I am a biracial (black and white) woman from the suburbs. I identify myself as mixed. Both of my biological parents were present in my upbringing, and they taught me to expect racial comments and to prove them wrong. My sister (who is also mixed) experienced more racial issues than I but she also went to a different school. I personally hold race irrelevant in my life and many of my decisions so when people choose to comment on it, i ignore it. I grew up in Mahtomedi, MN, and now live in Storm Lake, IA. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is being around a lot of racially diverse people because I grew up in the suburbs. However, I get more comfortable as time goes on. My biggest challenge is overcoming the “black” stereotype and the classification of being “too white.” but what I love is the diversity in my background, and how strong it has made me!
In conversations about race, I believe that everyone has a place at the table. The conversations can be very difficult to participate in, the information can land hard against the ear and the heart, but for true change and impact, there is a place for everyone at the table.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a design student who had to do a creative project by interviewing an expert about something he was interested in but in which he had no experience. He is a White male married to a Korean-American female with a Biracial son. He found my website and used me as an expert in order to gain information on his interest in racial identity development and worldview of Mixed Race people.
We had a really lovely conversation where I probably learned as much as he did. Speaking to people who are interested my opinion or my work has been such a valuable experience. It helps me to understand my own experience (including differentiating between my personal experience and what I have learned through contacts and research about Mixed people in general) and to work through difficult feelings that still sometimes cause internal friction.
Throughout the conversation he made preemptive apologies for anything ignorant he may ask. At the end of the conversation we had a talk about how the interview went and things that came up for both of us. In his reflection, he shared that he sometimes felt he didn’t have a place in conversations about race, that he should just sit back and learn, that he really had nothing to contribute. I was able to share some feedback with him about how I experienced him in a positive way, that his curiosity and openness was immediately disarming, and encouraged him to continue on this journey of learning. I told him that his participation in these conversations was incredibly important, not only for himself but for his wife and son. I felt truly blessed by this conversation and the opportunity for us to process it together. It was once of the best experiences I’ve had in recent history!
I’ve been thinking about this topic in a variety of ways before this conversation and certainly ever since. There’s a lot of complex ideas involved in the way I think about it/experience it, so bear with me.
I have often heard the comment from well-meaning White people (often friends of mine) who think they have no culture, that true racism is over, that racism is a conversation for People of Color (racism is their issue to deal with that doesn’t involve the input of White people).
I think that some White people just feel uncomfortable and scared. They may be genuinely interested in hearing the conversations about race and microaggressions and the complexity of racial identity, but truly don’t feel like they have a place within the discussion. Part of me wants to gently invite them in and make the information easy for them to taste, savor, and digest, to ease them into the more difficult conversations, and encourage them to react and participate.
And then part of me rallies against the idea that I need to spoon feed anything to anyone, f- that! There is an element of internalized oppression and racism when I feel I need to package my experience in a way that makes White people more comfortable. We as People of Color need safe spaces to discuss our experiences openly, to empower ourselves in the full acknowledgement and acceptance of our experiences as truth, without the approval and/or input of White people, and serve it up on the plate as is.
Working through our experiences individually and collectively takes time; It also benefits from varying structures of conversation and feedback. I’ve been participating in a cohort through a local agency where I get to have weekly therapeutic conversations about race, gender, sexuality, and working and learning in the mental health field. We have discussed a lot what it means to be multicultural, inclusive, affirming, accountable, embracing… and how difficult that task is. There is reflection and work being done within subgroups about confronting racism – both outward and internalized.
What we found is that it’s important for people to meet in larger multicultural groups (i.e. – People of Color, Caucasian. Transgender), but it is also necessary to meet in smaller, more specific subgroups. The smallest subgroups (i.e. – Black/Latino Biracial, Asian Lesbian CIS gendered female, Black Transgender Male Identified) are a way to process things with people who are more likely to understand the nuances of the experience, possibly the “safest” place. It’s necessary to be able to process your experiences in a safe place, to know you’re understood, to not have to educate and explain so much.
But I’m coming to understand that this is only part of the work. And I learned that in a difficult way that made my brain jerk to a stop. As People of Color, we were talking about how some of the White people were having their own cohort to address their racism and participation in racist structures. We were told that sometimes they report back in a general way about what they were working on. I, and some others, had a heated reaction, which surprised me. I wanted to know, What they were working on, what the specifics were, what kind of difficult conversations were they having, what ugly truths were they facing? Shouldn’t they be accountable to us for the real work they’re doing? What’s going on in there?
But I quickly came around to the realization that I needed to examine how I would feel if the tables were turned. How would I feel if White people demanded to be privy to my private and safe conversations with Biracial people about the impact of racism on our lives? Like I said, part of me wants to invite others in, yet part of me needs to protect my safe spaces.
But what I think I’ve come down to is this: The work can’t be done in a bubble. And the bubble is quite necessary. Both.
For real healing to occur, for the real work of undoing racism, there needs to be safe spaces to comfortably examine privately, and there also needs to be respectful, safe spaces to understand how we rub up against one another. What is the impact of my own racial work on you? What is the impact of yours on me? This is done in small spaces first. In communities of trust. I’m so grateful to be connected to communities where the work is being done.
And so I met this White man from Atlanta, the father of a Biracial son, who felt he had no place at the table. I respected this man very much, he followed his curiosity, he is aware that there is a part of his wife and his son’s experience that he doesn’t understand. Even though his wife has a bi-cultural experience through living in both Korean and American communities, even she felt somewhat lacking in understanding of what her son may go through in his identity development.
In some of my feedback to him, I told him that in my opinion, as the father of a Biracial son, he has a responsibility to get into these conversations, to learn and model for his son what it looks like to explore cultures outside of himself. I invited him to imagine how even though his son has “Korean eyes” and he feels that no one will mistake him for White, he may very well identify as White later in life… and how will you respond to that? Racial identity is complex and fluid, challenged by the outside world, difficult to grasp and understand, heavily influenced by our families and communities. How will you respond as a White person who “doesn’t have a place” in these conversations? I encouraged him to find a way to take his place.
I find myself grateful today that I am finding my place at the table as well. Yes, I know my experience. Yes, I could be considered an expert at the things I know. But there’s so much that I don’t know, and I have some beautiful opportunities right now to explore. My People of Color cohort is run by an agency serving LBGTQ youth. I’m developing relationships with many people of varying experiences and expressions of gender and sexuality. I’ve had gay best friends since high school, I go to Pride, I’m an ally… but there’s so much I don’t know, and I’m blessed to be able to learn. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, and I’m now in a position where I totally relate to that feeling of, Well, I better just shut up and listen because I’m here to learn and I’m not the expert. Bullshit. I need to show up, be present. This is a sacred space, yes. But I am of value here, too. My experience, input, curiosity, compassion, and skills are respected and valued here, too. I belong. I need to just show up. I may have uncomfortable feelings. That’s fine. I still need to be here.
I’ve also gone through some job transitioning over the past few months. And I’ve landed at a division of the agency I started with that is doing culturally specific work with refugee populations. I’m working alongside Hmong, Vietnamese, and Somali people who are committed to serving their communities. It’s beautiful and I’m again presented with this space where culture is valued and knowledge is shared. I’m a beginner. But I also have the value of the expertise of my own experience. All I need to do is show up, be genuine, learn, teach, be. I’m so fortunate.
So I feel like I’m in this beautiful space in my life where I’m aware of what I bring to the table, but I’m being challenged and offered the opportunity to remember what it’s like to be the beginner. I have to face my own fears and insecurities. I am rubbing up against that funky feeling when I try to figure out the politically correct way to ask questions and be respectful. But I have to remember my conversation with the White dad. I told him, Genuine curiosity from an honest and respectful place is disarming. I love sharing my experience when I know that the person is authentically interested. I just need to take my own advice.
last night i finally acknowledged some feelings i’ve been having. they’re not socially acceptable.
as a kid, i wasn’t really interested in my dad. he was hard to understand on the telephone with his accent and the international delay. i didn’t know him, but mom or grama would hand me the phone with a look of glee and joyful expectations for what i would find on the other end. it was always a little awkward and uncomfortable.
my dad is here now. alternating living with me and my brother. i had to send a “letter of invitation” for him as part of his visa application to come here, stating that i would take care of all his needs when he came. when i initially questioned him about this, he said not to worry about that. i assumed that meant he would come with at least some financial resources. you know what they say about assume… i’m a recently graduated unlicensed therapist making less than before i started school. i didn’t think ahead on what it would involve taking care of all his needs.
that’s the least of my worries. that’s the more concrete excuse that i feel people can grab onto. the ickier part of it is that i hate having him here. i really do. talking to my aunt about it broke open the flood gates. her father was also not in her life until adulthood, and she had ill feelings about him that my mother never understood. hearing her understanding made it ok for me to acknowledge that i don’t like having my dad in my space, i don’t like taking care of him, driving him around, going on fishing expeditions for costly things i don’t have the money for, i don’t like him in my house when i’m dealing with other serious family matters that he knows nothing about because he wasn’t here. he’s still a stranger.
he recently went on a short trip to visit other relatives and while he was away i told him that i was disappointed in my feeling that he hasn’t yet prioritized being with me on this visit. he has had a lot of other stated priorities that i’m expected to help him with, but getting to know me is not one that he has expressed. he felt bad that i felt that way. when he came back this week, he tried to ask some direct questions. he was expecting that i had some major things to tell him. i told him that there was nothing wrong, in fact outside of some of those family matters, my life is actually going great! he said that he feels like we don’t communicate very well. i agreed, and we both acknowledged that it will take time.
but the fact is, my dad is a stranger. we put on the father/daughter roles, we hug and kiss, we say i love you. but i don’t know this man. he’s a nice person, but i don’t know him. it will take some time to build the affection, loyalty, and connection that would make me feel comfortable enough to embrace these duties i seem to have right now. so i feel resentful, bitter, angry toward him, especially since there are other, more immediate and pressing issues with the family that actually raised me.
so i hate having him here. i hate the way my mother, my friends, acquaintences, co-workers, relatives on telephones that are thrust into my face… i hate the way they expect this to be such a joyous experience. it makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me. i hate that this is the black man i’ve been waiting for to help me solidify my identity, and that it turns out this trip has nothing to do with adding a missing piece to my racial identity.
i talked to a dear friend who i have bonded with for years. she is a trans-racial adoptee, an ethnically colombian woman raised by white american parents. she affirmed my feelings and reminded me that i have a right to them. she knows how i feel. she met her birth family in colombia as an adult and recently went back for another visit. she reminded me of the way she felt – going to colombia was not a vacation. not an exotic trip. it’s sometimes painful, always emotional work.
i’m not sure where i will go from here. i may ask my brother to keep him while i deal with my family issues. i may get brave and have another serious conversation with my dad saying just this. time will tell.
so i took quite a long time to finish the nigeria blog. and i have to admit that part of the reason i finished now is because i have other stuff to write about but felt like i had to finish nigeria first.
so forgive me if these last ones are not as well crafted. sometimes one just has to finish.
i wish i could put a word on what i feel today. it’s hard for me to discuss this because of my perfectionism and polarized thinking. i’m very much inclined to think perfect or worthless, just right or garbage. i had such high hopes about the way it would be when i got home. and i was highly motivated and highly disciplined in the beginning. the first couple of days were great. but pretty quickly i slipped back into the stagnation breeding lifestyle that i’d left behind 2 weeks before. something about the pressure to change my whole life, mixed with the inability to do everything at once made me paralyzed to move in any one direction. on top of everything i wanted to change, i found out i’d have to move in a couple of months. the amount of change i was facing was too much for me. i checked out. stopped writing or reading anything. started drinking and smoking the way i used to. i stopped taking care of myself.
i think that one of the things i’m most frightened of in my whole life is not learning from my experiences. so when i went back to my old patterns of drinking and smoking and hanging out just to be hanging out, i felt like a total failure and did anything just to not feel that way.
i don’t think i would have come out of that if not for the caring of a couple of good friends. natasha was in town and after making a really shitty bad dishonest choice that affected her, she confronted me and asked me if this is the kind of thing i do now, if living irresponsibly is my thing now. that stung. then last week lisa was talking to me and expressed concern about how i had been so happy and so motivated when i got back from my trip but that i was different now. i’m not sure of what her exact words were at the time but it was a wake up call that i’d lost my hope in life, and for what? for knowing that i have a lot of work to do but being too scared to face the possibility of failure again to even start? if i stay a failure why would anyone expect anything else from me?
so i’d been suffering some trip backlash.
i’ve talked to a lot of people about the trip. people are interested but there are very few people i know that can relate in any real way to the feelings i went through or the places i saw. it’s a little bit lonely. but that’s just my part of it. on the other hand i’ve been really touched by people’s caring and interest. i’ve even had a couple acquaintences approach me about reading my blogs and thank me for writing them. that’s more touching than anything i can think of, especially considering how self conscious i was when i was writing them.
i’ve talked to my dad several times. i just today received my nigerian passport (no more customs drama ever) and a little note from my dad. he said he’s been depressed since i left. i understand.
me and my mom are getting along much better. i just don’t take things so personally anymore and i more see her for who she is. the wonderful woman that raised me. shortly after i got home, my dad called to thank her, too. she didn’t know why.
i’ve seen little changes in myself that come out in my choices and expectations now. changes in my self esteem and what i will accept. changes in the honesty i show myself and the people i care about. i take slightly more risks. and i have more feelings now. the deadpan, hard shelled with a smile is breaking down. slowly. subtly.
i see my time in nigeria as a time when i was fully present, uncomfortable, scared to death, highly emotional, crying a lot, giving my dad a hug and a kiss on the lips and not believing it was happening. it was a time to go through the hard work of chipping away at the protective barriers between me and life that i set up as a little kid but that were stifling me as an adult. it was a time to have questions answered and to sit in the passenger seat and look at my dad in the driver’s seat… stuck in traffic… all day long… and not being agitated in the least. it was a time to forgive three very important people. it was a time to clean up the mess so i could get on with my life.
and now i’m home and i’m scared and i have hope. and when people ask me about my dad and nigeria, i don’t ever have to say “i don’t know” again.
i didn’t drink or smoke at all when i was in nigeria. i rarely saw anyone that smoked. but i was offered drinks and just said no. i wanted that time to be absolutely clear and i couldn’t be happier to have done that.
“i kind of like to not write things down for a while because i like the way they swirl around in my head. after i write it down, it’s different. i’m thinking a lot about drinking. it’s so enmeshed in work and relationships and social time and expectations (my own and my projected). in a way i just want to be flat out done because there is no more ‘will i or won’t i?’ element of choice is taken away and the new struggle is just upholding the choice not to drink. but what about ______? vacations, special occasions, just wanting a beer, hanging out with friends, going out dancing? so many situations to take a stand in. either way, things can’t continue as they have been. what about what i want for myself now, today? i want ambition, discipline, drive, self control, creativity, energy to act on that creativity, i want to not feel shitty in the morning. i want to feel like getting up and doing my pages and then going to the gym is not harder than getting up, turning on the tv, laying on the couch and calling it a day. i want to be open. i want to recreate/rediscover who i know i am. i want to come from a place of competence and capability. i want to feel my confident self when i’m with my mom. i cried on the way to the airport because nothing would ever be the same. and it isn’t. all of my agitation in life has no more basis. i’m not unwanted, i’m not unloved, i’m not rejected by both my parents, i’m not the center of the universe which isn’t getting it’s proper love/respect/acknowledgement. i don’t have to apologize for who i am. i am learning to accept being neither/both. i’m becoming comfortable and accepting of my calm, resting self. my dad is real and he makes it ok for me to be so many of the things i am. i’m attached to people and it’s ok. kinship and the unknown is ok. my fantasies are ok. my dreams are ok. i don’t need to be perpetually embarrassed. i’ve seen lagos, i know lagos. it’s in my heart and my memories. it’s ok that i’m watching out the window and blueprinting art pieces as i go. that’s still living it, experienceing it, memorizing it. it’s ok to be uncomfortable here and want to go home. it’s ok to be comfortable here and see places for rent and wonder what i could afford if i stayed here for a while. and it’s ok that the thought of that is scary and depressing and exciting all at once.”
It’s an interesting time in my life, so many things are happening. But in staying relevant to this blog, I have just graduated with a Masters in Counseling and did my thesis on Mixed Race Identity Development. I’ve been thinking about Mixed-Race issues all my life, secretly, shamefully. Only a few years ago did I realize anyone else was thinking about it, too. Strictly from a school standpoint, coming across research was extremely unnerving and comforting to me. Unnerving because I thought I was the only one who was thinking so hard about race and belonging and what it takes to fit in and what it means when you just don’t.
In working through my thesis and presenting it to my committee, I got wonderful feedback and my professors asked me if this was my life’s work. It is. The world of scholarly research on our experience is growing, and I hope to be somewhat a part of that. But my focus is therapy, healing, telling the story. So that’s why I’ve started this blog. Hopefully it will be helpful to people.
I grew up without my father, and therefore my family of color. As far as how I look, most people think I’m Black. When I was younger I got the what are you chorus a lot, but many people often say, I knew you were mixed with something… So though my phenotype is not as ambiguous as other Mixed-Race people, my family, my speech, my socialization definitely raised questions. I’ve started this blog with my trip to Nigeria in 2006 to meet my father. I was almost 30 when I traveled across the world alone to find that part of my history.
As it happens, he is in the U.S. right now – for the first time in 37 years. Transferring my writings to this blog gives me a chance to revisit that trip and see all that has changed. It’s interesting to see how I idolized him then, and how a series of disappointments and my own personal growth have knocked him off that pedestal. What I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is that if you grow up without one parent and their enculturation, meeting them doesn’t necessarily fix anything at your core. It’s not a magical solution. It certainly felt like a magical solution for a while, but life happens. It took 6 more years and nothing to do with him to really start the healing on my racial identity and stop making excuses and issuing apologies for who I am.
So I will continue to share that trip here. It was an important piece of my experience, a starting point. But certainly not the end!