Who am I? It’s a question many of us ask at some point in our lives. As someone growing up with multiple heritages in today’s world, it means charting a course of personal development that refuses to let our identities be defined by others. My stories, mistakes, and lessons work beyond society’s labels and expectations, all aimed to answer the fundamental question: “Who are you?”.
I started digging into what it means to be of more than one race when I was a teenager because I felt that all the real things (and how to react to them) I was taught by my white Italian father and black Nigerian mother, was so above reality; I felt I was a heroine with a kind of superpower others didn’t (and couldn’t) want to validate, seeing me as an alien from who knows where.
I was so deep-rooted and instructed about the complexities, perspectives, and inconsistencies, that I grew up so confident and well trained about the obstacles I would have found on my traveling in this earth dimension. But I couldn’t believe some people, whose parents were of different races or ethnicities, didn’t see themselves as biracial or multicultural.
I was wondering why nobody was validating non-binary identities and experiences. Everyone I knew who was of a mixed-race background identified with their marginalized race to the exclusion of all others. I had several friends with one white and one Black parent tell me they were Black, and even voice their hatred of white people. And when I tried to aware them of the fact one of their parents was white, and ask them if, in the name of this, they do hate themselves, the answers I use to experience were so shocking.
Both my parents never cared about succumbing to societal pressures, neither they never care about stigmas regarding interracial couples or giving birth to a brown mixed bastard brat. But they were aware that society rules, by those years, were strictly unfair and decided, together, to raise me to be proud of my heritage, antagonistic, nonconformist, fiercely independent, unwaveringly honest, and, moreover, unapologetically me. They always told me the truth, willing not to give in to the pressures and expectations of those olden days culture, assuring me I was both black and white and that I should self-identify as such. Although their friends and family members told them the world would see me as black, they persisted in teaching me that I should not base my understanding of my race on the perspectives of others. I was dragged to refuse to succumb to the majority point of view on race, a point of view that was codified into popular culture as a direct result of the racist ideology of the “one-drop rule“.
The only thing I was really sure of, by that time, was that my parents gave me the gift of self-love, which I used for my whole life, till today. I was taught that love is inclusive of all aspects of a person’s identity, unconditional, and encompasses the whole person. Through love, I got to know my intrinsic value, and race was my reference point to determine that I always comfortably existed in the rainbow of colors between Black and white.
I honor and appreciate the rich tradition of African storytelling, music, cuisine, and the resilience of a people who demonstrated the beauty of the human spirit. At the same time, I also honor and appreciate the culture, traditions, heritage, and cuisine of my white ancestors, who fought through oppression for democracy and liberation. Being brown in a black and white world is normal. A lot of the time I choose which race is most favorable to my current situation. Feels like sudden death when the “racial imposter syndrome” kicks in. Which race should I identify with today? Nine times out of 10, I can never pass as fully white, so it is either biracial or Black.
Being biracial means white people questioning your whiteness when you out yourself as biracial; it means people guessing your ethnicity, making it into a fun game as you listen uncomfortably; it means having to listen to people fetishize you; it means experiencing colorism, noticing how people put you on a higher pedestal for being “light-skinned” (being lighter than dark), but not too light to be white; it means getting called “mut”, “bastard” and laughed at for being a “mixed breed.”
I have become so numb to this idea of race switch, turning my pidgin accent on, and my Italian emphasis off and vice versa, although biracial is never a burden. It’s a progression, an evolution, a great revolution where each of us should be identified, not by color, but by our name. It’s love, not only meant as a feeling but also as a choice. Embracing the full spectrum of my ethnic and racial identities has meant refusing to participate in a set of power dynamics that create racial binaries, hatred, and discrimination. Instead, I choose and have always chosen to unconditionally and unapologetically embrace all of my racial identity.
Choosing self-love, in every area of my life, I committed to no longer try to be like others, but be okay with my poor sense of direction and the ups and downs of my emotions. I got comfortable existing in the spectrum between extremes.
I don’t pretend to understand what other people need in terms of love or racial identification, but my personal experience has taught me that appreciating all of me has opened the door wide to a life that is filled with amazing and varied opportunities and experiences. I have a great, unwavering hope that more people will allow themselves to embrace a more inclusive, less binary understanding of race. It seems to me that, if we could all get more comfortable with blackness and whiteness, we’d be able to move past so much hatred of ourselves and others, and move forward in love, inclusion, and unity.
It was obvious to me, once a teenager, when asked to choose some books to read to exercise awareness, social and critical consciousness, to get straight forward in that world that I felt so intimate, but the world outside of me seemed to refuse to validate. It was so normal for me to strive to approach identity as something beyond skin color, considering it as a perspective.
I started exploring how people of mixed race tackle the “who are you” question and form their racial identities and I found out that multiracial individuals almost always look to their family and relatives when trying to figure out who they are and most of them largely considered the process of racial identity as a personal journey.
Of course, racial identification is much more complicated. This idea that “it’s up to me to determine who I am” isn’t really completely accurate, because It’s a very individualistic narrative and it evacuates identity of any context. It is a sense of being stuck in between two worlds, and the main character’s central question of “Who am I?” routinely poses to our parents. The negotiation of racial identity is never just the child’s burden It’s a question that the family together attempts to figure out. Mixed race people also use objects and records to reconstruct and understand their identities, as well as archives, to answer questions about their existence to bridge the gap created by the hatred existing between their different family heritages.
I also found out that there are a deep understanding, connection, and a strong bond portrayed between multiracial siblings, who are depicted as lonely inhabitants of a world unique only to them. Although, these relationships follow a predictable tension arc, getting them to find out that they are different, despite their deep, personal connection.
Till today, I must admit that books represent a range of possible life experiences for biracial characters who responded to social discomfort about their racial identity in complex and credible ways. So I keep reading these books, the ones that explore the day to day and philosophical experiences of being more than one race. I do it for the comfort in shared otherness, but also to see what makes us just like everyone else. Here are some of the books, mostly released in the English language, I’ve encountered when looking for biracial voices. These books, relevant to the topic of race and multiracialism, all show a different view of racial identity and identity itself in all its messy and undefined glory.
“AFROPEAN Notes from a Black Europe“, BY JOHNY PITTS
Pitts, a journalist, and photographer from Sheffield in England embarks on a journey across Europe to discover the continent’s African communities, from Sheffield itself, through Paris, the Netherlands, Berlin, Sweden, Russia, Rome, Marseille, and Lisbon. Pitts, the son of an African-American soul singer and a working-class Englishwoman, is a curious insider-outsider narrator of the book which ambles from meditations on black history and (often American) literary forbears to chance encounters with black and brown Europeans in hostels, trains, stations, cafés, and universities.
He grew up within two cultures that he could not completely identify with, due to his mixed-race, and he was subjected to racist abuse during his childhood. As he reached adulthood he became interested in the experiences of Blacks living in Europe. After years of saving money, he embarked on a five-month journey, in October of 2010 or 2011, I believe, to discover every day and better-known Afropeans living in major cities in Europe, to learn about their personal experiences and to determine what they all shared as members of the African diaspora living outside of their ancestral lands.
According to Pitts, the term “Afropean” was a 1990s creation of a Belgian-Congolese artist, Marie Daulne, and the American musician David Byrne, and it is the name of his blog, which he uses as a forum for himself and others to share stories, photographs and personal accounts of what it means to be Black in Europe.
“Afropean” begins with a description of Sheffield and Pitts’ experiences growing up there, and the journey begins with a Eurostar train ride from London to Paris. Pitts and the reader, who is made to feel like a travel companion and confidant of the author throughout the book, join a small group of middle-class African Americans on a tour of Black Paris, which was notable for the often boorish and prejudicial attitudes of the tourists toward their poorer and less polished Black brothers and sisters.
Part memoir, part travelogue, the book reads as a reimagined travel guide which comes face to face with the glossy images that we are usually accustomed to in a European utopia. Pitts describes several vibrant multicultural communities where Blacks and Whites live harmoniously, such as Château Rouge in Paris, Matongé in Brussels, and the area that houses the Young African Artist Market in Berlin. He also travels to impoverished and segregated neighborhoods, including the Bijlmer section of Amsterdam and Cova da Moura, a favela on the outskirts of Lisbon: “Lisbon may be a masterpiece but look closer at the brushstrokes and you’ll find some troubling details“.
The beautifully shot black and white photography of Afropeans living authentically and going about their daily lives captures the many complexities and difficulties of living in Europe as part of the African diaspora and the overlapping identities.
He also describes how the people living in the communities came to live there, their experiences in their countries, and notable Afropeans from these areas, past and present, including the soul-jazz duo Les Nubians, Otto, and Hermina Huiswoud, who were members of the Harlem Renaissance but emigrated to Amsterdam after World War II, due to their communist activities, and British author Caryl Phillips, who he met for the first time in Brussels. He also describes the experiences and homes of famous people who lived in these areas, particularly authors James Baldwin and Claude McKay, along with the notorious Congolese dictator Joseph Mobutu.
“Afropean” was an enlightening look into the lives and struggles of ordinary and famous Black Europeans, and I enjoyed the journey I took alongside its author. Absolutely brilliant, insightful, and fascinating. Maybe, the only lack is of an Italian Afropean experience, something the Author acknowledges at the start of the book. But I’m so delighted that he won the Jhalak Prize, would love to see this book get more attention
“The In-Betweens” by Davon Loeb
“The In-Betweens” is a collection of lyrical non-fiction essays about the life of Davon Loeb. This collection represents issues a young biracial man faces in the American society that has no category box to check for both races. His meditations about race extend from New Jersey and out to Alabama by retelling stories concerning his family, friends, and community. This coming of age collection is equally narrative as it is lyrical. These essays will ask us how we arrive at new maturities while addressing the liminal spaces in-between them. Davon struggles with being a son, a brother, a friend, a lover, and a man who is seeking his identity through excavating the past and the present. This memoir will leave readers in the footsteps of any American in search of self-discovery.
Davon Loeb, in an interview to Hippo Campus Magazine, said:
“People reading my book, I would hope, based on the current situation get two things: first is if we really listen to each other’s stories; there is so much more that connects us than what makes us different. Secondly, racism still exists in many different forms, and it’s deep-rooted in our country that you have to get to the core of it by not only looking at our society as a whole but look at our culture—your culture, your community, your schools, your family. You have to snip it there, in your homes, at the dinner table, as much as you do on a longer societal scale. I believe my story of race is different than someone else’s, and I never want readers to think of my work and say I’m trying to summarize the entire Black experience because I don’t know it; I just know my experience, the stories here. The point is, I think books like this written by people of different colors, not just of color, but of different colors are so important today because it starts with education.”
I really loved this memoir-in-essays by the son of a Black (not-Jewish) mother and a Jewish (not-Black) father, just from the opening chapters. The descriptions are so vivid and real that I felt I was actually there in the scene. Loeb builds bridges between worlds and gives us a new perspective to think about as we look into them and he explores the spaces in-between race, culture, geography, and maturity levels skillfully and with heartbreak and humor.
That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing by Julia S. Charles
Julia Charles offers a nuanced approach to African American passing literature and examines how mixed-race performers articulated their sense of selfhood and communal belonging in both past and present. In both depth and breadth, the informative and surprising “That Middle World” situates mixed-race characters in early African American literature as figures Black writers employ to analyze and interrogate issues of identity. She adroitly examines the implications of racial identity and radicalized characters in African American writing over a long span from the nineteenth through the twentieth century’s and has given us an excellent study of the performance of mixed-race identity in classic and widely read literary works, asking questions of belonging we still struggle with today.
“Caste is bones, race is skin“. In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including a divine, will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people – including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others – she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
It’s an extraordinary document, a complicated book that does a simple thing. It is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling, and sometimes simmering wit. Wilkerson’s book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. “Caste” lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist, and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
She avoids words like “white” and “race” and “racism” in favor of terms like “dominant caste,” “favored caste,” “upper caste” and “lower caste.”
A caste system, she writes, is “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning….[…] … As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance”.
She observes that caste “is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”
“Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo
This is a YA novel and it is the story of two girls with intertwined lives though neither knows of the other.
Told in verse style we learn of Camino who lives in the Dominican Republic and in New York Yahaira.
Both girls are sisters though are kept separate by their father’s double life and secrets.
Until that is one day both suffer a tragic loss, their father has died in a plane crash and through circumstance, their father’s skeletons are out of the closet. Both suffering from their own grief they now learn they have a sister and it’s a learning process to adjust to that.
From totally different backgrounds this is a fascinating tale of how a family can find each other across time and distance, build new relationships, and heal from the tragedies that have gone before.
This was amazing and I just couldn’t put it down, I had to know what happened next so read it in less than a day.
Written in a dual narrative we spend a lot of time with both girls and learning of the impacts of the loss of their Father in both environments. The writing is so descriptive and detailed that you truly get a feel for life in the New York Dominican Community and life in the Dominican Republic, especially for a young woman. One of the things we see is the risk to young women being taken advantage of by men resulting in owing a “debt” or needing to go to certain lengths to survive, seeing Camino trying desperately to avoid that life for herself after losing the protection her Father had provided her during his life was eye-opening to the culture most of us aren’t aware of. This story also taught me more about the culture of the Dominican from the representation of Camino’s Aunt who is a local healer relying on the spirits and knowledge to help those who can’t afford healthcare.
I really enjoyed Yahaira’s contemplations on her sense of identity that was covered in the book, both her parents are Dominican, but she has been born and raised in New York. She thinks about how she can belong somewhere she’s never been. Questioning her claim to her parent’s roots. Yahaira’s identity is also referenced by Camino when thinking about her sister later in the book.
Although the book is based on his death, the girls spend some time focusing on understanding and unraveling the complexities of their Father’s unusual way of life. Splitting his time with his two families, 9 months in New York, and 3 months in the Dominican Republic. It was touching to see the parental love he had for both his children but the complexity and the impacts on other areas of his life. This really added to the book for me as I had so many questions about their Father and how this would impact both girls.
Overall, the writing is beautiful, descriptive, and real. It takes you on a journey of emotion.
Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester
Nina Armstrong’s dad is black. Her mom is white. And they just split up. Nina now lives with her mom in the same house she grew up in, but her brother Jimi lives with their dad in a very different neighborhood. Also, Nina just started ninth grade, and her best friend has been acting oddly, hanging with some new people. All this fills Nina with a whirlpool of teen angst. She lets her emotions control her, finally convincing herself that the only way to make sense of her situation is to gain some distance from it by running away to the house of a friend who moved several hours away.
Woven throughout the book is a fictionalized version of her great-grandmother’s journey from slavery to freedom. Nina’s dad is writing the story and asks for her opinion on it, but her mom asks her not to read it. Torn between the two, Nina does read the book, and gains comfort and insight into her own problems from it.
Identity is a concept familiar to all. It is something that is struggled with daily and not easily defined. Who am I? Our gifts, talents, experiences, and ancestors make us who we are. For most, adolescence is the first attempt to piece together the puzzle of ourselves. Grappling with identity is frightening, but even more terrifying is being a biracial teen struggling with this issue when the world familiar to you crashes down.
In “Black, White, Other“, Nina Armstrong, a product of mixed parentage, a white mother and black father, seeks to regain her identity once her parent’s divorce completely alters the life she has always known, forcing her to view things in a manner alien to her. Rejected by friends for refusing to pick a side and live in a world that is either black or white, Nina stands alone. Feeling a connection to a dead ancestor, Nina sets out to explore how her life is akin to her enslaved great-great-grandmother. We follow Nina Armstrong on her tumultuous journey as she attempts to answer the elusive question “Who am I?”
Been treated as an outsider, figuring out where we fit in, are universal problems, but for Nina, they’re exacerbated by her difficulty feeling at home in either the white or black communities. Joan Steinau Lester uses those universal difficulties in a very compelling way to help us understand how hard life can be for someone like Nina who feels torn between two different heritages. Lester’s concept of ‘other’ applies to more than just biracial or multiracial youth, but it describes us all as we at some point in our lives feel or has felt like an outsider, longing to be like everybody else.
Lester calls attention to modern-day slavery, stereotypes, and racial profiling. Even though these issues are addressed, Lester does not delve into them. Failing to explore any of these issues deeper, especially Nina’s racial profiling incident, the reader is deprived of how these experiences affect Nina’s expedition to self-discovery.
“Black, White, Other“, adequately describes the emotions of identity-lost teenagers. The glossary in the back of the book is an excellent reference for readers. Likewise, the discussion and follow-up questions at the end of the novel are excellent resources for teachers, book clubs, and for anyone who does not fit neatly into one defined category and is simply “other.
@Wizzy, Afro Bodhisattva, Entrepreneur, Multipotentialite Wantrepreneur, Physical Anthropologist, Freelance researcher of African Studies, culture, tradition and heritage, CEO Dolomite Aggregates LTD and Founder IG MBA Métissage Boss Academy , MBA Metissage & Métissage SangueMisto.