“So, what are you?”
The age-old question I’ve been asked countless times over my 25-year-old life. It is the bane of my existence, boiling down the many facets of myself into one simple question. The answer is quite simple in essence, but depending on who I’m dealing with, I’ll sometimes innocently ask back, “What do you mean?” and wait for their guarded answer. On occasion, I’ll even make them guess — a party trick that has consumed more hours than I’d like to admit.
“You know, like what race are you?”
Again, my mind prepares itself for the typical reaction — surprise, denial, interest, and questioning.
“I’m half-black, actually. My dad is Ethiopian and my mom is white. Yup, just plain white, from California.”
As terrible as my answer is, it usually leaves the recipient satisfied — until I see their eyes gaze upward.
“Oh, no way… yeah, your hair is what threw me off.”
I can feel the walls of the box this answer puts around me growing by the second. I am tall, with big feet, curvy thighs, and skin the color of caramel. Or coffee with milk. Or light brown sugar. My eyes are brown, and my hair is brown and straight. Bone straight, no kinks, wash-and-go straight. Though my siblings and I may be half-black and half-white, all of us ended up with straight hair. Call it genetics, and to this day I’ve never met another biracial person with hair like me.
To me, having straight hair is the wrench thrown into my external identity. Every physical piece of me seems to make sense to the outside world, and then — boom. There’s no way I couldn’t be Latina, or Pacific Islander, or Indian of some kind. It’s the hurdle no one can ever seem to get over — almost as if having textured hair would complete the “look” of what a typical biracial woman appears to me. Luckily, the word “typical” is becoming more and more obscure, as the population in the United States ever so slowly begins to morph and grow, an ever-increasing number of people who look more like me. The ambiguous, caramel-colored, coffee with milk, light brown sugar being.
Being as “light-skinned” as I am, it was sometimes easy to get lumped in with the rest of my academic class growing up. In a Washington, D.C. suburb, diversity was hard to come by, and it was only until high school when I realized that my “half-diversity” stood out starkly against my all white classmates. Teachers begged me to join the Black Students Association, but I didn’t feel comfortable attending meetings. I felt too white for those members, and too brown for my fellow classmates. When I applied for colleges, I greatly hesitated over whether I should apply to an African American Scholars program at my dream university, for fear that I’d show up during the first day and everyone would assume I was a fraud. However, I eventually applied, got into my dream school, and lived the rest of my life until now.
As conflicting as this outside identify seems to others, it couldn’t be more clear to me. I know my strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and gifts, and at 25 years old, straddling those two cultural worlds is something I’ve dealt with for my entire life. The feeling of not even being able to be identified — living an unidentified, ambiguous life — by others has always been unsettling. It’s been said that a woman’s crown is her hair, showing femininity and sweetness, and to have my crown misrepresent a part of me to the outside world can be unsettling. However, in this fast-changing world, I see more and more women and girls that look like me, and the “ambiguous ethnic look” is celebrated more and more often — caramel, coffee, sugar sweetness is devoured and praised. I love my hair and wear it proudly, and as I continue to hold conversations with new people, I know that self-definition is more important than anything else the outside world can decide for me.