certain places, part of you is hoping no one will notice what you really are. The socialized white supremacist in you is relieved that you haven’t been otherized enough to be aggressively oppressed like your ancestors. We’re staying in rural Northern Michigan right now. It is very white. And I walk through the grocery store hoping no one will notice I am not white. Deep inside me I am nervous I will be found out, and then potentially less safe or accepted than if only my white side shows. Vice versa, in my friend circles that are mostly people of color, I secretly hope that my white side doesn’t show, hiding the proof that half of me is a colonizer, worried that maybe I am an imposter in this community, and therefore less loved or welcome in that space.
How I feel about my racial identity is often at odds with what I think other people see when they look at me through a racial lens.
This is what it is to be mixed. Yes, we are a bridge, we can speak to and from multiple perspectives and that is a beautiful and powerful place to operate from. As I once heard brilliantly described by a mixed performer in a dance piece about race, many of us are “proof of peace.” We are a celebration of love and fusion.
Make no mistake, I LOVE being mixed. I love that there are parts of my personality and soul and taste in food and art that come from drastically different parts of the world. I love that my family from one side to the other is every shade, and that my parents fit together like sacred perfect opposites.
Being mixed is pure fucking magic.
it can also be lonely,
because even though we are a bridge, we are also a wedge.
In this accelerated moment in the racial equity movement, many are realizing what the rest of us already knew. That race and racial issues are complicated. They are messy and confusing and ever changing, and what is helpful in one moment or environment is harmful in another. I hope that in spite of the messiness we are trudging through, we continue to ask questions and learn in pursuit of real understanding and sustainable change. In the words of Maya Angelou, "do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better.” I am living for a world in which all of us know better to do better for more people.
I am trying, as a mixed person with multiple cultures swirling inside me, to fully face the issues that impact the culture I come from head on, and to fully embrace my Cubana while being fully accountable for my whiteness. I want to own and love the bridge I stand on, instead of yearning to be on one side of the river or the other for the convenience and comfort of clarity.
I will continue to speak and write about race. Racism and antiracism outside of myself, and my journey in understanding my racial identity, in both privilege and challenge. Even though it always scares the crap out of me when I do it, and I have done it wrong before and then had to pivot many times. I will most definitely do it wrong again and have to pivot again. But every skill requires you to get it wrong a bunch so you can do it right.
Brene Brown says "I am not here to be right, I am here to get it right."
If you’ve gotten this far in this long ass post, thanks for sticking around.
Here’s a poem as a treat.
she was a small frame with wild hair
barefoot under the juniper tree
feeling the earth move beneath her
constantly caught in monsoons and seeking adobe shelter
filled with laughter and thought and love and black beans
dancing to the rhythm of latin heartbeats and rolling celtic melancholic melodies
a product of imaginary worlds
and the balance of privilege and struggle
in both rock and person form
people who live, work, and think through art
who love and fight loudly
soft hearts and strong wills
now she is me
destined to wonder and wander while still in sight of my mountains
navigating slow and almost invisible progress
because growth never comes without growing pains
and continuous questions
on how to protect, preserve, celebrate, give, rise
but still and always
barefoot under the juniper tree