all-american: on racial identity in the USA

Until I was around 12, whenever I was prompted for my race/ethnicity, I’d check “multiracial” or “other.” My family is what my biso would call “All American,” which is just his way of saying we’re all over the place. Although I have white, Hispanic, and black family members, my largest influence is that of my mother’s side. My mother is black, white, and Mexican -- she often gets confused as Puerto Rican-- and my father is black. I was raised by my mother and my grandparents. My grandfather, a large man with soft brown eyes and a hearty laugh, was always willing to talk to me about how he saw race and how he felt my mother, her twin, and I should identify. “Race is just a way for the government to better label us,” I recall him saying. “My entire life, I identified as a white man, but the next thing I know I’m 47 meeting my father and I have an explanation for my complexion. It’s all based on how the world perceives you.” I had conversations like this with him often and, for a while, his was the view I strived to have and understand. Conversations with others, like my mother, her twin, and my grandmother really helped me to understand the way Americans view race.

My mom is a strong, intelligent, worldly, funny, woman. She’s raised me to be who I am and, I think, she’s done a pretty great job, especially considering she’s done it for the most part alone and against all odds.When I was in fourth grade, my mother and grandparents decided to send me to a private college prep school in my city. Until that point at I been in the same place with the same people. My first school was noticeably diverse: each class had 19 people, something like 5 black, 8 white, 3 East Asian, and 3 Latinx. That being said, when you’re in third grade you shouldn’t really notice these things and, until my move, I didn’t. The private school was different. I was, and have been, one of the five black children in my class of one hundred. The classes above and below mine had much of the same.

I remember a day in sixth grade specifically: the day had been perfectly uneventful until the extended day. I was sat across from a girl I’d learn to know over years of class together and friends in the same group. I don’t remember what brought us to the topic of hair but, sooner or later, it led me to fiddle nervously with mine. It was braided neatly into corn rows-- a style preferred by my mother for its protection and long wear possibilities-- and I never thought much of it. The girl talked about how thin her hair was and I sat silently, hoping not to draw attention to myself. The conversation turned to styling and attention landed on me. The girl sneered at me, in a way I can only now recall as villainy, and spat what I interpreted as a self-esteem crushing jab.

“What, Xiara, did you just get back from Africa?”

The girls around me laughed and I slunk away into a book. In hindsight, it wasn’t a great insult, but I went home crushed to my mom nonetheless. I crawled into her bed that evening to tell her about my day. As I told her about the mean girl, I begged her to take the braids out, prompting an amused but concerned look to spread across her face. “Is it a bad thing? Being from Africa, I mean,” my mother said as I sat, distraught. “Because you know you are? And I am and grandma and auntie too.” As she spoke, I had a sudden realization: I was being ridiculous. I had never been ashamed of who I was and, in the sixth grade, I decided I never would be. The braids, however, were removed later that week. Now, nearly six years later, I see that without my mother’s gentle teasing I wouldn’t have known that who I am ethnically, racially, or even emotionally, is a part of me that I should never be ashamed of. ✉

piece by: xiara banks

visual by: citrine magazine



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