Elizabeth wants her to write a book. “Coming Out as Black,” she titled it. Her story isn’t ready for that — her identity hasn’t made it to that place yet. But maybe someday soon.
Anna told her that the only reason she got into Governor’s School was because she checked “multiracial/other.” She now checks that box only occasionally. She’s careful.
“You must be her coach. You talk about her with such pride. No? Her mentor? Her teacher?” “No, I’m her father.” Even the most controlled face couldn’t hide his shock.
“That’s my dad.” “Really? Are you adopted?”
“That’s my dad. I’m biracial.” Laughter.
She probably didn’t even check it on her Smith application; the fear is always too great.
Racial identity is complicated. It always has been, at least for her. Her father comes from an upper-middle class family. His father was a lawyer, his mother a socialite. He came from the idea that “my class trumps my race” and “race is everyone else’s problem, not mine.” She says he has no sense of a racial identity, no Black pride. He didn’t raise her to be proud of her heritage, but rather ignored it. She looks white, after all.
She has light skin, a very freckled face and smooth, wavy brown hair. Her sister is the same. You’d never know. You’d really never know.
Unlike many, she had no reason to explore her identity. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother is white. She and her sister look white. They moved to the suburbs and that was that.
It wasn’t until she was 19 or 20 that she really started to explore it. She had no prompting aside from sociology classes, learning about the social construction of race and trying to find a sense of self. The summer before senior year she interned with cultural bridges to justice. Traveling to do a Racial Justice Institute, Achebe and Jona split up the group to caucus. The topics: White people talk about white privilege, and people of color, internalized racism. Having been faced with this decision before, she had always gone to white privilege. She does get it, you know. With some gentle prompting, though, she set foot in the other. Immediately feeling the need to explain her presence, she launched into the spiel about how she passed as white even though her father was black. Achebe stopped her and said, “present. You present as white. Try that.” Passing always did have such negative connotations, for everyone. Suddenly, a world was opened. She wasn’t intentionally passing as white; it wasn’t necessarily a choice. But she presented as such and that was how the world read her.
Being queer is no big deal. Her aunt is a lesbian, with a partner who has been long accepted into the family. So when she started dating women, it was no big deal. Hell, they called her the “dyke baby” when she was three. She never actually came out to anyone in her family, it was assumed and almost expected. But claiming and accepting a racial identity became much more difficult.
She even presents more gay than Black. She’s even read that way, though sexuality is supposedly invisible. All those piercings and short hair. She’s even got the swagger. But presenting as biracial? How does one do that?
Her cultural upbringing was so white. Her father’s mother cooked grits and black-eyed peas. Occasionally okra. But she died years ago and the culture hadn’t become engrained in her yet.
It’s hard to claim that space. For her to say to someone who gets followed in a store, I am biracial. We share a culture, a history. Elizabeth’s kids look white. She tells them that they are Black, that 150 years ago, they too would have been slaves. But so early on in the identity development, she hasn’t claimed that space yet, who knows if she will.
“Coming Out as Black,” she titled it. Her story isn’t ready for that — her identity hasn’t made it to that place yet. But maybe someday soon.