Race and identity: 'Well then, what are you?'
“Mom’s teaching me how to mix colors. She says that if I mix red, yellow, black and white paints in the right combination, I will have the right brown for a picture of me.
“The right brown? But Mom, brown is brown,” I say.
“That’s not so,” Mom says. “There are lots of different shades of brown.”
This is a passage from one of my favorite books as a child, “The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz. The story is about a little girl who wants to paint a self-portrait. Originally, she believes that there is only one shade of brown, but her mother—an artist—teaches her that there are actually many different shades.
As a multicultural couple, my parents believed that it was important to read books like “The Colors of Us” so that I understood those lessons.
My dad, who is black and Mexican-American, is slightly lighter than milk chocolate. My mom, who is Canadian and Jamaican, is the color of flan coated with caramelized sugar. My younger sister and I are a mix, but her skin color is still slightly different from mine. She is the color of creamy caramel, and I am the color of milky espresso.
Like the girl in the book, I would often mix colors to create these shades because my 20-count box of crayons only gave me three options—peach, yellow or brown. There was no in-between. As a little kid, that would often upset me.
Didn’t the people who made crayons know that there was more than just one color of brown?
Outside of my family, the world didn’t seem to know either. When most people looked at me, they only saw one ethnicity: Mexican. That still happens. In fact, it’s only become worse as I’ve grown older.
I’ve always found this funny since Mexican is actually the least of what I am—25 percent—yet because of my last name, tan skin and bold facial features, that’s all people seem to see. Often they’re surprised when they find out that I don’t speak Spanish or have tacos for dinner every night.
“Well then, what are you?”
When I tell them, they’re surprised.
I get this all the time. Apparently I’m too light skinned. “Don’t they realize that there are many shades of black?” the little girl inside me wants to ask.
“But you don’t talk black or act black.”
Oh, you mean ghetto? I’m black, and the way I speak is the way I speak. So tell me, how is that not talking black?
Here’s the problem: Most people perceive being black as acting ghetto—or “street”—but for my family and plenty of others, that’s not the case.
My black heritage consists of listening to jazz and making collard greens and sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving. For me, that black heritage also includes my Mom’s Jamaican roots, which means listening to reggae and eating ackee and codfish on Christmas morning.
There’s another part of my heritage that I can’t ignore: Being Canadian. My grandmother was from Toronto.
“Who’s that lady in the picture with you?” friends will sometimes ask, followed by, “What? You’re white?”
Her pale white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes look very different from my tan skin, curly brown hair and brown eyes. But she was just “grandma” to me. A grandma who loved trips to the park, tea parties and buying me lots of stuffed animals.
black is brown is tan
is girl is boy
is nose is face
is all the colors
of the race
is dark is light
in singing night
kiss big woman hug big man
black is brown is tan
this is the way it is for us this is the way we are
That’s “black is brown is tan,” a poem by Arnold Adoff about a multicultural family with a black mom and a white dad. My parents also used to read it to me as a child. The book even spaces out the words to show that, although families have different skin tones and ethnicities, they are still the same, still equal.
My mom likes the multiracial label, while my dad prefers to be more specific, identifying himself as a black man with Mexican heritage. I’m not sure exactly how I want to identify myself.
Regardless, my parents wanted me to know that no matter how I choose to identify, we are all still the same, all still equal. And to never let anyone tell me otherwise.
This is the way it is for us, this is the way we are.
MORE FROM THE RACE ISSUE
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 21 students participated in a ThreeSixty multimedia project centered on microaggressions—or as defined by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “the daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative racial slights toward people of color.” Check our our photo display here.