While 23andMe can inform you about your ancestry, that information doesn’t define you, as has been so eloquently written about by Jesmyn Ward in the New Yorker, and by Simone Kitchens in her story that first appeared in Glamour. Both Jesmyn and Simone write about being multiracial and the difficulty of navigating not just how their mixed race influences how others perceive them, but how they perceive themselves. In his new book Loving Day, the writer Mat Johnson covers some of the same territory. How people think about race, and the commonly accepted notions about what it means, are changing. Probably at the forefront of that transformation are people like these three writers who are of mixed ancestry. More and more people are walking this path. In the United States nearly 7 percent of adult Americans have a multiracial background, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. Many other people simply do not know of their own mixed ancestry. Reconciling what it means to be mixed is complicated, and that process is elegantly captured in Simone’s piece, which we’re republishing here. Take a look.
By Simone Kitchens
This is what I look like to you:
Various shades of brown. Dark brown curly hair, darker brown eyes, skin a tan sort of brown. You might think I’m black or part black, but most people have trouble pinpointing my race. I do too. I’ve gotten the “What are you?” question about once a week for the past 20 years, ever since I heard it for the first time in the girls’ bathroom in sixth grade. I was looking in the mirror when a girl at the sink yelled over, “Are you mixed?” She was black. She came closer to get a better look. “What are you?” she asked. A group of girls, her friends, studied me as well. “I don’t know,” I said. The girl went back to drying off her hands and said, “You’re half-black.” She was matter-of-fact, as if she were filling me in on something I wasn’t aware of. From that moment on, I’ve known myself as a half-black person.
But “half-black” has never felt like the whole story. I grew up with my mom, who was adopted and didn’t know her background. I look like her; she’s brownish too. I always had my mom for reference, and while I didn’t know my dad, I didn’t think a lot about why I look the way I do. Still, as a brown girl in Oklahoma, there were times when I noticed I was the only nonwhite person at a roller-skating rink or food court. Some mixed people feel they’ve lived a black experience in America. President Obama, who is mixed-race, once said:
“I self-identify as African American–that’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.”
In many ways, I identify. At times I’ve also gotten the feeling that people are assuming something about me, trying to place me. I get it–skin tone isn’t an easy thing to sort out. (And if anyone should understand skin tone, it’s me: I’m a beauty editor. I’ve worked on stories about how hard it is for women of color to find their true foundation shade, a frustration I’ve experienced firsthand.) When it comes to people’s curiosity, this awareness of my skin tone, I’ve heard it all. The conversation usually goes like this:
“Where are you from?”
“No, but where are your parents from?” People seem unsatisfied when I say my parents are also from Oklahoma; perhaps they’re expecting something more “exotic.”
By the time I was in my twenties, my response to the question took on a “Sorry, can’t help you” tone. A friend joked that when a group of people looked at me for a little too long, they were playing Guess Her Race. What I never admitted was that I was playing the same game. My biggest insecurity was that I didn’t have the answer.
Checking the Box–or Not
When I applied for college in 2002, I had to state my race. On the application there were six options, and I was instructed to choose one: Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, or Other. I identified with a few of these, but not fully enough that I felt I could legitimately tick only one, so I checked “Other,” then wrote “See essay” next to it. I wrote honestly about how it felt not to know, and then to have to choose an option as faceless as “Other.” For better or for worse, my identity could not be contained in a box. I finally met my dad and his side of the family a few years later. In them I found a loving group of people–siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins–who embraced me. I also found out more about my ancestry. It turns out his side of the family is part German and part Native American, though if you saw my dad walking down the street, you’d probably think, White guy. I was so happy to connect and learn more about myself and my family, but I still couldn’t relate it to the tone of my skin. Then I moved to New York City, a place where everyone on the subway looks like they’re from somewhere else. I still got the question, but now people took the liberty of telling me what they thought I was: “You look Egyptian… Brazilian… Dominican….” “I’m not sure,” I’d say with a smile. This was the way I lived my life–I’d become seemingly comfortable with the unknown. And then the impossible happened. A year ago, after a lifetime of near misses, my mother met her birth mother. Here, I thought, was the missing link to what I was, and maybe, finally, an answer. My maternal grandmother, I discovered, is Irish and part Native American. But, frustratingly, there were few clues about my mom’s birth father, my grandfather–a man who doesn’t look that brown in the one black-and-white photo I’ve seen. I still didn’t feel any closer to understanding why I’m this color.
Time to Turn to Science
Then, last spring, I learned that Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ph.D., would be speaking in New York, and I knew I had to hear him. With his PBS show, Finding Your Roots, this pioneer in ancestry research has helped many celebrities trace their backgrounds. He’s also a proponent of genetic testing kits like 23andMe, now easily available online. At the end of the lecture, I introduced myself to Gates and mentioned that I was from Oklahoma. His response:
“I was going to say you look Native American.”
My heart sank.
Here I was in this room, with a lot of other black people, and didn’t look black to Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of our nation’s foremost experts on race. I ordered a 23andMe kit the next day. I had to know. The kit costs $99 and is simple to use. You spit (a good amount) into a plastic vial, close it up, and send it off. It takes about three weeks to get your ancestry reports. The wait felt like an eternity. When the email arrived, I was with two of my best friends, Rightor and Elizabeth. I held up my phone, pointing to the message that would reveal my race, my identity, my everything.
They went silent.
When I’d dispatched my kit, it had never occurred to me that I might not be ready to receive this information. Now I realized: I didn’t want to open the email–not yet. Suddenly, certainty didn’t seem so exciting. Rightor whispered, “I do still hope you’re part black. You’re our half-black friend.”
We all laughed. I’d gotten used to being the brown friend among white friends. Now this message had the power to change my idea of myself. I had taken the test last June, in a time we could call pre-Ferguson, pre-Eric Garner, two tragedies that drastically shifted the conversation around race in our country. Now, as the email waited in my inbox, I watched what felt like injustice on repeat. I kept asking myself, Where do I fit in? When I went to the Millions March NYC protest in December, I stood shoulder to shoulder with blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics. Still, I wondered: What am I, here in this crowd? One of the oppressed? An empathizer? An outsider?
I realized that while I’d been searching for the answer to what I was, I’d also been looking for affirmation of the black part of me. I wanted to belong to that group because I did identify myself in that way. But what if technically, genetically, I didn’t belong? I was scared to find out. The test results sat in my inbox for months. Then, one day, it hit me: I could know or not know. Live my life being safe, like I’ve always done, or take this leap. I was searching for answers, but did I actually want to hear them? I hadn’t been ready before; now all of a sudden, for some reason, I was. My hands shaking, I opened the message. A map of the world popped up, indicating I had roots all over. Almost every continent was highlighted in a bright color.
The cold, hard science, the letter told me, was this: I was 67.8 percent European and just 2.9 percent West African; about a third of my DNA was labeled “unassigned.” I had a moment of feeling, What the f–k? I’d waited 30 years only to find out that a good chunk of me was still a mystery, even to a genetic-testing company?
I read further. As it happens, DNA that traces from multiple continents is labeled “unassigned.” I also learned that Native American DNA is hard to test for, since there are few reference populations available to provide samples. (The Native American sample pool used for my analysis is smaller than the European samples.) With a good portion of my genetic makeup still unknown (mostly the not-white portion, it seemed), I went to bed feeling hollow. When I started this process, my initial excitement had been clouded by a thought: More actual facts about my history might close off the possibility that I could be black, Brazilian, Dominican, fill in the blank.
All my life there’s been a chance that I could be a lot of things, and I’ve embraced that. Feeling unattached to groups and hard to categorize had become the most defining part of me. Not having a fixed identity had become my identity. The day after I opened the email, I went through my morning, still feeling disappointed. As I crossed the street, a black man passed me on the left. At the same time a white woman came toward me on my right. For the first time in my life, it flipped for me: Before, I wasn’t sure which one would have thought I was part of their culture, what they would have called me. But in that moment, I saw parts of myself in both of them–I could identify with each one and, for that matter, whomever I wanted.
I flashed back to the Millions March, to all the faces on the New York City subway, to that sixth-grade girl looking in the bathroom mirror. What I had been seeing were just skin tones. I’d spent so much time trying to understand my own color, but as it turned out, there was something empowering about the fact that I didn’t have to take ownership of any particular race. I realized: I could be what I was by being who I was. My search led me to my father’s family, whom I adore, and to my mother’s family, whom I’m getting to know–and, most important, to myself. The daughter I am, the sister I am, the friend I am.
This is who I am. No email could ever change that. The next time someone asks what I am, my response will be ready:
“I’m Simone. What are you?”
Simone Kitchens, Glamour’s deputy beauty editor, lives in Brooklyn.