Race to Understanding

I used to be certain that there was nothing worse than being stuck in one place. My entire life, I’ve always had a tendency for constant motion. I’ve generally found success in my pursuit of progress, yet I’ve often found myself circling back to the same questions about where I fit in the world. What motivates me? Where do I see myself? Who am I? For most of my childhood, it appeared that none of my classmates were worrying about their identity, so I didn’t either. I was unaware of how much my mixed race identity would complicate this process, so by the time I had started confronting these questions, it felt like my peers had already answered them. Much of my adolescence has been defined by scrambling to catch up.

Ninety percent of the time, growing up in a first-generation multiracial household in a homogenous Connecticut town actually wasn’t bad. But when I experienced that other ten percent, it absolutely sucked: I didn’t get the necessary support for understanding my racial identity. Almost none of my friends had to deal with the awkward situations of teachers having to ask time and time again how to pronounce my parents’ names, the dilemmas of not looking like either parent, or being stopped by strangers in the street to ask if my own mother was my nanny. I couldn’t even seek refuge with my parents because, despite all that they went through, they were secure in their racial identities. They spoke the languages of their home countries, understood the culture, and, most importantly, “looked” like their race.

Coming to Andover my Junior year, I immediately felt more comfortable in my racial identity. I’m aware that there’s more work the school should do to promote diversity, but high school was one of the first times I met mixed students other than my brother—those who had similar experiences as I did, and people who I felt really understood me. I was so blinded by my desire to feel understood that I didn’t realize one crucial thing: there’s a difference between being appreciated for my ethnic makeup and being fetishized. 

Although Andover gave me the opportunity to be immersed in an environment with other multiracial students for the first time, it also introduced me to the fetishization of mixed people. I have countless memories of my classmates talking about “how attractive” mixed people are, or “how cute” an interracial couple’s child would be. In culture and media throughout the years, mixed race children have been publicly admired for their features, but speaking of these children as though they are the ideal is only doing more harm than good. 

North West, the daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, fits these idealized features almost to a tee. Society praises West for her naturally soft, curly hair and lighter skin, whereas Blue Ivy Carter, the daughter of Beyoncé and Jay Z, has endured terrible comments from the media on her darker skin and less Eurocentric features. People often state that mixed children are adorable, but there’s always an unsaid “except.” Mixed children are adorable except for Blue Ivy. Mixed people are “exotic” and beautiful except when their features are just a bit too ethnic or their skin is just a tad too dark. Mixed people are “desirable” and sexualized except when they stray too far away from Eurocentric beauty standards. 

Despite knowing the destructive consequences, some small, dark part of myself craved being fetishized. My entire life I had felt alienated from my peers, and all of a sudden I was being placed into the “ethnically ambiguous” group. Strangely, I felt empowered by this “other”-ing. This categorization gave my white classmates an easier way to reconcile with my identity, and I misunderstood their comfort with me as acceptance. Experiences that I used to view as necessary for building a community that I could finally feel included in, I now see as examples of prejudice and discrimination. With my misguided mindset of wanting constant motion, I’d convinced myself that anything that made me feel accepted was moving me forward. Yet without true acceptance, I found myself going backward instead.

Looking around at my unique position as a mixed student at Andover, I realized that my obsession with placating my white peers’ discomfort led me to bury my true self behind a more palatable facade. Allowing myself to place my own needs before my classmates’ gave me the space to figure out my identity on my own timeline. It gave me the strength to refuse being sexualized for my mixed identity. Prioritizing myself let me find an authentic community where my identity was celebrated rather than fetishized.

I used to think that being stuck was the worst thing that could happen in life because there was no improvement. Little did I know that the act of being stuck is what helped me grow the most.