'What Are You?': How Growing Up Biracial As A White Presenting Man Challenges Where I Belong In Today’s Racial Climate
I think my unique background can make an impact somehow, so I am sharing, talking, listening, engaging and hoping others will do the same.
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I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the mid ‘70s to a biracial couple — my mother is Black and my father is white. While this wasn’t a huge deal in Hawaii in the ‘70s, it’s mind blowing to think that less than 10 years prior, biracial marriage was still illegal in select U.S. states. As genetics have decided it, however, I do not look biracial. That has led to a lot of interesting, confusing, tense, hilarious and scary moments throughout my life. It has also given me a unique perspective on racial privilege, and at times, an overwhelming sense of obligation to help.
It’s taken years to sit with that sense of obligation and realize it’s not my fight to go alone. I don’t know how to end racism. I can’t even speak for all biracial people. For example, my brother had very different experiences. The following is one of many reflections on my situation. It doesn’t come with answers, but I’d love it if it led to discussions.
“Are you Black or are you white?”
I’ve started calling this “the question.” I get it a few times a year, but less so now that I’m bald. (My crazy curls looked a little “ethnic,” as I was once described.)
My favorite encounter was in high school in the early 1990s. I was in line at a football game concession stand and felt a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see a girl my age, looking at me with her hands on her hips and her head cocked to the side. She was attractive, which generally wasn’t good for my ability to “be cool.” She had all the sass absolutely oozing out of her as she gave me elevator eyes and then asked the question.
I just kind of stared back while I raced through a ton of different responses, trying desperately to figure out what she wanted the answer to be. Would it be better one way or the other? I really wanted to get it right! My heart was in my ears, absolutely pounding, and all I could think about was how long I took to respond. I sheepishly shrugged and said with an absence of breath stemming from shyness and terror, “I’m both.” Blood rushed back to my head while I waited to see what happened next. It’s always an eternity waiting for “the reaction.”
I’ve had plenty of encounters with the reaction. Some good, some bad, some horrible. The worst weren’t after answering the question, but rather my reveal that I’m a “secret agent.” It’s a pretty obvious phrase, and a horrible one if you stop and think for a minute about why I use it. I look like a white guy, the only hint I’m biracial is a deep tan and a head of tightly curled hair (which sat atop my head before going bald). This leads to a lot of situations where I’m around several white people who think they’re “safely” around several other white people.
Secret agent encounters are pretty rough, though they’ve reduced in frequency as I’ve gotten older — probably because I’m better at choosing who I’m around and maybe because people have gotten better — or less openly hateful.
I keep wanting to build an animation of the Scooby-Doo “ruh-roh” face some people make when they find out I’m biracial. I can see their faces go through the process of being surprised, then terrified they’d said something offensive, then running through past encounters and, finally, ending up either red-faced or smiling proud of themselves for not having done so. Not everyone goes through that progression, but it’s more common than not.
When I was younger, I often heard from adults how hard they thought it must be for me to connect with people. The common assumption was always that biracial people didn’t fit in anywhere — we weren’t Black or white and therefore not accepted in either culture. My experience was always the opposite. I felt as if I fit in everywhere. I went to a multiracial school (oddly and sadly uncommon in suburban Atlanta) and never really had a problem fitting in (I was a baseball player and STEM nerd, so I even fit in with typical high school groupings). It really felt like a gift. There were certainly some burdens at times, but on the whole, I felt as though I was given a gift of fitting in anywhere and naturally seeing so many varied perspectives.
It was that way for me until 2020, and it took my therapist making the assumption above for me to really pinpoint why I’d been feeling so out of sorts. With all of the social strife in America today, things are difficult. White people are divided; some are working to understand their privilege and learn how to be and do better for their brothers and sisters of color, while others are clinging onto their privilege and are super angry about its implications. Black people are fed the hell up and are dealing with so much. Finally, the world is seeing what they’ve been trying to describe. Where am I in this, though?
I don’t need to understand the privilege of my white-passing appearance, name and speech patterns. I feel it deeply. I see it, for example, compared to how my grandfather was treated despite being far more skilled in his electrical engineering trade than I am in mine. I don’t actually have memories of living in a household with white people. My parents divorced when I was very young and I lived with my grandparents and then my mom. So, I walked around the world being treated as a white guy, then came home, shut the door and lived with the realities of being a member of a Black family, and all that it entails. Simultaneously, I don’t feel I can share the exhausted outrage of my Black friends and family. I don’t fear the police. My parents never had to teach me how to not be murdered for running a stop sign or wearing a hoodie past 9 p.m. Today, I belong nowhere.
I first wrote this simply wanting to get my thoughts off my chest, thinking that maybe the exercise of writing it down would be the cathartic release I needed. It was, but as with many things this deep, it didn’t last long. Now I’m sharing it with the hope I can join discussions about race, and share my perspectives and experiences while learning from others. I think my unique background can make an impact somehow, so I am sharing, talking, listening, engaging and hoping others will do the same.
I often say I don’t have any answer for racism. However, if forced to put one forward I’d say it’s open engagement in challenging each other to make it better. So, here I am.
P.S.— At the football concession stand, the girl’s response was, “Ah. Well. You’d be fine if you got all them bumps off your face.” Suffice to say, I went through roughly a gallon of pimple medicine in the next week.