“But, like, what are you?”
It’s a question I’m asked pretty often, both inside and outside of Morningside Heights. You’d think that after almost two decades on this planet I’d finally be able to answer it easily, but you’d be wrong. This seemingly innocent query still manages to fill me with dread, discomfort, and anxiety every time I hear it. My heart leaps into my throat, my hands start to sweat, and my words get caught on the tip of my tongue.
I know how most people want me to answer. They expect to hear something simple and comprehensible, like “Hispanic” or “white.” They want to know which box to put me in. Their world is one of simple distinctions, one where everyone fits into only one category.
They see my tan skin, my brown curly hair, my “ethnic” last name. They test it out. “Sal-gah-do.” If they’re a native Spanish speaker they’ll ask, “Hablas español?” In response, I usually mumble something like, “Hablo un poquito,” and feel irrationally guilty for not being fluent in a language that isn’t even spoken by my family.
I’ve struggled with my ethnic identity my whole life. My mother is white. My father was born in Haiti, but his lineage can be traced back to Brazil. I don’t speak Portuguese—or French or Creole, for that matter—and I’ve never even left the United States. Still, I was raised on a combination of Haitian and Brazilian food, music, and, of course, futebol. For me, being mixed meant simultaneously participating in certain cultural customs while still not feeling like a part of that culture. It meant that since I wasn’t purely Latina, black, or white, I felt like I didn’t have enough of any one race to be considered a member of any race. To identify as a member of one ethnicity felt like I was denying the other parts of my heritage, but to claim all aspects of my identity has always been difficult to explain since I’m still trying to understand it myself.
In the predominantly white neighborhood in South Florida that I grew up in, my family was a novelty. Most of my teachers and friends were white. While they were, for the most part, tolerant of us, I was still painfully aware of my otherness as a person of color from a young age.
After spending 18 years in a community that didn’t really understand people like me, I wanted a change, which is precisely why I came to Columbia. I was sucked in by the promises of “diversity” and “inclusivity.” After being the “token minority friend” for so long, I was excited by the prospect of having more minority friends with similar experiences.
In some ways, I got that. Most of my friends here are minorities, have at least one immigrant parent, and speak more than one language at home. We joke about Columbia’s “holistic admissions process” and commitment to “diversity,” and its simultaneous refusal to decolonize the Core. We can freely discuss our personal encounters with discrimination, knowing that we all get how it feels to be misunderstood or underestimated because of the way we look. My Columbia friends can empathize with my experiences as a woman of color in ways many of my friends back home never could.
What I didn’t anticipate was being considered “white-passing.” Passing is when a person belonging to one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different one. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t my white friends at Columbia who considered me white-passing; it was my darker-skinned Latinx friends.
Now, I understand what white-passing means and the privilege that comes with it. I recognize how privileged I am to have two English-speaking, highly educated parents. I’m privileged that I can walk into any cosmetics store and find foundation that matches my skin tone. I’m privileged that my teachers growing up never assumed that I couldn’t speak English. I also acknowledge the colorism that exists within many minority communities, including the Latinx community, and that as a lighter-skinned mixed Latina, I benefit from certain privileges that darker-skinned Latinas do not.
But being considered white-passing by some does not erase the racism I’ve experienced, either. In the sixth grade, after I told some classmates about my heritage I received the moniker, “Black Mexican,” a reference to my father’s—and my—mixed Haitian and Brazilian ancestry; looking back, the nickname still stings a bit. That same year I remember coming home from school one day crying because the white “popular girls” had made fun of my curly hair. My kinky, frizzy hair is something I’m still not even partly comfortable with to this day.
A year later, my totally-not-racist algebra teacher stopped class in the middle of the lesson to interrogate me about my heritage.
“Where are you from?”
“Florida,” I replied snarkily, knowing what she was getting at.
She sighed. “No, like, where are your parents from?”
“Well, my dad is from Haiti, but his family is Brazilian… It’s complicated.”
“So, you’re black?”
“Not really; my mom is white.”
“So, you’re mixed…”
The word just hung there for a while. Mixed. It didn’t sit well with her. In a classroom full of white, smiling faces, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Her world was one of black and white (mostly white), and my being mixed meant I wasn’t worth being understood, let alone accepted.
Taken as a whole, these experiences seem to highlight the messiness that is mixed race identity. On the SAT, we’re told to select one: white, black (non-Latino), Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, other. But for someone like me, the question, “What are you?” doesn’t have an easy answer because the vocabulary we use to discuss race is based on the concept that each person belongs to only one group. And so, I always picked “other.” I’m Haitian, but not black enough. I’m Brazilian, but not Latina enough. I’m Irish and German, but not white enough. I have too much of one to be another, but not enough of one to actually count.
Now, I tell people that I’m “mixed,” a word that also reflects my feelings about that descriptor itself. It’s nebulous, confusing, and unclear. Ultimately, it raises more questions than it answers, but it also helps demonstrate just how limiting our racial terminology is.
It’s oddly satisfying to give that frustrating answer, since it reflects how frustrated I’ve been with these terms my whole life. I use it purposefully now—not because I think it accurately describes my identity, but because it does the opposite.
The author is a racially ambiguous Columbia College sophomore of mixed Brazilian, Haitian, and European descent. She is studying political science and statistics.
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