Shades of grey in a black-and-white world
Do I count as a person of color? It’s a question I’ve considered over and over again – a question that’s burned into my mind every time I look at my mother and father and every time I see my face in the mirror.
Growing up in a mixed-race household, I never questioned my racial “place” in the America of the late 2000s. Mama has dark skin and rich, brown eyes – like mud, but prettier. I put my face in her long, black hair and imagine myself in a dark room with the lights off.
Daddy’s skin is white, so white that “you’d have to wear ski goggles” to look at him, he’d joke. His eyes are blue like water – like island waves and cloudless skies.
But what about me? I have my mother’s wide, flat nose, one I didn’t learn to love until my first year of college. I have her weirdly-shaped pinky toe and little hands.
I have my father’s everything else. Shaped like a pear like his mother, he’d say – little on the top and bigger on the bottom. I have his wide, flat feet; his big forehead; his tiny teeth.
But on what side of the spectrum did I belong? Too white to be Asian and too Asian to be white.
Before I came to college, the phrase “person of color” meant little to me. In my western-Pennsylvania town, the world was black and white. Was I white? Not completely. Was I something more? Yes, I think so. Was I a person of color? I didn’t know.
I looked at my relationship to the immigrant and racial experience, and I compared it to those who continue to fight for their lives every day. Police brutality. Discrimination in the workplace. Unequal educational opportunity. All of these heavy burdens of the racial circumstance that I have never felt the weight of – that I will likely never have to feel the weight of.
Growing up as two of the only students of Asian ethnicity in the entire district, my brother and I endured the pain of racial discrimination by our white and black peers. They pulled at the corners of their eyes when we entered a room. A girl that would some years later push me into a fence once commented to a room of our laughing peers that we probably “cooked cats and dogs” in home-economics class.
My brother and I found comfort in our parents’ constant dismissal of these childhood cruelties. We found comfort in each other and in ourselves.
But this is not my racism narrative. My experience had not been irredeemable. It has not hindered my personal or academic growth in such a way that I’ve lost an opportunity that should have been within my reach. Its attainability was determined only by my desire to pursue it.
Were they wrong to target us? Yes. Was my experience with racial discrimination any less pertinent, important or valid than others endured by other racial groups? Of course not. But was it the same sort of sting felt by this nation’s black community? By its Hispanic, Latinx and Arab communities? It wasn’t.
I never felt inferior. I wasn’t made to feel less than what I was, simply because I knew my opportunity and integrity could not be taken away from me, no matter how hard they tried.
From such a tender age, I recognized the privilege with which I would maneuver my young-adult life. It is not the same privilege held by this country’s white men and woman, but a privilege nonetheless. I am free to do and act as I please within reason and grace.
What my biracial identity bubbles down to is not a demand for justice. It is not a rallying call or a voice for the unspoken. It’s a celebration of my father’s firmness in times of fragile weakness. It’s unconditional gratitude for my mother’s selfless acts of sacrifice. It’s boundless love for the coming together of planets – two worlds stitched together by a tiny seed of promise for better days. It’s an understanding of my role in a noisy, agitated America full of hate and kindness.
Am I a person of color? I hope I could be, if only to add a touch of softness in a social space dominated by inequality. If only to celebrate my biracial identity as present, important and infinitely valid.
Can I occupy the same spaces as my Hispanic and Latinx brothers and sisters? No, it wouldn’t be the same. Can I pretend to share the same plight, struggle and burdens as my black peers? I can never.
But I can celebrate the beauty of my identity endlessly. I can be a helping hand, a boundless ocean of support. An ally in the war against the oppressed, the broken and the beaten. An advocate for the necessity of color in a black-and-white world.