Due to the unusual circumstances of this semester, in lieu of Middletown Diaries the Features section will publish full-length personal essays. If you have a personal essay you’d like to submit or are interested in writing a personal essay for the Argus, please contact Features Editor Emma Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The smell of burning hair is hard to forget—and when it’s your own it’s even harder. I was always quick to tell my hairdresser, though, when it was becoming more than just a slightly uncomfortable tingle. She’d comb through the strands of my hair to check that the sticky white paste was working as it should. “That’s normal, we’ll rinse you off now,” she’d say, before ushering me over to the basin. The worst part was over now, I reminded myself. It was a short period of discomfort in exchange for beauty. Beauty—that’s what I thought I was striving toward.
I have spent my whole life going to the same hair salon; Tegur remains a five-minute walk away from my house in a North Birmingham suburb in England. Undoubtedly it is a different kind of salon, compared to my mother’s, that is. I never see people like her—white women—there. There are a lot of people like me and like my father there: same black skin, same tightly curled hair. I can see parts of myself in these women but I remain firmly aware that I’ll find the other parts elsewhere. You see, when I was 11 years old, I begged my mother to let me relax my hair. My logic was simple: if I got rid of these curls, I would have no more tearful evenings, my mother armed with gels and combs, trying to tame the beast that is Caribbean hair. If I got rid of these curls, I would have options. I would no longer be confined to wearing the braids of a five-year-old as I approached adolescence. If I got rid of these curls, I would look like the other girls in my class. I would look white.
Now, my mother often wishes that she hadn’t given in. Not only because hair relaxing is ridiculously expensive, especially for a single parent, but because she knew as well as I did that my logic was inherently flawed. I wasn’t trying to fix my hair’s uncontrollable frizz. I was trying to change the very essence of what made me, well, me. I used my hair as the starting point to put an end to questions like: How come your mother is white but you’re black? Are you adopted? Where are you really from? Ask any mixed-race person and they will tell you that these questions are the worst. Who likes being interrogated on something they should be an expert in, yet knows so little about—that subject being yourself? I’m not alone in this. I’m one of many trying to find the answers and figure out what it truly means today to be mixed-race. Currently, the American mixed-race population is growing at three times the rate of the general population and despite Census reports, it is estimated that 6.9% of the U.S. population could, in fact, be viewed as multiracial. But this demographic remains widely unacknowledged, perhaps because of the way we have grown to define race, and, more importantly, perceive it. In the few seconds it takes to glance at a stranger passing by, we are inherently selective in what we choose to look at. We see the color of someone’s skin and we simply stop there, unwilling or even unable to extend beyond what we see on the surface. And I, too, am a part of that “we.”
When I first met Asher Edelman ’23, a fellow undergraduate student in my Introduction to Sociology class at Wesleyan University, the first thing I noticed was his sneakers, or rather, his vast and dedicated collection of sneakers. There’s one pair he wears that are chunky, untainted and white—much like his skin. I later learned though that I was wrong to equate the whiteness of his “Yeezys” to his own whiteness. Asher identifies as “white passing,” despite having Brazilian, Jewish, and Native American roots. He tells me that it is easier to identify in this way because “that’s the skin color I have, those are the features that most people would identify from a distance.” I had done just that, as had many others, I later learned. “I think in the past few years it has been a little more difficult especially to claim the indigenous side of my identity,” he says, “because in being ‘white passing’ it’s very easy to get my claim of being Native American sort of pushed off as like, ‘Oh you’re one of those people who’s 1/14th Cherokee or something, or that I’m trying to be the ‘Pocahontas.’”
Evidently, it is becoming increasingly harder for the modern-day American to identify with multiple races—especially when, like Asher, you might not look like you belong to these groups. But it isn’t as easy as pointing out the error in someone’s assumption, not when people like labels—labels that for the most part exclude people like me and Asher, who are frankly exhausted with having to explain who we are.
When I asked Professor of African American Studies and Religion Elizabeth McAlister, about this, she certainly had a lot to say. As a white woman in an interracial marriage and mother of three racially diverse children, who all occupy really different positionalities in America with regard to race, she was quick to assert society’s need for labels.
“People in American and other societies like it have a seeming need or seeming compulsion to identify people with whom they are conversing along the lines of gender, race and ethnicity,” McAlister said. “And they seemingly cannot rest and cannot interact with the person until they have satisfied their curiosity about those things.”
More often than not, I am on the receiving end of this curiosity. I am an enigma that others have a desire to solve. I am the target, like many other mixed-race people, of those questions, or rather, the target of what distinguished mixed-race Professor of African American Studies at Yale University Hazel Carby, calls “The Question”—a term I discovered during my discussion with McAlister.
As McAlister noted, “The Question” can be as benign as “Where are you from?” or as insulting as “What are you?” Carby coined the term in her book “Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands” where she contemplates what it means to be “one of the so-called ‘brown babies’ of the Windrush generation,” a wave of Caribbean migration to the United Kingdom that took place between 1948 and 1970. In some ways, I was oddly warmed by the knowledge that I wasn’t the first to recognize this kind of interrogation, experienced uniquely by multiracial people. That warmth, however, faded as I realized that nothing had changed in more than five decades.
It is therefore hardly surprising that around one-in-five (21%) mixed-race people have felt pressure from friends, family or society in general to identify as a single race and the same proportion have even attempted to look or behave a certain way in order to influence the way others perceive their race. I am very familiar with that particular kind of pressure. I find myself burdened with it at times and realize that sadly no one else can carry it for me. But I take comfort in, and am validated by, the fact that Asher clearly feels it too.
“I always feel like I’m bouncing around or I’m playing one side, like I’m not white enough in some senses, or not Brazilian enough or not Jewish enough because I don’t follow those religions, those exact traditions—I’m not 100% pure blood,” he said.
This difficulty that both Asher and I continue to experience is by no means a recent phenomenon. In fact, it was recognized over two decades ago at the dawn of the 1980s, and became the catalyst for what was collectively known as the Multiracial Movement. The movement itself began in 1979, when a group of predominantly white mothers of multiracial children in San Francisco founded the first interracial family organization known as Interracial/Intercultural Pride or I-Pride. Over time, similar groups began to emerge across the U.S. in major cities like Chicago and Washington D.C., allowing the parents of mixed-race children to collectively address what it meant to be in an interracial relationship and the challenges of raising multiracial children.
My mother has had to deal with both these things. For 16 years she was the white wife of a black man and for the rest of my brother’s life and mine she will share two children with him. As a result, it has become her responsibility to make sure we’ve had a “rounded upbringing,” by exposing us to all parts of our racial identity.
“You need to experience both sides, you don’t need to necessarily pick one or the other,” she told me. “You just sort of sit comfortably between the two.” Sit comfortably. I liked the optimism in my mother’s voice when she said this during a recent phone call. I can’t say that it’s that simple though.
It has been almost 12 years since my parents got divorced and like most divorces, it was long, painful, and expensive. For the most part, I remained oblivious to the fact that a marriage, my parent’s marriage, that is, was slowly deteriorating around me. I was, after all, only six years old. But somehow what I was most aware of was my race.
“What are you?” my father asked, towering over me in our front room. This was one of the rare times that myself and my brother had been dragged into the crossfire. “What are you?” he then viciously demanded, close enough to my face that I could feel the heat of his breath as he repeated those three words. “Brown,” I replied, swallowing the lump that had been building in my throat. Later that afternoon my mother took us to McDonald’s where we shared a portion of potato wedges and sipped strawberry milkshakes in silence. I know now that this was her consolation attempt. I also know now that what I really meant to say in response to my father’s interrogation was “mixed-race.” Most of all, I know now that I never did give nor would give the answer my father wanted.
Many parents of multiracial children have expressed their discomfort when racially classifying their children. Between 1980 and 1990, several lobbying groups advocated for multiracial recognition in local educational and hospital forms in response to the problems this posed. Yet, it was always more than just a call to modify existing data forms, it became one of many repeated attempts to move toward a colorblind society that acknowledges the fluidness to mixed heritage. These original requests were in fact met between 1979 and 1980, when the Berkeley Public Schools adopted “interracial” as a new identifier on school forms, making it the first such designator in U.S. history. Prior to 2000, multiracial children automatically took the race of the mother due to the Census Bureau’s opinion that “in cases like these, we always know who the mother is, but not who the father is.” With each small act of change, the multiracial movement rapidly gained momentum and prevalence within American society, culminating in the 1988 creation of the first nationwide multiracial group named the Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA). Gradually, this became a fight to legitimize pluralistic, multiracial identities in their entirety and would ultimately lead to the historic introduction of a “mark one or more” (MOOM) option on the 2000 Census.
When I found myself filling out the medical forms needed for studying in America, I really didn’t have to think twice about ticking multiple boxes. To tick simply “White” would have been to deny that I am as much my Jamaican father’s daughter as I am my British mother’s. Equally, to choose only “Black Caribbean” would have been to reject the entire culture that I was raised within.
The Census’s decision to amend its choice of categories marked monumental national and bureaucratic reform where racial identification was concerned. From this point on, there was no longer a choice of just five tick boxes: White, Black, American Indian, Eskimo or Aleut, Asian or Pacific Islander or ‘Other.’ From this point on, there were no longer deeply unaccommodating mono-racial categories. Most importantly for myself and millions of others, there was no longer the need for a mixed-race individual to incorrectly or uncomfortably self-identify.
The modern American has certainly evolved, and is evidently continuing to do so. Not too long ago it would have been hard to believe that the same person could have a Bar Mitzvah but also belong to an indigenous Pueblo reservation. But now, at a U.S. college when I speak with Asher, who is a living testament to both of those things, I’m anything but surprised. Like me, his childhood has been spent navigating between cultures in competition and conflict with one another. Like me, his time has been split between different racialized spaces, and in some cases, even countries. And, like me, he acknowledges what this unique experience has brought him.
“I really do get to enjoy more than a 100% white person, a 100% indigenous person, and so on,” he said. “I get more than they do.”
More could mean a lot of different things. In Asher’s case it is traditions, it is celebrations and ceremonies, it is culture.
“My family celebrates three different holidays in the winter season. There’s Hanukkah, there’s Christmas, there’s Pueblo Christmas which is its own little special thing,” he goes on to explain.
We both agree that in many ways we are lucky to “get more,” but in the process of doing so, it has almost always been impossible not to question who we are.
I have been the person who is questioned for ordering what appears to be the most English dish at a Caribbean restaurant with my father’s family. I have also been the person—the only person—who is not entirely white within my netball team. I am the person who fits in neither here nor there because I embody everything that is too black, too white, not black enough and not white enough. Within a single Sunday, I can devour an English roast dinner, and in that same evening, I can take a drive with my Dad to the food shop as he blasts reggae music and converses in patois. The fact that I have been able to go between these spaces is something I owe largely to my mother. Unlike my father, she has never told me what or who I am. Growing up, I had the freedom to find this out for myself. I could ask questions about my mother’s Irish roots, but it also wasn’t a bad thing that I was curious as to how and why my Jamaican grandmother came to England during the Windrush Generation. Of course, my mother couldn’t give me all the answers. She’s admitted that herself.
“As a parent you don’t have all the answers, but you can support them while the child is finding the answers for themselves, ” she told me today, on the other end of a WhatsApp phone call—our primary means of communication now that I am 3276 miles away and in a different time zone.
My mother has always given me great choices in life. I wouldn’t be attending a liberal arts college on the East Coast of America without it, nor would I have relaxed my hair. By allowing me to relax my hair, she gave me the choice to experiment, the choice to explore and the choice to “tip the balance” towards one part of my racial identity and then shift it back if and when I, and only I, wanted to.
“I needed to stress to you and your brother that you are your own individual people before any color, culture and all the rest of it; you are Felix and Tiah first,” she said.
I think about what it would be like if we all shared my mother’s mentality and truly meant it like she does. I contemplate how it would feel to know that my tanned skin wasn’t the first thing people perceived about me or anyone for that matter, that instead as my mum said, “Tiah came first.” I wonder what it would be like to feel part of the cultures I belong to without being deemed a “fake” by either side.
From as young as six years old, I knew that my black curls and skin color confused onlookers, especially when I would walk hand in hand with my white mother. The weird thing was that it never bothered her though, the fascination of strangers. Instead, this fascination both amused and baffled her. We were just another family, much like all the other families around us, albeit not the most conventional or nuclear one. The only truly obvious difference with our family is that my mother is white and my father is black, which renders me somewhere in between. This ambivalent state of existence has meant that I will always be an outsider somewhere, especially in the eyes of the media.
For mixed-race women like myself, the problem isn’t necessarily misrepresentation, it’s frankly the lack of it. “Representation in the media is very formative for young people,” says Professor McAlister, “and unfortunately the representations are very tough, especially for women…the beauty standard is still cleaving to whiteness.”
Because I didn’t grow up seeing many reflections of myself in the TV shows I watched, the magazines I read or the textbooks I studied, I struggled to feel seen. Other than the persistent efforts of my white mother to ensure that I embraced the unique complexity of my identity, no one one else was trying. Instead, there was and still is an attempt to get me to align with one part of who I am, that is, to pick England or Jamaica, Britain or the Caribbean, black or white.
I look at people like tennis champion Naomi Osaka not just as a world tennis champion but, importantly, as a mixed-race woman. Born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, Osaka moved to the United States at the age of three and now holds both American and Japanese citizenship. The 22-year old is the first Japanese player to hold the World Number One ranking and earn a Grand Slam title, having defeated Serena Williams in this year’s U.S. Open. Despite her immense success, Osaka has faced the repeated and racial scrutiny of mainstream media. In a recent report by The New York Times, it was revealed that Nissin, one of the world’s largest instant-noodle companies who feature Osaka within their anime-style ads, had lightened her skin and changed her curly hairstyle, essentially erasing her black features.
Baye McNeil, an author who has lived in Japan for 15 years, said that “Ms. Osaka’s rise into a beloved national figure has been particularly exciting for biracial people in Japan, known as hafus, who have long battled for acceptance.” He claimed that “making her look white just tells these people that what they are isn’t good enough.”
I have definitely felt that kind of inadequacy in my efforts to identify as mixed-race and media outlets seem to only exacerbate it. But now, as demographic indicators encompass multi-racial people, as parents give their children the ability to define their own identity and if people begin to ask fewer questions, maybe there is some hope that mixed-race people can fluidly move between their tick boxes and feel proud doing so.
I finally grew out my relaxer about three years ago, which is a painfully exhausting experience. The absence of chemicals allowed my natural hair to gradually resurface, one frizzy curl at a time, while the processed and straight ends of my hair held on as for as long as they could. Navigating this process takes dedicated patience of which I admittedly have none. Somehow, I really had gone full circle. It was comforting to me to see my curls, each individual one distinct from the next, together again and flourishing in their wonderful wildness. It was almost laughable that these were the same curls I had once loathed. The same curls that made me a source of ridicule among the boys in my elementary school. The same curls I had spent hours before school with a hair straightener trying to stretch, pull and hide, stopping only when smoke began to rise.
The smell of burning hair is one I certainly won’t miss.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at email@example.com.