Where are your parents from? I love your hair! What do you use? You have such great skin! You’re so exotic! Questions and stares. Judgement and curiosity begging for the answer to the question I’ve heard most growing up: where are you from?
At first, I coyly would answer: I’m biracial, East Indian and African-American. And then, I became annoyed. I’m from Brooklyn, I would say. No, but really, where are your parents from? I would sigh, sometimes telling the truth, and sometimes making an answer up. It was just easier.
To be biracial is to be challenged by your own ethnicities, as well as that of those around you. How can you be understood, when you yourself do not resemble the identities you are supposed to belong to?
Some context: My mom was born and raised in Mumbai, India. My dad is from Brooklyn, and is African-American, with roots in the South. They met on an airplane in the ’90s, and were engaged six months later. In many ways, my parents are my heroes. My mother moved to a foreign country in her mid-30s and had to start her life over, alone in a culture vastly different from her own. And my dad, well he’s always defied everyone’s expectations of him, without a second glance. They broke the rules, marrying someone who wasn’t from their own respective cultures.
But when you hear the words “biracial,” or “mixed race” the most common grouping that comes to mind is black and white. I am not that. I am Indian and Black, and I’ve only met a handful of people like my brothers and I. My experience growing up in New York City definitely allowed for a privileged upbringing. I identified as black, mainly because others saw me this way. And I didn’t see color (primarily because I attended all-white private schools from K-12, where I and a handful of others made up the minority percentage. )
I argue, and many may disagree, that to be mixed is to be colorblind, or naive. Growing up, I certainly felt this way, although I no longer do today. Simply put, as a child, color was never predominantly on my mind. When I dated boys who did not look like me, or when I attended parties, or when I spoke up in my classrooms. When I made friends, or went on playdates. I was a chameleon, the mixed girl who could easily move between spaces and worlds.
But when I visited India, I was acutely aware of how different I looked. I didn’t have long straight/wavy hair; it was coily curly, frizzy in heat and humidity. I was too tall and my shoulders too broad for the average Indian woman. I couldn’t find my shoe size, and the stares! The stares were everywhere, following my brothers and I around as we simply tried to spend time with family. I remember being incredibly uncomfortable with this as a child., especially when eating out at restaurants or shopping at the mall.
When I reflect on these experiences, each was incredibly different in retrospect. How could I feel accepted in one, and not at all in the other? How was it that I was able to fit in and be myself, but simultaneously still feel out of place?
I pitched this story after watching mixed-ish. The show is a spin off on Black-ish, where Tracee Eliss-Ross plays the mom. This time, the story follows a young Rainbow who (spoiler alert) has grown up on a commune as a product of a black mother and white father.
In the true spirit of free love, the commune ends in 1985, forcing Rainbow and her two siblings to move to suburbia, where they begin to encounter for the first time what it means to be mixed. And while I wasn’t all that crazy about the show, the points made are valid: having to choose what “side” you want to be on is daunting, made even more so when you feel the pressure from those around you to make those decisions. We feel that these decisions will stay with us for the rest of our lives, yet in reality we simply have not realized that many of these choices can, and in fact will, change over time.
I learned this the hard way. I struggled with my identity all throughout high school, and even in college. As a graduate student today, I still don’t know exactly what “side” I am on. And to be honest, picking or even having to define myself based on a side is pretty ridiculous.
As a biracial woman in today’s world, I think it is possible to explore your identity in relation to your two cultures for your whole life: there isn’t one point where you decide to act as one, and then have to dress or behave as another. There are countless lessons I’ve learned in my own journey, and more I know will continue to come my way. I don’t regret any of the steps, failures and ways I questioned or felt less than due to not fitting in. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.