Thoughts on being mixed

My mixed experiences in a black and white society

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Emma Keller is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

“Are you mixed?” 

It’s been 18 years, and I am still not sure how to feel about that question. But, it has always been one that I’ve been tasked with answering. When I was about five years old, a woman got on an elevator with me and my dad and asked that question, “Are you mixed?” before even saying “hello.” I just looked up at my dad and said, “Mixed? Like a salad?” At that age, I certainly did not describe myself as “mixed.”

As I grew older, that question was inevitably followed by, “With what?” I remember waiting to use the restroom before an away game with my high school volleyball team when a girl from the opposing team asked me the all too familiar question — “Are you mixed?” I barely got out a “yes” before she said, “With what?” I told her I was black and white, and she just clicked her tongue and said, “Oh, that’s such a common breed. I’m Italian and Portuguese.” Her comments took me by surprise. I mean, I was just trying to use the bathroom! Typically, I just got a look from some elderly couple trying to “figure my family out” or the occasional point and smile from a young interracial couple picturing what their children would look like. 

I do not tell these stories of a strange woman in an elevator and a volleyball player who referred to me as a “common breed” to whine or inspire pity. I tell them to give some idea of how confused I was about my identity for most of my life.

I may have become used to being described as mixed, but I still felt like I had to choose a singular identity — black or white. My fear of being rejected by either group kept me from finding a community at my already too-small Christian high school. It may sound silly that I struggled so hard to not place myself in a box labeled “black” or “white,” but even the SAT took way too long to add a “check all that apply” option for their race and ethnicity questions.

I was too light to be black but too tan and curly-haired to be anything close to white. Yet, I knew I would never be “black enough,” or “white enough” for that matter, to fit in with either group. So there I was, confused and adrift on a raft between two very different categories, neither of which seemed quite right enough to live in. 

I was still on that raft when I came to the University last year. My mom encouraged me to get involved with the Office of African American Affairs. And because moms always know best —  or at least always want what is best for their children — I listened. One week into the school year, I found myself at a resource fair for minority students hoping to find a black student group to get involved with, even though I still carried that fear of rejection in the back of my mind. I had barely begun to speak to the student behind the first booth before I was told that the organization was meant for black students. I smiled and said, “OK, can you tell me more about it?” only to receive the same response — “This group is only for black students.” 

I walked away defeated and more confused about my identity than I ever was in high school. My fear of not being black enough prevailed even in college. I remember thinking, “If Barack Obama is black enough, why aren’t I? If Meghan Markle is black enough, what’s wrong with me?” 

I don’t think I will ever know the answers to those questions. But, after all this time I’ve spent trying to label myself and searching for people who look like me to relate to, I know that my identity is not and never was what other people perceive me to be. 

And neither is yours. You are not defined by what other people think of you or limited by another’s opinion. I’ve learned that you are more than a judgment based on first glance, and you are bigger than the label society tries to force on colorful people who do not fit the mold. It takes time to instill these ideas in our must-please-everyone brains, but it is most definitely worth it. 

I know now that I do not have to choose to check the “black” or “white” box, because I am not one or the other. I am both. Whether I’m biracial, mixed like a salad or simply a woman of color, I am Emma Keller and that is enough for me.

Emma Keller is a Life Columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com. 

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