Every mixed-race person remembers the first time they were asked “What are you?”
I was in sixth grade when a classmate asked me that in front of our entire class. I panicked as all of my classmates waited for an answer.
I frantically found the words to reply to my classmate. I said I was Black and white.
I could not stop thinking about being asked the question and it continued to bother me that someone asked me. Although I never saw myself as different from my peers, being asked that question made me feel like an outcast.
The same night, I told my parents about the conversation. My parents were furious that I left out that I am also Native American.
Racial identity is a common problem multiracial individuals face within school and society.
“I never really fully identified with either race when it comes to being white and Black,” Olivia Magby, senior sociology major, said.
According to the 2015 Pew Research Center study “The Multiracial Identity Gap,” 61% of Americans with a background that includes more than one race say that they do not consider themselves to be multiracial.
About half, or 47%, of the respondents in the study said it is because of their physical appearance, saying that they looked like one race. Another 47% of respondents said it was due to family upbringing, saying they were raised in the culture of one particular race.
“They never knew the family member or ancestor who was a different race,” said about a third, 34%, of respondents in “The Multiracial Identity Gap.”
I did not identify myself with Native Americans because I never met my grandfather on my mom’s side in person. Aside from a few phone calls on holidays, I never had a conversation with him about our ethnicity.
I also never learned any traditions or rituals about my Native tribe, Potawotami. I felt as if I could not claim a race that I did not, and still don’t, know anything about.
Magby said the reason she has a difficult time identifying with either race is due to her childhood.
“When I was younger, I grew up with mostly white people and lived with my mom who is white,” Magby said. “As for my dad, who is Black, I would visit his side of the family once or twice a year for the holidays.”
Now, Magby said she accepts that she is Black and white. But still struggles with identifying herself as both races.
Finding a sense of belonging within either race becomes more prevalent during middle school and high school for multiracial individuals.
In a 2010 research study, “School Racial Composition and Biracial Adolescents’ School Attachment,” researchers Simon Cheng and Joshua Klugman said for biracial youth, this process of finding social groups is problematic because the small number of biracial students means biracial youth have to identify with their associated monoracial groups.
Furthermore, researchers Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey A. Laszloffy argue that “Studies report that biracial students are more likely to encounter peer isolation, social marginality, and disrupted social ties in school.”
From elementary through high school, there were predominantly white and Hispanic students at the public schools I attended. Since I felt a disconnect with the Black community, I wanted to be accepted within the Black social groups in school.
During my junior year of high school, there was a group of Black students I tried to spend my free time with at lunch, but they made it clear that I did not belong at their table. The girls did not view me as one of them and neglected me every time I sat at their table.
Magby said she went to a high school with predominantly white students and would interact more with students of one racial background than the other due to her school dynamic.
We both believe that having the choice of attending a diverse university such as the University of La Verne helped us embrace our Black culture and feel more accepted within the Black community.
La Verne made it a principle to show students how each one of us belonged on campus by creating a friendly, non-judgemental environment.
Students and faculty at the University are open to creating safe spaces for individuals to speak freely about how they feel about different topics and personal experiences.
Also, ethnic and cultural student groups at ULV have helped Magby and me feel included.
Magby has been the Black Student Union’s event coordinator for a year. Now, she is also BSU’s ambassador.
“BSU has helped me feel accepted on campus because it has allowed me to make connections with other students of color, student athletes and people who overall have the same passions as me,” Magby said.
BSU has also helped me feel included and comfortable with being myself around other students of color. The students involved in the organization have acknowledged me outside of meetings and do not make me feel like an outsider.
The club accepts me for my physical appearance and racial background, which has helped me to accept myself as Black, white, and Native American and can identify with each race when asked what I am.
Outside of feeling like an outcast in school settings, strangers and families have a heavy influence on the way multiracial individuals look at themselves.
In 2018, my family and I went to Universal Studios. When we were in line to ride the tram, a Black woman and her daughter were standing in line in the row next to us.
The woman kept staring at me and she would not keep her eyes off of me. I kept feeling as if there was something wrong with me along with feeling anxious and self-conscious about my appearance.
She did not acknowledge me once or even try to start a conversation, but her eyes told me everything I needed to know.
“When I was younger and I would go places with my mom, I would ask her why people were staring at us because I didn’t understand why strangers were giving us dirty looks to my family,” Magby said. “We would get dirty looks from both sides, white people and Black people.”
Families of multiracial individuals hold the most responsibility for how their children process challenges they face being more than one race.
My freshman year of college was the first time I was able to openly talk about my experiences being a mixed-race child in America. I had to make a presentation about how the experiences I faced along with several others faced is a social issue in America
Once I told a family member about the topic, they said that I have had it easier than most due to my lighter skin tone.
Although we have never had a conversation about what challenges I have faced, I was still shocked to hear a family member make that comment and diminish everything I have gone through.
Magby said she went through a similar experience with a family member.
“One time I was on FaceTime with my friend and I forgot what we were talking about,” Magby said. “But I said something about how I am Black and as soon as I said that, a family member said, ‘No, you are tan.’ They completely discarded the other half of my race and laughed as if it was funny.”
We agreed that our parents never warned us about what we could face being multiraced in America. These experiences were always silenced and were not a topic we were able to talk about with friends and family.
But conversations about being more than one race should be normalized to help people navigate through different situations in school, public, and even within their own households.
Jaydelle Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.