It was always a strange thing looking down at the race and ethnicity sections of my standardized test and reading “Please check all that apply.” The boxes I checked felt like they made no sense, and so rather than fill in each box for African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic, I would usually just opt for the box labeled “other.” Eventually I got used to the fact that I was inherently different. For most of my life I did feel like an “other”; but the words to describe my longing for a place in my school and even my own family always seemed to escape me.
Both of my parents are white. My mom, who is half Chinese and half white, married a white man instead of my black and Mexican father. The man she married has been my father figure throughout my life, and for that I am grateful. No one in my family really acknowledged that I looked different from them, though—until my little brother grew up. When he got old enough to be self-aware, he asked my mom why I look so different from the rest of my family. I had never considered that my siblings would be oblivious as to why I was, well...brown. He was young, but a part of me was still hurt that my racial identity was being questioned by someone in my family. There was now confirmation that I was different from the people I was closest to.
As I grew older, I started to become hyperaware of what I looked like. In middle school, where most of my peers came from upper-class Caucasian families, I got used to racist comments. The weird part is that no one told me these remarks were racist, so I thought it was normal to hear comments like, “Oh, Jasmyne, you probably know about that since you’re black.” It was like every other part of my identity was erased by them because they were intrigued by the fact that I was part black. Although I was annoyed, I decided to laugh along and forget about it. At that point, I had also grown up in a white household where my ethnicity was hardly acknowledged, so I didn’t really know how to stand up for myself when it came to race-related comments. And they never stopped.
By the time I got to college, I was tired of being mixed. Being someone who feels like they should have more cultural identity than they actually do is difficult. For most of my adolescence, I longed to relate to my friends who were part of different cultures; I was searching for a way to find myself in a non-white environment. My parents and I started to get into arguments about race, and it left a huge gap between us. It was hard for me to not blame them for my lack of cultural awareness, and their lack of understanding felt like betrayal. As my frustration began to turn to anger, I didn’t know how to cope with what felt like an identity crisis. Why was I brown on the outside, but so white on the inside? It took a toll on my self-esteem, and I started to believe I would never find who I was supposed to be.
I’ve only started to scratch the surface of processing my upbringing and how it has affected the way I view my identity. But here’s what I have realized so far: how I look on the outside should have little to nothing to do with what is in my soul. Cultural identity is not objective for everyone. Those who grew up deeply immersed in their culture are not any more human than I am; they just happened to have a completely different experience. This isn’t news to anyone, but I used to believe that as someone who was mixed, I should have a more “spiced” background. Observing the traditions and cultures of my non-white friends used to make me envious and insecure. But learning how to appreciate and engage in their traditions has made coming to terms with my own identity so much more beautiful. I started to realize that I can use my multi-ethnic identity as a way to relate to others, even if I don’t have the same cultural background as them. My ethnicity has made it so much more fun to learn about other cultures. I’m still learning how to reconcile my racial and cultural backgrounds, but it has been a beautiful journey seeing how I can appreciate and honor others through it.
Sofia De Ceglie