Before I’m even asked my name, people inquire about my race.
Ever since authoring the popular post “You’re Black; So Why Do You Talk White?” I’ve been considering writing a piece about how I often I’m asked by strangers what my race is. But after viewing a video clip yesterday from Bill Duke’s new documentary “Light Girls,“ where women with light complexions share the common experience of being questioned about their race, I decided it was time to tell my story.
For the record, I know I’m black, and many of life’s experiences have reminded me of that. However, many people I’ve encountered, particularly in my early twenties, were convinced otherwise and weren’t afraid to let me know it.
I was a few months shy of age 21 when I left Philadelphia and moved to Austin, Texas. I had been preparing myself for the subtle and blatant racism that a young black kid from the hood like me was going to receive. But all the training in the world couldn’t have prepared me for the level of ignorance that greeted me in corporate America.
It was the first day in the office and my boss at the time—who’s now my business partner—took me around and introduced me to the staff.
The first person I met was an older white man who I estimated to be in his mid-to-late fifties. His first words to me weren’t that of a welcoming nature. Instead, he looked me in my eyes, shook my hand and said, “So what are you mixed with?”
I didn’t know how to respond. No one had ever asked me that question before, let alone made it the first words spoken when we met. I grew up in a black neighborhood, with black friends. I went to a black church. As far as I was concerned, I’m black. I simply replied, “I’m not mixed with anything, sir. I’m black.”
And to my surprise, he said, “Oh, so you’re just high yellow.”
In my head I was thinking, “what the f*ck is with this dude?” But I just politely replied: “Nice to meet you, sir.”
Little did I know that experience was preparing me and my nerves to handle f*ckery on a whole different level. One night I attended a private party for a corporation that was celebrating their expansion to the east coast. It was at a bowling alley, it had an open bar and a buffet. I was having so much fun, until I met the acquaintance of a drunk, pregnant Mexican woman. She sat down at my table and said, “Oh you’re fine… What are you mixed with?”
In my head, I remember thinking, “What the f*ck is in the water down here? Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
I sighed and replied, “Ma’am, I’m not mixed, I’m black.”
My response angered her and she called me a liar. I started getting annoyed and my body language was showing it. I suggested she move on to another table, but she wasn’t done questioning me.
“You’re mixed with something,” she asserted, “I have a friend who’s mixed and he looks like you… so what are you mixed with?”
“I think you’re drunk, ma’am. You should stop talking.”
“Oh did I offend you? Don’t be offended,” she said, “I’m not racist or anything, I voted for Obama.”
That was it! I took my drink to the head and rolled out. When I got to the parking lot, I called my one of my friends and vented.
My associates who I invited me to party came looking for me and found me pacing back and forth. I told them what happened and they apologized on behalf their fellow Texans.
I wish I could say these were experiences exclusive to Texas. But after that moment, I became hyper-aware of how many times people asked me what I’m mixed with before asking me my name—it’s quite often and it’s very uncomfortable.
From now on, when someone asks me “What are you mixed with?” instead of just saying “I’m black,” I’ll reply by stating this:
I’m mixed with the bravery of a soldier and the passion of activists. I’m mixed with the rage of a victim and the hope of a survivor. I’m mixed with brilliance of a polymath and the swag of a “hood boy.” I’m mixed with the past and present and my future is as bright as my skin. I’m mixed, because I’m both spiritual and human and my life is both joyous and challenging. I’m mixed with big ideas and the skills to execute them. What am I mixed with you ask? I mixed with great thought and measured action, which is helping to create a world where one day people will ask “How are you doing?” before asking “What are you mixed with?
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™
I can relate… Ppl still ask me till this day what I’m mix with,and I have two dark parents..
Thank you. It often seems like society can not or is unwilling to understand.
I am fascinated by ancestry and heritage but I would not, in my wildest dreams, start a conversation with that. I would have to have known someone for a long time before I would even think about broaching the conversation. I’m sorry you have to deal with rude people.
The question “What are you mixed with?” and your experience of people asking you over and over again, sounds similar to my experience as an Asian American – born and raised in the US – and being asked over and over again, “Where are you from?” What they want to know is what kind of Asian I am. In both cases, the people asking the question are more interested in being able to determine what category to put us in than they are in getting to know an actual person. I am so sorry that you have to deal with… Read more »
Unfortunately people tend to ask the race question not so much out of curiosity, but rather, as a way to determine which behavior and traits they should come to expect from you — which can be insulting if their expectations are shaped by society’s negative perceptions of your ethnic group. A person that has 50% sub-Saharan African ancestry and 50% European ancestry may accurately be described as ‘black’, ‘biracial’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Brazilian’, or many other things. But the treatment that such a mixed-race person receives is going to be wholly based on the prejudiced that the person they’re speaking to has… Read more »
Did dude ever stop to consider that some people find phenotypes fascinating? I was an anthro major, and had my DNA done. I became hooked on guessing what people were: of all races. I can tell a Polish person from an Irish, an Ethiopian from a Kenyan, a Thai from a Cambodian, an Argentinian from a Peruvian… etc. I can easily spot the difference between an Armenian nose and a Jewish one. Why? Because our genetic backgrounds make us distinct. Part of the issue with pursuing ‘post racial’ society is that we are all very different: socially, physically, etc. 40-60%… Read more »
Even if it’s true that people find phenotypes fascinating, it’s not the author’s responsibility to fulfill their curiosity. People don’t exist for you to be able to show off how well you can tell people apart.
It blows my mind that people even ask ones race. Personally, I don’t give a rats behind what someones race is.To me, you’re Christopher and it’s never entered my mind what your cultural background, mixed or otherwise, may be.People see my son and I know they wonder what his parents look like. As one of my son’s friends in HS said to my son the fist time he met me “Charlie, your dad is white!” The only reason I acknowledge you as being “black” is because of the content of some of your articles. My hats off to you for… Read more »