Grand Theft Racial Identity: Who Gets to Define You?

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson

So, I’ve been watching the flow of this conversation with great interest.

Racial identity is a tricky thing. For some of us, it’s something we were born into, with relatives coaching us into an understanding of our race and how it may work against us in society. Others have to find their own way, as their relatives either can’t or won’t be able to equip them with this knowledge. Coming to an understanding with your racial identity is a difficult process.

And I say this as someone who was indoctrinated into blackness from day one. My mother provided me with piles and piles of books and information to demonstrate how wonderful it was to be black, how big of a burden we carry, and how to recognize your blessings. I was often taken to cultural events based around my blackness, and my mother attacked ideas, historical “fact,” and white beauty standards so that I did not feel inadequate. As a result, I never really felt any problems with identifying as black.

The only friction I felt was when I decided to do something that wasn’t “traditionally black.” But to me, it was a simple matter of having a very narrow definition of blackness that some people choose to adhere to, like they were be paid to police the actions of others. I never had a problem with my blackness – I just decided that I would need to expand the parameters a bit.

For other people, this decision is not quite so simple. I remember a girl who I was in school with from middle school to high school. She was a very nice person, funny and kind. But she acted like being Asian was a curse. She made sure that outside of her name, everything else about her was normal (read: white) and would not talk about anything that had to do with her culture or her parents. I am sure that was a kind of survival tactic. A few months back, I looked her up online and saw that her page was covered in Korean pop stars, she had Korean hip-hop booming, and her tagline was “100% Korean!”

I had mentioned this to Hae and she confirmed this was a common experience.

“In high school, you just want to fit in,” she said. “A lot of people embrace their identity after it is over.”

Makes sense to me. It is hard to be perceived as different when surrounded by a hostile peer group.

My best friend also has a very complicated racial identity, but it is one that others ascribe to her. My best friend is mixed race, of African-American and Guyanese heritage. When she was younger, she was not aware of the Guyanese side of her heritage (she had been led to believe she was East Indian) and was most comfortable with African-Americans, even though she was often targeted for having light skin, light eyes, and long hair. As an adult, she is fully aware of all the circumstances surrounding her background but still chooses to identify as African-American, for a few different reasons.

A few months ago, I had gone to Philadelphia and ended up talking to a woman about race and racial identity. This woman was making the argument that the term “people of color” was misleading because the only people who suffer for their color are black people. We were going back and forth about this when I mentioned my friend’s background, as she is often perceived as something else but chooses to identify as black.

The woman asked “Well, does she identify as black because she has no other choice? Because the other group doesn’t accept her?”

I thought this line of questioning was ridiculous and told her so. When I got back home and talked to my friend about the trip at length, I mentioned the exchange in passing. A few weeks later, she reminded me of the conversation and said she wanted to write something about it because it was a very common reaction when people find out about her full background. I was kind of shocked. I had never thought that people would routinely come and challenge my friend on the racial background she identifies with – but apparently this happens often. She expressed interest in writing a piece for Racialicious about this topic, so I will end her story here. However, I have to admit that I am still kind of shocked – if someone tells you they are of a certain background, be it monoracial or mixed-racial, how does someone feel comfortable challenging that?

While I couldn’t understand the woman in Philadelphia’s reasoning, I later found myself in a position to wonder openly about someone else’s racial identification. Hae had invited me on a ski trip with some of her other friends. As we were preparing to go, she took me aside quickly. Apparently one of the other girls on trip self-identified as a white girl trapped in a black body. Often. Often enough where Hae decided to preemptively let me know as she is aware of my feelings on race and identity.

I have never understood the thinking that you were born a certain race, but really should be another.

I feel like that kind of thinking stems from having bought into certain racial stereotypes about your own group.

I knew a girl in high school who said she wasn’t black because she preferred rock to hip-hop, liked to read, and spoke proper English. I found this strange because she was talking to someone who liked rock and hip-hop, liked to read, and spoke proper English – and still identified as black. So that argument did not hold true to me. Being black is more than your hobbies or your habits – it is your heritage. Why would someone want to deny that?

The ski trip went smoothly. The girl was nice, things were generally fine and she never mentioned feeling like an oreo. I wonder if Hae briefed her before the trip as well. Hmm…

At any rate, I have been wondering about this for quite some time now. How did you, dear readers, come to understand your racial identity?

And, for those of you who might know – why would someone voluntarily identify as an oreo/twinkie/coconut? I don’t understand the logic there, so if someone could shed some light on this, I appreciate the effort.

(Many thanks to my friend Chris for allowing me to post his comic here!)