Being mixed, we are often floating in between several cultures. There’s the cultures of our parents, the culture of where we live, and also the culture that our society assumes we are based upon our appearance.
We are given conflicting information of who we can and can’t be, as well as who we should and shouldn’t be. There are expectations to fulfill invisible requirements to truly feel as a part of these cultures. But at the same time, those requirements for us seem to always be unattainable because our parents genetic makeup.
This push and pull in different directions of what makes up our individual identities can become maddening. It pushes us into a role of being a perpetual outsider. Never really finding a place of belonging. If we continue to let others define what creates a culture for us. They then become Gatekeepers whose trials we believe we have to pass in order to access the places our subconscious knows we belong.
And those Gatekeepers no longer needed.
A Personal Journey
I was prepared for the storm of being mixed. My mother had the foresight to immerse me in all of my various cultures, but also warn me that I would never fully be accepted by some as a part of that culture. Based on my appearance, I would never be considered to be fully black, or Latvian, or Native American. And that meant I had nothing to prove in order to feel that sense of belonging as a part of them.
Even with this warning, there were still personal struggles to overcome. I encountered racism from a young age, and took up the mantle of embracing my blackness as the dominant culture I belonged to due to my mistreatment. And it would be deeply wounding whenever I was told by people I would meet or some members of my family that I wasn’t “really black” in passing remarks.
Over time, I learned to ignore these external judgements. But it does beg the question:
Who determines these requirements?
An Ancient Practice
In ancient times, one had to undergo rites of passage in order to officially become part of the local culture. Usually tied to manhood or womanhood (mostly manhood), there was a ritual along with a set of rules of what it meant to be a full member of a particular society.
As our different cultures encountered (and often subjugated) one another, the rituals and requirements morphed and changed. But our old ways of thinking that there are certain standards of acceptance to meet still remains as part of human consciousness.
In America, with race being something that was codified into the legal system, culture was a forced experience assigned to you based upon visual characteristics. Reinforced by census enumerators whose very job description was to apply race, which came along with citizenship rights, to the individuals they would come across. Race was shackled to you, and various groups formed cultural practices in order to survive the insanity of a (still) racially divided America.
Only since the 1960s during the civil rights era that we have begun to think of race here in America as something we defined for ourselves. We began to publicly define what being part of that assigned racial group meant to us as an individual. And out of this public exercise came a form of collective conscious that marched in agreement in what it meant to be Black or Hispanic or Asian or any manner of identity in order to transition from feeling oppressed to embracing empowerment.
A Lost Opportunity
But as with all aspects in life – culture changes. Our cultures have never been more merged than they are at the current moment. “American” culture is a playlist of contributions (and oftentimes outright theft) from nearly every ethnic group that resides here. A virtual soup that we’ve exported to the world and influences nearly every current art form in the world today.
And still, we haven’t continued to ask the question what it means to be of a certain racial category. We defined it long ago, but then stopped. What was once a movement, then moved into a tradition that (like many) has lost it’s meaning. Many are clinging to old ideals that to be a part of a culture means one has to talk, dress or think a certain way. Even though no group is a monolith and we each approach our ethnicity our own ways. As this is part of our own humanity.
Does a man with dark brown skin who speaks with a different diction any less capable of identifying with Black culture? Does a Latino woman with light skin count as less Mexican simply because her apparent closeness to White might appear to be an advantage in some spaces? Do I have less of a right to feel the struggle of my African ancestors when hearing stories of slavery deep within my own soul?
Each and every part of our cultural identity is part of of what made us who we are today. It’s a part of what makes us human and what binds that deeply human experience together. For every part of a culture that is different, there is a part that is the same. Expressed in different, beautiful and terrible forms.
In modern times, there are no gatekeepers to culture, or race, or ethnicity. Those who say otherwise are often not interested in keeping the culture alive. But simply interested in keeping it safe for only themselves. A practice of selfishness that hastens its demise.
Culture cannot be defined and guarded by any one person or group of people. It’s a practice that is formed collectively, often without even thinking. It’s an unconscious gesture that causes an deep reaction in anyone who comes across it. We know it, we are touched by it, and with we have the duty to approach it with respect.
It’s why we, who are considered mixed race, have every right to identify with our cultures in their entirety. We honor where we came from and those ancestors smile back at us with pride.