It’s almost like a reflex.
Whenever the topic of identity comes up, being multiracial we start to become mathematicians.
In the past when I was asked about my ethnicity, I would describe it in confusing fractions:
“My dad is white and my mom is black so I’m half and half. But there’s some Native American in there supposedly, so I guess I’m really a third. But we’re not sure how much, so many I’m an 1/8th Native American?”
For anyone who is doing the math – you’ve already calculated that doesn’t equal a whole number. Which also gives insight into our psyche.
Why diminish myself and my various cultural backgrounds? We don’t lessen the value when we are going through the experience, so why do it now?
This week, I would like to recap some of my experiences and how I came to a new and better way to describe having a mixed identity.
Through the warm embrace of a word we often ignore – And.
A Firstborn Latvian Son
My late father was the middle child of 3 siblings. I’m not sure if he was the first to get married. But he was the first to bring a Black person to his mother’s house. My mother wasn’t allowed to inside for years when my parents were dating. It was only when I was born that the door was opened to her.
I wasn’t the first grandchild born to my grandmother. But I was the first boy – the first Latvian grandson – which made her fall in love with me. My father was the only child to remain in close proximity to his mother, and I grew up spending a lot of time with her. She interacted with me in a manner I assume she did with her own children when they were little. We danced and sang Latvian songs, I learned to play the violin, and we watched television in afternoon where I got my favorite childhood meal – hot dogs with a side of Kraft Macaroni and cheese.
Around the holidays she would make Piragi (a bacon-stuffed dumpling) and ginger cookies which I would eat until I was stuffed while her and my father spoke quickly in Latvian.
There was never a moment during our time together where she told me I wasn’t part of Latvian culture or was only a fraction of it. She would tell anyone, including my mother, that I was her grandson and that I was Latvian. This became problematic when I began experiencing racism at a young age as she wasn’t able to acknowledge that other people did not view me the same way.
My father and I share the exact same name. Other Latvians I’ve encountered marvel that I have that name as it’s a small country. And a few from Illinois ask if I’m the son of the attorney who did so much for the Latvian community. I can’t say what’s in their hearts in regards to my skin color. But I’ve always gotten the sense that – to them – I belong.
As as much as my blond-haired, blue-eyed father.
Summertime growing up in the suburbs brings forth the fondest of memories. While I enjoyed the privilege of staying up late and playing all day, one of my favorite events were barbecues at my grandmother’s house.
These gatherings were large. My aunt, 3 uncles and all my cousins would travel from Oklahoma for a few weeks. My grandfather Bud would make a huge fire and we would wait for what seemed like forever to eat. But in the meanwhile, my uncles would entertain everyone with jokes and pirated Kung Fu movies.
One of my cousins is also biracial. Whenever she came to visit with my Aunt I would receive a warning from my mother. She told me that my cousin tried hard to be accepted by Black people and they never fully would. So I should just be myself and ignore anyone who didn’t think I fit their standards.
Even though my skin was lighter than that side of the family, I never felt as if I was being treated like an outsider. We of course had different upbringings, but we all shared a common experience as a family. An experience that no one would dare miss every summer while I was little.
Over time, those gatherings became scarce. It’s been decades since we’ve all been together. But all of us still have fond memories of the cookouts at my late grandmother’s house. It’s where we learned to laugh, tell stories, and take a plate home.
Where everyone could be themselves – provided you didn’t curse in front of my grandmother.
Healing the Divide
I can’t say when I began to feel divided internally. As I got older, more questions sprung up about my ethnicity. And always with the same directive – to pinpoint what percentage of me was Black, and what percent was White. As if the numbers to that equation would grant me a certain status. When all it did was make me feel separate.
Outside the norm.
In an exile of my own creation.
It wasn’t until my later years in college when I began to change my answer:
“I am Black and White. My mother is Black woman born in Michigan and raised in Chicago. My father is a White man whose family emigrated from Latvia.”
I embraced the And because I shared part of both those worlds. I have the ability to embrace being Latvian and also embrace being Black. The stories and history of both sides of my family are also mine. They are what shaped me into the person I am today.
So my message is simple – eliminate the fractions.
We can gain so much empowerment when we use the simple word And in how we think of ourselves. It moves us past the picking, choosing, and self-doubting. It adds more to what we can be, feel, and accomplish. As opposed to setting limits.
While I might not have the same experience as someone growing up in Latvia, the Black neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago, or the suburbs of Oklahoma. The experiences of those I know have still made an impression on me from a young age.
And there is no limit on what I can take from that.