"Racial Identity Reflection: 'Both'"

This past month, a Louisiana judge denied a couple a marriage license. This seems potentially normal enough, but this particular case was interesting to me because the reason he denied their bid for an official union was because they look like my parents.

The judge's rationale was that the children of an interracial union would be unnecessarily burdened by being born half-black and half-white; that they would suffer an identity crisis of sorts - that they would be accepted in neither race community. "I don’t do interracial marriages because I don’t want to put children in a situation they didn’t bring on themselves,” he says.

Reading the article brought me back to May 2006, when I traveled with a group of students down to New Orleans, Louisiana, for a week, to do Hurricane Katrina relief work. While there, we met an amazing old man named Gary, who was taking six months of his retirement to fly down to New Orleans and volunteer full-time doing hard labor for people he'd never met.

I don't know how we got on the topic. Maybe it was my friend Jimmy, who as a half-white, half-Korean may have been discussing his upcoming engagement to a half-black, half Puerto Rican woman, and how their kids, if they chose to have them, would be something akin to multi-cultural superheroes. However we started talking about it, though, Gary, fully aware of our respective ethnic heritages, shared his opinion on inter-racial relationships with Jimmy and I - namely that he, like the aforementioned judge, and for the same admittedly good-hearted reasons, was against them.

My initial response was shock, disbelief, and then anger. What an ignorant racist, I thought; I'm glad his antiquated ideas will, hopefully soon, die along with him.

Because he's wrong. Right? I mean, it's not like anyone of mixed racial heritage could be... I don't know,  the President of the United States, for example? But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether he was right.

I do have identity issues. I never felt comfortable sitting at the black table in the cafeteria; I didn't have any black friends growing up. I don't listen to rap; I'm no good at basketball. For goodness' sake, most of my friends growing up were Asian! But I never felt entirely comfortable at the Asian table either. They were nice enough, but I didn't often get their jokes, and their lighthearted complaints about growing up Asian-American didn't have the same currency with someone who's only experienced the culture second-hand.

But sometimes it seems like I've only ever experienced any culture second-hand. I'm not black, or Asian-American... and I'm not, though I've largely been socialized to be, white either.

I used to play this game with newfound acquaintances where they would guess my ethnic background. I would get a wide range of guesses - lots of Hispanics, lots of Middle Easterns (especially when I grew out the facial hair), lots of Mixed Ethnic Heritages (though the specific mix was rarely guessed). Rarely black. But everyone could always tell that I'm not quite white. I never quite made the cut.

So what if it's true? What if it's unfair to have mixed-race children because, absent a singular, identifying cultural or racial identity, one is left with none? Left to float in the abyss, always on the periphery of authentic cultural experience? Left to wonder what it would be like to identify with a group, any group, please, just let me identify, let me be comfortable for a moment, let me have a table to sit at in the cafeteria, please, can I just get a few jokes? How much am I really missing out on?

And if it's true; if that's the case, then what is someone like me supposed to do - not have kids because it would be by default dooming them to a life of the same sufferings thrust upon me by my unthinking, uncaring, impractical parents? How could they have done this to me? Where was that Louisiana judge to prevent my parents from making such a grievous error? From producing such a contemptible... mistake?

Maybe the answer is to pick a side - white or black - and commit to it, maybe; date in that race only, appropriate that culture's norms, try to belong. And in a couple of generations this whole problem will be smoothed out?

But thenI remember a couple of years ago, and a conversation with a friend. I discussed with her this dilemma, and she said something that struck and intrigued me, something I'd never heard before. Instead of bi-racial, she began, instead of half-white and half-black - she asked whether it wasn't maybe, more of a... "both" situation?

Both black and white? And wasn't that kind of cool, she asked, wasn't that kind of special, kind of a privilege?

"Both," I thought. Both. Not halves; each part separate, conflicting even, in a constant power grab for dominance over my racial identity, each part closing me off from the other's culture. Both. Together. In cooperation.

An opportunity, I thought, to not be trapped inside the paradigm of a dominant - or minority - culture. Free to form my own identity irrespective of race or culture, free to appropriate what feels right in my soul from any culture and to reject what doesn't. I'm free, I thought, Like very few people are free!

But... freedom is scary. And there are lots of benefits to collective group identity - benefits that I have to work, hard, not to envy. Having limitless potential is frighteningly, debilitatingly, daunting.

So for now, I'm working on living into that freedom. I don't have an answer, and this piece doesn't have an ending. Maybe because this isn't and won't ever be over.

Maybe those old white men in Louisiana, and elsewhere, are right, and I'm burdened... or maybe - maybe they couldn't possibly be more wrong.

1 comment:

  1. wow elliott, i loved this post. i've never heard something so honest from a perspective like yours before