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By Chantal Braganza
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an elementary school classroom. Do they still have those paper people chains across the tops of chalkboards, each one a costume for a country?
In the first grade, we were once paired up with an eighth-grade student each to make flags of where our parents were from. It was a simple assignment. Get some books, look up the flag, the Big Kid drew it and the Little Kid coloured. For the eighth graders this likely seemed like a waste of time—especially the cool ones, which my partner was, and I know this because he was wearing a No Fear sweatshirt, chewed gum in the school library and stuck the pieces in the axles of where those wiry rotating bookshelves would turn.
He also couldn’t have been thrilled to have been partnered with a kid who would force him to draw four flags instead of one, because she was too indecisive to pick. Mexico was easy enough. My mom was born there, lived there till she moved here, and it’s technically the country in which I first started talking.
For my dad we drew three. One for Kenya, ’cause that’s where he was born & raised; one for Goa, because the community he was raised in was historically expatriate; and one for India, because as of 1987 that’s where Goa is. (But honestly? Few expat Goans will tell you that upfront. We were colonized by the Portuguese first, goddamnit, and apparently there’s a difference.)
It’s the first memory I have of coming up with an explanation of where I’m from, a question I was asked enough growing up to be led to believe heritage was something I had to account for. I’ve got a similar business-card-like story for how my parents met. It’s a cute one, and probably better when my mom tells it.
But yeah. I’ve passed for plenty of things, and am ashamed to admit the ways in which this was advantageous. A couple of years after that flag project, two kids appeared in my class at our then-smallish suburban school, freshly moved from one of the same places whose flag I’d fought an eighth grader so hard to colour. They spoke differently, acted differently and were the uncoolest people to be associated with—whether by association of friendship or race. Honestly, it doesn’t matter from where or which of the flags, because I probably would have done the same regardless: I stepped out of that identity for the rest of my time at that school. It wasn’t for long, but long enough to feel horrible about it until it was convenient again to slip back into that skin.
I started thinking about this a lot after reading a Thought Catalog piece on How to Be Racially Ambiguous and talking about it on Twitter. It’s funny and kinda brilliant, but to be honest I was kind of insulted the first time I read it. Probably because plenty of what Carmen Villafañe says is true. A hallmark of good satire, I guess?
There’s still a couple of things with the piece I’m not jazzed about, and Kelli Korducki, who’d written about this earlier, so wonderfully explains one of them:
“Why would you want to be just one simple, uncomplicated race when you can make yourself more interesting at parties with your heightened sense of worldliness and traumatic multi-racial identity?” asks Villafañe. This is totally tongue-in-cheek, by the way. Sure, it’s great having that invisible backback to carry around when convenient, so that you can take people by surprise with your wacky “ethnic” background tales, but sometimes you want to feel your mother’s discrimination. Not because it will give you cool stories and street cred, but because she is your fucking mother. That is half of you. Just as much of you as anything else.
The idea that being in any kind of position of privilege wipes out, even makes up for, awkward/painful/embarrassing/and-ok-sometimes-funny experiences of being hard to classify is also kind of grating. But the fact that racial ambiguity is something to satirize, even start a YouTube video genre about, means that it’s also not some sidelined section in social studies textbooks or a niche category in immigration-themed fiction anymore. Mixed-race issues/feelings/etc. are slowly becoming mainstream discussions (as Kelli also pointed out), and I’m thrilled that they are. Hell knows I haven’t spent enough time talking about it myself, as this disjointed post probably suggests.
Oh! One more thing. What smarted the most about the TC piece was, in the end, most true for me. “When someone asks you where you’re from,” Villfañe says, “take a deep breath and roll your eyes. They may as well have asked you to translate the Bible into one of the three languages you don’t speak fluently.” In a way, that’s kinda exactly how I started this post. Half because I felt I had to. And the other half? Well, it really did feel good.
By Kelli Korducki
Yesterday, I had brief but angst-ridden Twitter exchange with two friends regarding the inner turmoil of being a half-breed. We were prompted by the re-tweet of a Thought Catalog piece bluntly titled, “How to be Racially Ambiguous,” but, at least personally, this is a discussion that replays itself internally at least once per day.
Some personal background: I grew up having to check off a box inscribing my ethnic identity to the Milwaukee Public Schools’ quota-minded database every time I took a standardized test. I was told, by my parents, that the appropriate bubble for my No.2 lead smudge was “Hispanic,” so that’s where I put it. And that’s where it felt right, really. After all, hadn’t I grown up sharing a residence with a pair of non-English speaking refugee grandparents? Hadn’t I been subjected to toddler-era questioning, by my mother, over whether I was “Gringa o Salvadoreña?” wherein responses other than the latter would result in tickle torture to the brink of tears?
I grew up in a truly bi-cultural setting, with two bilingual parents who worked (and continue to work) in a largely Spanish speaking, Latin-American immigrant environment. But I also grew up white. I came out the spitting image of my Polish/German-American father, and I wonder how different my life would have been if the opposite had been true.
Truth is, it’s hard to live in between the lines; at some point you wind up becoming one thing or the other. Boring and cliche as this is bound to sound, society puts you up to it. And despite my parents’ best wishes, I suspect people are more inclined to process me as “white girl with Mestiza mother” (if, in fact, they know of my parentage at all) than “Latina girl” or “mixed-race kid.” Perhaps this is because of my unaccented English, the lack of melanin in my complexion, the fact that I have a name like “Kelli Korducki,” or that I dress more like Aimee Mann circa 1984 than a chola.
I may rock the white priv, but it’s never sat so great. I grew up speaking Spanish and attending quinces, and dancing merengue and bachata, while simultaneously feeling like I was a stranger in my dominant culture just because I looked more like I stepped off a boat from Poland (thanks, Papa) than my Salvadoran immigrant mother. Growing up, I would hear peoples’ reactions to my mom speaking to me in Spanish–rude stage whispers, in English (which both my mother and I could understand), about how people shouldn’t be allowed in America without being able to speak English–and I would burn inside while my mother dutifully rolled her eyes and moved along. They never assumed I was her daughter, which always stung me.
Back to the Thought Catalog piece. “Why would you want to be just one simple, uncomplicated race when you can make yourself more interesting at parties with your heightened sense of worldliness and traumatic multi-racial identity?” asks Carmen Villafañe. This is totally tongue-in-cheek, by the way. Sure, it’s great having that invisible backback to carry around when convenient, so that you can take people by surprise with your wacky “ethnic” background tales, but sometimes you want to feel your mother’s discrimination. Not because it will give you cool stories and street cred, but because she is your fucking mother. That is half of you. Just as much of you as anything else.
Segue: my best friend in the whole entire world, Carmen, is a blonde, blue-eyed, sunburn-prone curlytop of a babe who is both the hottest Fulbright scholar you will ever wish to have met and, also, a total halfie. African-American dad, white mom. We met in high school and immediately bonded over our shared neurosis, lit love, and half-breed status. Our 10th grade English teacher called us “fake minorities;” we called each other “house slaves.” We made inappropriate jokes over our mixed identities, because that was the only way we knew how to celebrate them. We live an ocean apart now, but I think our halfie status is one of the main reasons we’re still BFFs. No one understands a halfie like another.
So, recent news: a few weeks ago, I caught a Tweet from my younger brother, Casey. “I’m a McNair Scholar!” he announced. Casey is his university’s VP for MEChA, an American Chicano student organization–which means my li’l bro wears his Latino identity a little more prominently than I. The McNair scholarship is a “minority scholarship,” and Casey felt nervous interviewing for it. “I know I’m not the candidate you have in mind for this,” he nervously told them. Needless to say, they gave it to him anyway.
I guess I don’t know how to close this subject, so I’ll just say this: It’s hard to be a halfie, because on the one hand you’re so damn privileged, but on the other, you never know where you belong. I suspect it’s an issue I’ll have to grapple with for my entire life, and my children (provided I have any) will also have to carry on the baggage–because, regardless of our Canadian dwelling, they will be Spanish-English bilingual or not exist at all. And, while my brothers and I will always have the unassumingly white names of “Kelli,” “Casey,” and “Ricky,” we are still the amalgamations of our heritage: “Kelli María,” “Casimir Enrique,” and “Richard Fernando.” We fit outside the box. And, increasingly, so do many others. We halfies are boundfor themainstream, and conversations about race are destined to change for good.