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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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“You Don’t Act Black” And Other Struggles of a Multiracial Woman

“You Don’t Act Black” And Other Struggles of a Multiracial Woman

| On 06, Nov 2013

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m American.

I was born in the beautiful Pacific Northwest to American parents. My father was also born to American parents. My mother was born to an American mother and an immigrant father.

When you ask me what nationality I am, don’t scoff or laugh or roll your eyes when I answer, “American”. If you were familiar at all with the etymology of the word, you’d know that nationality has the word nation in it, and what nation do I hail from? America.

So before you speak to me in a different language, tell me to go back to my country, claim I’m taking jobs, or say I don’t belong here, realize that brown-skinned people are Americans, too.

I was raised in an upper-middle class town, where my high school’s minority population was less than one percent. There, I had a few racial slurs hurled at me, but for the most part, kids were okay. To them, flying confederate flags from the antennas of their jacked up trucks wasn’t really meant as an insult, it was more of a fad. Surrounding schools made fun of mine, calling us rednecks and saying we lived in the boondocks.

But in my school, I certainly stood out. I am black, white and Asian. My whole life, I’ve been questioned about my ethnic background.

What are you?” A human being.

“You’re so exotic looking.” Okay, so I look foreign? Cool.

“You don’t act black.” My absolute favorite.

So, how do black people act?

Not like me, apparently. Not with my country music, my cowgirl boots and floral dresses. I’ve been fed reasons why I didn’t “act black” from most of the people who didn’t realize upon first meeting me that I was, in fact, half black. But not black enough, it seems. And when they listed all the reasons why I couldn’t possibly be black, their ignorance showed. I was embarrassed for them. Of course they didn’t think that they were being racist or stereotyping anyone; they sincerely believed that they were complimenting me for “acting like a white girl”.

And while my face may not hold all of the traditionally black features, I do not need to hear you point them out. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had someone say, “You know, you’re pretty cute, for a black girl.”

Black women have been shamed and made to think that they are less beautiful for a very long time. And as a college student looking to major in psychology, I can’t even being to describe the shame I felt when I heard that the magazine Psychology Today had the nerve to publish an article by an evolutionary psychologist titled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?”

But it isn’t just the black part of me that gets flak.

In customer service, I’ve had a wide array of languages spoken to me. When I reveal that sorry, I can’t speak Spanish, Arabic or Portuguese, I receive backlash for not knowing “the language of our people”. Our people? How do you know who my people are?

Filipinos from my church teased me because I couldn’t speak the language. They said I wasn’t a “real” Filipina and if I really cared about the culture, I would take the time to learn the language. They would sit around a snicker at me and talk in Tagalog because they knew I couldn’t understand. I was hurt. I thought that because I couldn’t speak the language, or because I had never been to the Philippines, that they were correct. There I was, being told I was not Filipina enough. I’ve had many argue with me about whether or not the Filipino part of me is Asian or Pacific Islander, and try to tell me which I am. The answer? Each Filipino is different with this. The Filipinos in my family have identified as either.

And while all this happened, these accusations of how I couldn’t possibly be black or Asian, I was told that while I acted white, I didn’t look white. So naturally, I also was not white enough for anyone, either.

This is something I deal with often when I talk about my racial makeup.

I remember one instance where I was sitting at work with my black, male coworker, who insisted that the only reason that we were hired for our minimum wage, customer service job was because we were minorities. My coworker and I argued this for a while, him also telling me that the reason I was a minority in an upper-middle class town was solely because my parents got lucky. No, my parents worked hard. Every successful person has had luck here and there, but don’t you dare say that minorities, especially my parents, can only become successful with luck.

My biggest problem with my conversation with him was that, yes, I understand privilege. Yes, I understand that some businesses want to look like they are celebrating diversity, so they hire minorities. I also understand that some go on to not hire minorities. But I’m tired of people saying I don’t get things because I am a minority, but that I do gain things because I am a minority as well. With this type of thinking, really, I cannot win either way.

I was raised in a very liberal part of the country, but my parents are from the south. And every time I go down there to visit my black father’s family, at least one person expresses their disappointment that I don’t “act black” and that I talk with a “polite northern accent”. Statements like these are insulting to themselves, as well as me, and just feed into stereotypes.

Race issues have always confused me. Most people can’t even figure out what my background is without several tries, so it shows how interesting the concept of race truly is. I mean, if race was something so definite, wouldn’t it be easier for people to not label me as many different types of races so much?

I’m proud to be mixed and to have the opportunity to be exposed to so many different cultures. I refuse to ever identify with just one part of me. I check the “other” option on forms that only let you select one race. I’m a multiracial woman. Please don’t call me a mutt, or a mixed bitch; I’m not a dog. The only language I know aside from English is high school French, so don’t make me feel bad for knowing the language of my country. I’m an American citizen, born and raised, so yes, I do belong here. And if you disagree? I just feel sorry for you.

Written by Laila Corbeau
Follow her on Twitter!

  • Jennifer L.

    I totally get you on the Filipino thing. I’ve been to the Philippines, but I don’t speak Tagalog. The other weekend I was at a wedding as the maid of honor, because the bride was recently arrived from the Philippines and needed someone single to fill the position. So, there were quite a few Filipino ladies there. One of them literally walked right up to me and started speaking Tagalog to me. The bride explained that I didn’t understand Tagalog, and she looked really confused and a little…offended…it was very strange.

    I always struggled with standardized testing and never knew if I should put “white” or “Asian”…I asked my mom what I should put and she scoffed and said I “wasn’t Asian”. I’m glad they now have “Multiracial” options…or even “Other”…

  • Gabriela

    Love the article, I’m mexican and proud to be one, but have been told I don’t look like one, I’ve been told I look exotic, half puerto-rican, hindu, etc. I have dark skin and curly hair, I get where you’re coming from and share your opinion.
    The only thing that puzzles me is why people that are born in the United States call themselves Americans? America is the continent, Mexico and Canada are also in the American continent.

    • Bianca Chavez

      I have the same problem. I’m Mexican but that’s the last thing people expect me to be because of how dark skinned I am. They just don’t realize all the different types of Mexicans there are from albinos to native to those with African descent and everything in between. I always get asked if I’m mixed with black. If I was, I’d be a proud mixed woman but I’m not so peoples ignorance really pisses me off.

  • Joy Henderson

    Oy! I feel you. I’m black, white and native and it’s a weird place to be in this limbo of privilege, but discrimination as well. I too grew up being singled out for not acting _____ enough and I know more than a few people who are multiracial who went through a thousand identity crisis trying to find their place. Being a bit older now, it doesn’t concern me as much and I float through life just being this person who no one can quite identify or categorize-it does have its advantages. However it is still hard not being fully accepted as part of any cultural community that I belong to.

    • Volomon

      Why does every American believe they have “Native” blood? Most Native Americans DID NOT like black or white people.

      • Nadine Ibrahim

        Because they were not as bigoted as you make them out to be.

        • Volomon

          From 1830-1860 the biggest killer of African Americans was Native Americans. Don’t worship false idols.

  • buri103

    Wonderful article. Very stream of consciousness in a great way. I am not multiracial, but grew up in a mostly white neighbor, and it hurts to constantly have my ‘Blackness’ called into question, even as a grown up. Like being smart, articulate or college-educated is something a black person could never be. Like you stated, it suggests that the person questioning thinks less of themselves and you. Also, it erases how you are treated as Black person, as if not being ‘really’ Black means you don’t notice or feel it when another article comes out asking why Black women are alone, or how they are all ‘video hos’. Like you are being stripped from your identity, in a way, because other people cannot deal with Blackness being multi-faceted. Sorry for the essay, this topic just really resonates with me, and you pinpointed its problematic elements so well and succintly. Thank you for this, hope to read more articles from you in the future. :)

    • Yes!!

      Thank you for sharing this! I am Indian but I have gone through the same thing and it is so frustrating!! What’s even more ridiculous is that people will tell me how I act too white yet my skin is too dark (and the people who have usually had the nerve to tell me both these things to my face have also been Indian!). Saying those things doesn’t do anyone any good.

  • Sully

    I am from Latin America, and recently I was getting my flu shot and the nurse said “Sully! Is that an English name?” and I said “No, it is actually in Spanish” and she said “But you don’t look Hispanic.” I had t enlighten her that there is no way to “look Hispanic” since people of all races live in Latin America. I felt like the only person from Latin America she had ever seen was probably Sofia Vergara or some celebrity and she assumed we all look the same (I also live in the Pacific Northwest, and I do feel there is a lot of diversity, but not as many people from Latin America as in Florida where I lived before).

  • PapayaJuice

    I love this article so much. Thank you for posting it, it’s so empowering!

  • lixtastic

    Thank you for this! I’m half Chinese and half Black. I identify as both but was primarily raised in an Asian household and get this ALL THE TIME.

  • pretzelcrab

    Your experience is so similar to mine. I’m black, white, and Asian & only speak English and high school French. My northern town is 90% white. I just can’t even put into words how much I relate to this article. Thank you.

  • MockingJay1398

    I’m a 15 year old black girl. I’m not mixed or anything. Yet, growing up in the inner city, many of the other black students would tell me I acted “too white” because I made straight A’s and talked with impeccable grammar. I never understood how you could act a race. The white kids at the school even taunted me for being “whiter than they were”. Growing up, my grandmother explained to me how some people are raised with such deluded mentalities on race, thinking black kids must talk in slang and improperly, and thinking white kids can’t dance and listen to country. Such stigmas and sterotypes toward different races, are the causes of all this ignorance, and I can’t wait for the day when people realize race isn’t something you can be, but something you just are.

  • Bianca Chavez

    I’m Mexican and my son is mixed with black. I have him in a private school and he takes piano lessons and is in gymnastics. He doesn’t eat chile either, which is a big deal for Mexicans. I’m constantly getting told that I’m raising him ‘white’. Mexican kids won’t play with him and there aren’t many, if any, black people where we now live so all his friends are white. I know when he gets a little older he will have identity issues about who he is and who society thinks he should be. I just hope by then people will have more clarity and will stop trying to define people based on the color of their skin.

  • Yes!!!

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’m not mixed, I’m Indo-Caribbean (my parents were both born in Guyana and are both South Asian racially) and I grew up in a predominantly white suburb in Canada. I’ve been told numerous times that I’m “white on the inside” or that I’m white washed or that I’m “so white” even though I don’t really participate in anything that is considered “white culture” it’s not like I do Irish step dance in my spare time or something. I don’t like the fact that many people (even people of color) try to make certain things like being well spoken or being refined into “white people” things…they aren’t!!! People of all races have a tendency to be well spoken, to be refined, to be courteous, polite, quirky, etc. we need to stop shaming people of color for being those things…that’s what reinforces white privilege!

  • Nadine Ibrahim

    Dude, almost every part of this: so agreed!

  • Nadine Ibrahim

    Actually the only part I wouldn’t agree with is asking people for their nationality. I ask in a different way: “where are you from?” Usually the person will smile at me and ask me “what do you think?” And I’ll usually answer correctly. Once again, the person smiles and asks how I know. “Because I study foreign languages and I heard your accent,” I reply. And I learned from them, built rapport with them, and have someone to nerd out with on my love of international studies and foreign language. If you ask someone about their origins, make sure to have genuine interest in where they are coming from. Getting to know the international community is a great way to grow. Otherwise, I loved this post. I’m first generation in the States. Holy crap, people can be racist. Sometimes I wish I weren’t an ethnic minority. It would be easier. On the other hand, I love mixing. I married into a white family. My son is mixed. I think we’re awesome.