Re-inspired by Mariah Carey’s and Lenny Kravitz’s healing and validating autobiographies — and why I love Barack Obama
I’m currently (and excitedly) working on a story to perform for The Moth. The story below was my initial direction, but we decided to try something different. Still, this piece means a lot to me because mixed-race identity is complicated when it comes down to it. In some spaces, I’m too preppy. In others, I’m Harriet Tubman. But the truth is, I’ve always defined myself.
I’ve spent a lot of my time on this earth trying to make people happy. From an early age, I learned that bringing people happiness was a good, celebrated thing. I remember the moment that my pre-school teacher said I was “one of the good kids.” I was just four years old, but I felt myself standing a little bit taller because I knew in my little life, I must have been doing something right. And in tandem with being good, I also wanted to “do good.” I put this in action during a kindergarten play in Queens Village, NY where I grew up. I was totally on-brand as a “sunshine” kid, and my classmate and I were supposed to come on stage and banish the clouds away by singing our sunny day song. Except, my classmate got stage fright and ran off the stage before we could finish. Eyeing my sobbing classmate and seeing my parents in the audience, I thought as quickly as I could to save the day. I sang both of our parts and yelled, “Don’t worry, I’m coming!” as I ran off to console my classmate. The crowd broke into applause and awws, and putting the production, and my classmate before me, made me feel like I saved the day.
Growing up in Queens, I was pretty much shielded from the racism that I’d learn about later in my life, thanks to my parents. Queens is the most diverse county in the world, and I got to grow up with a little bit of every culture. My best friend growing up was Irish; I listened to dancehall (thanks to my neighbors blasting Shabba Ranks and Patra next door) as much as I would Janet Jackson and the stories from my Teddy Ruxpin. It seemed like my first gen friends spent their Saturday mornings learning about the language of their cultures. I didn’t seem to encounter much racism, but even in this unusual Queens safe space, I was not shielded from colorism.
I Need Mary Anne of ‘The Baby-Sitters Club’ Now as Much as I Did When I Was 13
Thanks to Netflix’s reimagined version of ‘The Baby-Sitters Club,’ I got a glimpse of me again
My mother is Black and Honduran, with dark skin and a bright smile — a smile that’s pretty much identical to mine. And my dad is Puerto Rican, what people today might call a white-presenting Latino. And together they had me, a composite of both of their sketches that caused wide-eyed stares, unexplained awe, and on the flip side, unexplained frustration. My parents split when I was very young. So I spent most of my time being shuttled around from elementary school and kids’ birthday parties to high school and eventually being shipped off to college, with my mom shepherding me the entire way. And even though we have that identical smile, that didn’t seem like enough for people to place me as her daughter. She was either my “nanny” growing up or my “friend” as I got older because it seemed odd to people for a dark-skinned woman to be the mother of a light-skinned child. I would smile politely and correct them at a young age, almost trying to will them into seeing that yes, this was my mother, and yes, I could belong to her. When I would visit my dad at Yankee Stadium, where he worked for years, it was clear that I was his daughter. But if any of my Puerto Rican and Italian cousins would join us while meeting new stadium people, they’d greet my cousins as my dad’s kids and then surprisedly recover when he introduced me as his child.
I set down my own gauntlet that no, I wasn’t going to become that “uppity light-skinned girl” that some family elders warned my mother I would likely become. That I wasn’t part of the problem. Because I wouldn’t let myself exist too loudly.
As I got older and my peers were assembling their own ways of dealing with differences, I was introduced super early to awkward comments. “So your father isn’t white, huh? He definitely looks white,” I’d hear.
So I started to just deny deny deny. I’d deny everything about my identity. If someone asked me if my hair was real, I’d tell them, absolutely not! This hair? Oh, I got it from the beauty supply shop, it’s #189. What are you? I’m a person. Where am I from? Queens. At 13, I thought this was brilliant. It was my way of being an ironic quippy kid, but really, the underlying goal was not to offend anyone with my identity. I set down my own gauntlet that no, I wasn’t going to become that “uppity light-skinned girl” that some family elders warned my mother I would likely become. That I wasn’t part of the problem. Because I wouldn’t let myself exist too loudly.
I had grown up with this being my normal that I didn’t even think to be angry about it. I’m an introvert by nature, and I never liked being the topic of conversation, especially when my existence was the topic.
Fast forward to college. I had been accepted to NYU, a school I didn’t feel like I was even good enough for, even though I had a stellar GPA coming out of high school. This practically Ivy League institution was a reach school in my mind, and I only applied with the encouragement of my guidance counselor — my plan was to go to a SUNY school that I’d likely get a scholarship to, and be as little a burden on my parents as possible. I was pre-med, partly because I was genuinely interested in medicine to heal people, and partly because I knew it would make my parents happy. And as a lifelong do-gooder, making them happy was priority #1.
But the West Village was definitely no Queens Village. I finally got why people kept asking if my mom was my nanny when I was young. Most of the Black women I’d see in Washington Square Park were pushing the strollers of white children or children many shades lighter than them. This was a dynamic that was so new to me, but not to many of my classmates. I noticed that only a few kids looked like me in any of my classes. Although I was usually one of the few actually from New York City in class, I was made to feel othered. But what’s different about college kids is that they broke it down scientifically, with actual percentage rates. And if they could break down stats, that means they had to be unequivocally right.
I tried to do the dance and keep up with my impossible balancing act while being overwhelmed with an intense pre-med track and double majoring in journalism. I got quieter and quieter in every aspect of my life. Aside from making friends with one classmate who is still my very best friend, Jing Jing Mei, who quickly set the bar of how she would be treated by telling our classmates, yes, she is from Brooklyn, and no, she did not have a recommendation for a dry cleaner. I stayed to myself in the library, with massive headphones on — listening to the ’80s soul music, hip-hop, and soca that made me feel like I was back home.
But this building pressure to not offend anyone by existing, wanting to declare a new major, and just hearing myself think and figure out who I truly wanted to be in this world became unbearable. In a literature class focusing on Caribbean identities, the dam broke. I’d mentioned that with my own Bahamian roots, I had related to the mindset of one of the protagonists of a book we were examining. A classmate told me that he found that to be surprising since the Black experience couldn’t actually be mine. “Come on, you’re light as Aaliyah. No one’s seeing you as this character.” I was stunned, but my first reaction wasn’t anger or a quippy comeback. It was fear. By identifying with this character, was I claiming an experience that wasn’t mine? Do I have the right to claim any of the boxes I’d been trying so hard to cram myself in, not to upset anyone, my entire life?
I felt so much shame. I wanted to immerse myself with stories about mixed-race identities. I wanted to bury myself in the pages of stories of people who may have been feeling the same shame and uncertainty. And I wanted to see how they made it right.
Right before Father’s Day in my junior year, I discovered Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father, on a random Barnes & Noble discount display. I didn’t think much of the author, considering I had picked up the book in the early 2000s when he was a Chicago senator, and there was no talk about a presidential run for the virtual unknown. My quest to “find the right way to describe myself” quickly transitioned into seeing my exact shame and insecurity projected back to me within his words. He talked about being the only child of a white mother and an African father, and how growing up in Kansas, he tried to learn about the blackness he couldn’t get from his mother and grandparents by watching Soul Train. He talked about being the “only one” in classrooms all over the country, and even in Thailand. He spoke about his present-day views when younger family members are targeted for being Black by police. He didn’t let some percentage rule change the way he identified as a Black man.
This book caused a gradual shift and lifted my insecurity boulder for the second half of my time at NYU. But I never challenged that classmate, and still, I rarely spoke up in class. I found myself spending less time in the chem lab and more time writing papers ferociously, and infusing them with as much culture as I could. My culture. The culture of the mixed kid from New York City, who deserved to walk NYU’s campus, and to tell her authentic New York story with no shame. I wrote about my Puerto Rican grandmother and how she used a meal to keep her family both nourished and united. The history within her cast iron pots passed down from generation to generation. I wrote about the authenticity of Notorious B.I.G., who, yes, entered the drug game just to feed his daughter, in a Bed Stuy that’s nothing like the gentrified oasis that has removed Brooklyn residents like him. They exist, and I exist, and New York City belongs to us. I wrote and wrote with the fire that I guess I was supposed to have as a Leo but never permitted myself to embody.
I told my parents that no, I did not want to be a doctor. I did not want to cram myself into this life I knew everyone wanted for me. I wanted to spend my life writing stories I was afraid to speak before so that young people could discover my words and know that no, they are not crazy for being so confused in a world that puts so much value in locking us in boxes no one, whatever race, should be forced to fit in.
Since then, a thing happened. Obama became president. I learned that we have the same birthday, and I would follow his steps as a kind and impactful leader and have them subtly guide mine as I became a working journalist. Just recently, we could also add Meghan Markle to the August 4 club, a biracial woman who’s self-made with a strong sense of identity and an even stronger mission for a better world. As she deals with scrutiny in a world not used to being confronted with her existence, I remind myself that speaking up with my pen lifts her up, and those like her.
I spent many years in knots about who I should be, until I started to untangle them and realized that only I write my own script.