race and space

In Mixed Company

On Thanksgivings during my childhood, my family would go to my paternal grandparents’ house and have what I thought was Mexican food. My mother’s parents would come to our house for dinner and we would eat either sausage, peas, and potatoes or bacon and cabbage. All of these meals were followed by pie. On Christmas Eve, my immediate family had dinner with my father’s parents while my mother’s family drove up to see us in the morning. We ate ham and corn and six desserts and we opened presents. My girl cousin and I always got dolls in different traditional-to-somewhere outfits that represented our ethnicities. I used mine to scare my little brother.

I am made of a lot of things. My mother is Scottish and Irish; she is also an Episcopalian. When I was small, I used to sit on her bed and practice different sounds with her and my brother. She speaks four languages; it was important to her that we had the phonic capacities to do the same. I spent pre-school watching Brigadoon. I was afraid of banshees. My father is Cherokee, Scottish, and Black Dutch. He is a watery, woodsman Buddhist and is visibly uncomfortable in churches.

In elementary school, I went to Pow Wows. In Arkansas History classes, I learned about how Europeans came to North America, renamed it, and decimated native populations. I went to Title VII programs. I ate tacos on Thanksgiving. Tacos are not always Mexican (Sometimes the are native). I have a blue card. I am 1/4th native. I know I am 1/4th native because it is printed on my blue card. The American government makes us keep count. When I was in these classes, I felt the way my father looks in church.

In junior high, I spent three years at a predominantly white Catholic school with kids mostly from the south side of my city.  I’m from the north side and went to a not-as-white public elementary school. My junior high environment was different from anything I’d ever known. In seventh grade, my straight-haired mother stopped blow drying my hair into a deciduous tree and took me to a north side hair salon. I learned how to use leave-in conditioners. I threw away my hair brushes. I was proud of myself. I felt like my body fit. A girl at my school spread a rumor that my curly hair was fake and it became something much heavier. I developed an eating disorder that lasted more than five years. I felt like I was pretty, but I wasn’t allowed to be. I was from the wrong side of the city for that. I didn’t go to the right elementary school for that. I wasn’t supposed to exist the way I did. It was the first time I’d ever wanted to stop living.

I went to high school on the north side and those feelings stopped. It was easy for me to be there. I didn’t have to question why I was a white kid in native spaces or why everyone in my family seemed to be from a different country. The high school I went to is one of the most diverse schools in the country. No one gave a shit about my hair. Other people had the same hair.

When I was in Catholic school, it was difficult to know which parts of my life were atypical because of who I am or that my family is made of interesting people and which parts were confusing for other reasons. I did not know that part of my family is black until eleventh grade. I am made of so many things that I did not question what they all are. One Christmas, when I was young, I was given two dolls. One of them was a porcelain doll in traditional Dutch clothes. The other was a soft, vinyl, black doll in a jumper. I did not link these two things together. I did not know that my grandmother was giving me pieces of herself.

I understand multiple realities in a way that people without a similar background typically cannot empathize with. I often only feel entirely allowed to exist with other international and multi-ethnic people. In relation to my life in the United States, some white women and some women who are both latinx and white, but not white passing (or as passing as I am, because being 3/8ths not white and looking white means that I am white passing), have hated me on impact.

I think it is a combination of internalized colorism and internalized misogyny that I come too close to exposing. I am too foreign. I am not foreign enough. I am too white. I am not white enough. I exist in an in-between space in a country with no room for in-between spaces. I am too many things, which points out that I also do too many things. If I am not allowed to be mixed, I am definitely not allowed to be mixed and interesting. I am not allowed to be both complicated in ethnicity and complicated in character because one set of complications is already too much.

When I am in ethnically diverse spaces, I do not feel the need to repeatedly state that I look white. People know I look white. They have eyes. But when I am in white spaces, especially white female spaces, I have to say it multiple times every time I speak about race or ethnicity. I am not allowed to acknowledge that I am anything other than exactly what they are or, in the case of mixed women who want to forget that they are mixed, what they have been trying to pretend they are not. They feel as if they are being called out. As if they’ll have to have discussions they weren’t prepared for in an environment where they felt safe enough not to have to watch their words. Like their political affiliations and internet activism won’t be seen as enough.

While they see my existence as too much, they also see themselves as not enough. It’s as if ethnicity was an accomplishment that they didn’t feel welcome to master. They find new things uncomfortable and they don’t want to acknowledge that their awareness of race and ethnicity is new. They are so afraid of not knowing one thing that instead of acknowledging that lack of knowledge they will ask me to leave. They will bully me over my self-awareness so that they can skip over personal development of the same thing.

It is incredibly difficult to share space with people who believe that my existence is counter to their own. It is impossible to reason with someone who sees my health and happiness as detrimental to themselves. They’ll fight for the survival of a part of themselves that they should probably question the validity of, but that growth is so terrifying to them that they’ll try to destroy me for accidentally alerting their subconscious to the need for it. I am still working out how to navigate this. I want there to be an option other that fight, cry, or leave. I am lucky not to have to deal with it in most public spaces. Color privilege allows me to slip by strangers who might hate me if they knew what I am. Home, school, and work spaces are not the same.

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