Not Just a “Black” Girl: How Personal Identity Should Be More than Race

I am often approached by people who are curious to know what I am. If I were to use sarcasm, as I am apt to do, I would reply “I’m human,” but I know that is not what is meant when people inquire about my pedigree. Throughout the years, I have experienced several negative encounters because of the identity people assume I should have based on both my physical attributes and race. While some may not think twice about assigning an “identity” to themselves or another person based on physical characteristics or race, personal identity encompasses more than just those attributes. This is especially true for biracial or multiracial individuals; identity should be more than what meets the eye.

I am a woman of mixed heritage, primarily Black and Puerto Rican, yet I do not look like either. I look like an “other.” Because of my long, blackish hair and sienna skin tone with slight olive hue, many people think I am either African or some type of Indian (Mexican, Native American, actual Indian, etc.). My looks have changed very little since I came into this world, and frankly speaking, I do not think my physical attributes are bizarre. However, some members of my family as well as random strangers have attempted to use those innocuous features to define me. To those particular relatives, I am just a Black girl, not biracial. To everyone else, I am everything but. In my eyes, though, I am more than a mere racial label.

The concept of identity is complex and composed of several factors. A sense of self, belonging to a specific cultural group, religion, family, or another defined group are prominent factors, along with gender, sexuality, and belief structures (Mrkich, 2006). Morals, values, and physical looks round off the major components of identity.

Outside perspectives can also influence identity creation. How we perceive ourselves as well as how others perceive us can help shape who we are. This goes for physical appearance, intellect, personality, etc. Perception is perception, and according to some, it carries a heavy influence. The person you see in the mirror could be a completely different individual from who a stranger or loved one sees when they look at you.

Because of the outside influence over identity, some theories state that people actually have less control over their own identity than they believe they do. A constant barrage of mainstream media, family, friends, religious doctrine, perceptions, perspectives, assumptions, and interpretation of others each play a part in creating individual identity (Mrkich, 2006). Think of it this way. How often do you see people fall into the same habits or traits as their relatives? How many times have you followed a popular trend made famous by an admired celebrity? Even those who consider themselves part of the hipster subculture, which promotes independent thinking and counter-culture, have found themselves a part of a larger culture that follows similar trends to which they define themselves. Influence is everywhere.

Despite the significance of external factors in identity creation, these are not the only facets of identity. Identity is more of a culmination of experiences and attributes. There is no dispute that outside factors like perception, family, media, and a sense of belonging to a specific group (racial, ethnic, religious, etc.) will influence identity development, yet there is still an internal feature that plays a considerable role: choice. You can choose to allow these factors to determine who you are or you can choose not to. Personality is a major internalized factor that helps determine identity, which distinguishes a person as an individual (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2010). The term “personality” can be defined as a cluster of complex emotional, behavior, and mental characteristics that sets people apart from one another. While personality can be influenced by outside forces to an extent, it is considered to be more of a biological creation than a social one (Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2010).

In addition to identity development, outside influences are typically what contribute to the creation and use of stereotypes and profiling. For instance, if Black women are usually portrayed on television as women who always wear long weaves or wigs, then that assumption may be inadvertently applied to any woman of color on the street, regardless of if she has natural hair or not. This example of perception and stereotyping reminds me of an encounter I had not too long ago in the Midwest.

One day, I had an early morning appointment in an office building that had a large, open waiting area for clients. A considerable corner of the first floor was sectioned off for receptionists and other workers. After providing my information to one of the women behind the receptionist counter, I found a seat and waited for my name to be called over the intercom. Soon after I sat down, the receptionist I had given my information to called me back to her desk. Naturally, I assumed it pertained to my appointment, but no, she had a personal question to ask me.

“Are you Indian or something?” the receptionist asked.

By this point in my life, I was used to this question, so I chose to be polite and answered accordingly. After I responded, the receptionist replied, “Oh! I figured you were something. You couldn’t be Black looking the way you do.”

I doubt I will ever forget the brief exchange I had with that receptionist, not because of her bluntness or rudeness, but because she openly vocalized what people have tentatively confessed to me over the years. Many people perceive my physical attributes to be something other than just that of a Black woman, and the go-to group people tend to attach to me is Indian. Race is a social construct and because of that, people tend to attach certain stigmas or characteristics to individual races. For instance, to say that women of color with long hair must either have a hair weave or be mixed with Native American blood is assigning specific characteristics to a whole, which is not true for everyone.

Speaking of which, not all Black women have short hair or a Native American heritage. In regard to the assumption that I – or anyone else of color with physical features that may not lead to one specific racial identity – must have Native American blood, in actuality, “only 5% of all Black Americans have at least 12.5% Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent” (Team Ebony, 2012). Many people who attribute dark, straight hair texture and high cheekbones on people of color to Native American ancestry are incorrect in their assumption.

Also, in regard to racial stereotypes based on hair, Black women and men can have hair long without being of mixed heritage. All hair has growth of about a half inch to an inch per month, but afro-textured hair is the most fragile of all hair types. It tends to be drier than others and easily breaks unless it is properly cared for. This breakage is what makes people think afro-textured hair will not grow long, which can lead to the use of weaves and or wigs (Austin, 2012). My mother, who is Black, has long, thick tresses, and my hair texture is closer to hers than my Hispanic father; his hair is thin and wavy.

Please don't pet me.

Please don’t pet me.

Another characteristic that some base identity on can be found in the “one-drop-rule.” The one-drop-rule states that a single drop of “Black blood” in a person’s ancestry makes that person Black (Davis, 2013). It is also called the “traceable amount rule” and the “hypo-descent rule” (Davis, 2013). The use and definition of the term dates back to the days of slavery and again, during Jim Crow segregation in the South. This rule has led people to believe that anyone with even a trace of Black heritage should identify solely with that culture. Sadly, some of my Black relatives fed into this rule.

Please understand, though, that not all of my relatives have an issue with my mixed race. My parents were young when they had me, and they did not stay together long after my arrival despite their civility toward each other. However, both sides of my family inhabited different floors of the same apartment building in New York City, and because of the friction between my Black family and my Hispanic father, I grew up not knowing much about my Puerto Rican heritage. To this day, I do not fully understand why the friction is there, but at an early age, I got a glimpse of something that left a lasting impression on me.

When I was about 12 or 13, I had to fill out a document for school that required me to color in a blank circle next to the race I considered myself to be. My options were White; African American, not of Hispanic origin; Hispanic; and Asian. I remember seeing a circle next to the word “other,” but I did not know if I should fill in that circle. Actually, I did not know what circle to fill in. To me, acknowledging one group meant to ignore the other, and that confused me since I knew I was biracial. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my pencil poised over the document for what seemed like an eternity trying to figure out which option made the most sense.

A few moments later, a close relative came by and noticed my hesitation. I proceeded to explain to her my dilemma, and that is when she made the statement that continues to resonate with me.

“You’re not mixed,” she said. “You’re Black. That’s what people see when you step out of your house everyday: just a little Black girl with good hair.”

At the time, I was too young to understand why she would think such a thing, but now as an adult, I am reminded of the one-drop-rule. What I gathered from this exchange at the time, however, was that because I had darker skin, I was viewed as Black and nothing more. Yet, I also knew that to be false. Were my looks important enough to negate my heritage? Did I have a say in the matter?

not picking one race

The problem with the one-drop-rule is that using it assigns a minority status to people of mixed race (Bradt, 2010). Biracial individuals are considered not as equal members of both heritages, but as belonging more to one group than another (Bradt, 2010). This is unbalanced and unfair. In today’s society, many young adults with mixed heritages are rejecting color lines in favor of a more fluid sense of identity (Saulny, 2011). It has become more acceptable and commonplace to acknowledge all that you are and be proud of it (Saulny, 2011). Who you are and what you are made of is not about picking sides. It is about accepting all yourself. That is where your true personal identity lies.

I owe a lot to my mother. She was the one who helped me sort through the confusion I felt growing up faced with people who thought me to be one thing over another. She helped me to understand that while some people, family included, never saw past what was a person was on the outside, it’s who a person was on the inside that mattered most. But, most importantly, my mother taught me to just be me and to love every aspect of myself, flaws and all. With her, I did not have to choose if I was more Black or Hispanic. Long hair is just hair, and brown skin is just skin. I am all of these attributes and more.

I am a daughter, a friend, a writer, and a sarcastic homebody. I love the color blue and the tranquility of nature. I can be easily overwhelmed when faced with stressed, and I have battled with the occasional migraine for years. I also eat too much ice cream.

It is time to stop allowing other people to define us. Accept who you are. Embrace all of it. As for those who make assumptions about people based on race, open your eyes. No one falls into a perfect cookie-cutter mold. People of color come in various skin tones, hair textures, eye colors, backgrounds, and genetic makeup. No two people are the same nor should they be treated as such.

In the end, what I have learned and now embrace is that I do not have to bend to other people’s assumptions of who I am or what I am supposed to be, especially when it comes to my heritage. I know I am Black and Hispanic. I do not have to choose a side. I do not have to behave or wear my tresses in a manner that dictates what society says my heritage should be.

My name is Kris, and I am more than just a little Black girl.

IMG_20121227_172317-1

References

Austin, P. (2012, April 24). “Five common myths about afto-textured hair.” Retrieved from

http://www.naturalchica.com/2012/04/5-common-myths-about-afro-textured-          hair-by-dr-phoenyx-austin/.

Bradt, S. (2010, December 9). “One drop rule persists.” Retrieved from

http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/12/%E2%80%98one-drop-            rule%E2%80%99-persists/.

Davis, F. J. (2013). Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. Retrieved from

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.ht            ml.

Mrkich, D. (2006). “Do you choose your identity or is it chosen for you?” Retrieved from

http://www.danamrkich.com/writings/essays/06/dycyi.html.

Saulny, S. (2011, January 29). Black? White? Asian? More young Americans choose all of the

            above. Retrieved from   http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/us/30mixed.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Team Ebony. (2012, November 20). “5 things to know about Blacks and Native Americans.” Retrieved from http://www.ebony.com/life/5-things-to-know-about-blacks-and-native-            americans-119#axzz2fB0TGLzp.

Zastrow, C. H., & Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2010). Understanding human behavior and the             social             environment (8th ed.).

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