How has your identity been challenged?
– A question posed at Reflection
Mark one of the following:
Black/African American, White, Asian (including Pacific Islander), Hispanic, Other.
It’s a box I’ve checked my whole life. I’ve grown used to the label, to the word that isn’t even a classification. It’s a word that is more the absence of a classification, indicative of the fact that people were too busy, too unbothered, to list all of the other races that people could be. So instead, to save time, the rest of us have been dubbed “others.”
As someone who is neither white enough to check white or black enough to check Black, there is always somewhat of a twinge, an inner conflict when my cursor is forced to click “other.”
It isn’t how I would classify myself.
“Hi. So, like, what are you?”
“Oh me? I’m Other.”
No, that’s not it.
I would tell you that I’m biracial, if you asked. I would tell you that I am Black and white and that my experience with race is a result of that mixture. I would not tell you that I am Other, because “other” signifies different. I would not tell you that I am Other, because “other” is essentially meaningless apart from telling you that I am different from the norm. The label “other” gives you no indication of who I am and I can’t help but wonder why it is that countless questionnaires seem to think it will.
Being in South Africa has made it clear to me just how badly I have wanted a classification different from “other.”
It’s a difficult concept for me to wrap my mind around because so much abject discrimination has come from racial classifications. They have led to stolen homes, because white supremacist governments have forcibly removed everyone from neighborhoods. Racial classifications have led to lives taken; both children and adults stripped of their innocence merely because of the darker shade of their skin. Racial classifications have given people one thing to be seen for, while at the same time making entire groups of people invisible.
Racial classifications have led to so much more harm than good, but some part of me, some incredibly selfish part of me, wants to be something more than other.
As I look around South Africa and hear about color and see color and learn what it means to becoloured, I can’t help but be intrigued by the lack of otherness present in this classification.
In South Africa, coloured has so much meaning. Coloured can mean that you have any mixture of African, European, or Asian ancestry. Coloured means something, while other means nothing.
“Other” means that one is different. “Other” means that one cannot be bothered to acknowledge the differences and combinations and complexities beyond those of the most dominant racial groups. “Other” doesn’t really mean anything to anyone because most people don’t bother to ask what “other” means.
“Other” feels like what it feels like not to be seen, to not belong.
I can’t help but feel some desire to have a word in the United States that groups, that unites, people of multiracial backgrounds. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like, what it would feel like, to be something besides “other.”
I can’t help but imagine what it means to belong to a named racial group. Historically? It has meant facing prejudice, overt discrimination, and blatant inequality. Today? For many people, it isn’t that different. There is still a substantial amount of prejudice, yet it is often disguised and easily hidden. People of color regularly face discrimination, yet there is a better understanding that it is wrong. Inequality runs rampant across the world between white people and people of color.
On some level though, there is some sense of understanding, of experience, and of unity. There is some sense of belonging that has come with the reclaiming of different racial identities.
Yet, how do you belong when there is no group for you to belong to?
When asked how my identity has been challenged, I find myself wondering when it has not been challenged. It is a challenge to understand half of you when you have never met the father who gave you that half. It is a challenge to be asked “what” you are rather than who. It is a challenge to understand and be aware of the privilege that a biracial identity grants you. It’s all a mental challenge.
Yet, until South Africa, I hadn’t realized just how much of a challenge it is coming to terms with my own sense of belonging.
I don’t know what is so special about belonging to a label. I don’t know if it’s that it affirms your existence or that, in some special way, it tells you that you are seen. I don’t know if it’s that you know, even if you don’t see it right in front of you, there are people who relate to that label the same way you do.
I don’t know if what’s so special about a racial classification, about a label, is simply that I don’t feel like I have one and therefore feel lost without one.
I don’t know, and maybe that’s why it’s such a challenge.
To ask how my identity has been challenged forces me to admit to the daily confusion that is my identity. It’s confusing and messy. It often doesn’t make sense. My understanding of my own identity feels somewhat uncertain.
But what South Africa has made me realize is that the label of “other” does nothing to help with that uncertainty.