Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Many-Faced Race: A Phenotype Cuento in Pictures

My friend Nadiyah posted a cool preview of a film that examines being a bi-racial person. She has a child who will grow up with the concept, so as the good mom that she is, she is trying to be sensitive to what that will be like. Coping with the attitudes, blessings and complexities that go along with being bi-racial is not easy, so imagine growing up with a race that morphs with the years. This sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, something that surely Octavia Butler has written about somewhere, but actually, many of us have so many racial influences in our blood that we simply don't know what we will look like from year-to-year. I'll attempt to tell my story, or cuento (story in Spanish), with many pictures to guide you.

This is an image of my mother when she was somewhere around 20 years old. Most people would guess that she is Latina (whatever that means racially) or White.

This is an image of my father when he graduated from seminary. He was around 23, give or take. Depending on who you ask, some people might say he looks Asian. Indeed, he has often been confused for being Filipino, but if you take the cap off, you might guess that he's Black. Others might put him into the Latino default, which as I've implied before, says nothing about a person's race (Latino/a implies culture). Ultimately, when he and Mami got married, my grandfather didn't go to the wedding because Papi "era muy negro," which meant he was too Black.

This is a picture of me. I clearly didn't want to take the picture, but I remember digging this bikini. We can see my textured hair here. Not exactly a fro, but I had enough pouf to make Mami start wrapping my hair every night so that it would be nice and straight (she has since changed her mind about such things - I love you, Mami!)

In this picture you see the headband that Mami used to smooth my hair, but you can also see that my skin is darker. This pic was taken during Christmas, so my color was not a tan. The previous pic was during the summer and my skin was lighter. This is not camera trickery! Hence, the morphing racial features have begun!

Mami left Cuba before she graduated to marry Papi, but she was determined to get the diploma. We all went to her graduation around 1982 or '83, when I was in sixth grade. It was at this age I got my first perm, or relaxer. I remember many boys thinking I was pretty that year. Notice how different we all look. Luis, my oldest brother, on the far right, is White. He looks like an Italian hit man. :) Carlos, the middle brother, on the far left, looks very Colombian, sporting indigenous features.

By eighth grade, I had cut my hair because short on the sides, long in the front (with perhaps some Sun-In) was the rage, although I didn't exactly look like the kids on American Bandstand. I looked more like the young adults on Soul Train. But I cannot say that just cutting my hair short brought the kink out; my hair was different than it was when I was younger. It got kinkier around this time. When I was born, my hair had softer curls. Now they were in full force. I'm glad I was going to a predominantly Black school at this time because my peers there really helped me understand myself racially.

Mami, who actually has a Black grandmother, was not taught about her Black side of the family. An aunt she had who openly admitted to being Black was shunned from the family. So, Mami didn't know how to do my hair. It was easy for me to adopt the punk style because I could just hairspray the heck out of my kinky hair. Papi hated it. Still, we smiled for the cameras.

By the time I graduated high school, I was getting perms more often and I grew my hair out. Even though I was into getting tan, my skin looks lighter here. You can see my abuela here (Papi's mother) and my Tia Nohemi (far right). Abuela has gotten paler with age but Tia is still dark. Mami (far left) continues to be the lightest member of the family, with white skin and hazel eyes. My facial features during this time in my life have everyone asking, "What are you?" When I was this age, I was confused for everything, even Japanese, which I think is insane.

This is a picture from a trip to Colombia when I was 19. My cousin, Dorcas, is next to me. She has curly hair like me, but she doesn't perm it. Her brother, Moneno (that's his nickname), is to the far left and you can't see it because of his cap, but his hair is wavy, not kinky like Dorcas'. My uncle, Dorcas' father, is at the far right and though he is dark, he is not Black. He probably has ancestry that is indigenous and/or from the Indian population that can be found in South America. There are many people of Indian ancestry that are in Guyana, which is east of Colombia.

College was an enlightening time and at this point I'm wearing my hair natural and calling myself a Black Latina. This is me working at Extra Bilingual Community Newspapers, which was Chicago's only bilingual newspaper at the time.

However, it was this look that got me the most dates, unfortunately. I would sometimes take two hours to blow dry my hair straight and everyone liked it. My parents liked it, my girlfriends liked it, and lots of boys liked it. I ended up resenting that people liked me more when my hair was straighter. I felt they were responding to what race my hair texture implied. But in the end, if I blow dry it and press it, I don't have to wash it for a few days. If I leave it curly, I have to wash and style it every morning. So, nowadays...

...I may go straight, or...

I may go curly.

So what race am I? I can't call myself bi-racial like the subjects in the video Nadiyah posted. I've often said I'm mixed or multi-racial, but many times I feel I must call myself Black because Latinos/as don't recognize or speak about our African ancestry often enough. However, calling myself Black does not mean that I am recognized as Black by others. What would you call me? Would you call me different things depending on the picture? What about my niece, Elizabeth?

She's the White baby in the middle of the photo. I'm freaking out because she smiled at me or something. She's Carlos' daughter. Carlos, when filling out paperwork for her birth, had to pick between two categories to describe himself: White or Black. He picked Black. His wife, Lori, was surprised at his decision, but the way Carlos saw it, he sure as heck isn't White, so he chose Black. What does that make Elizabeth, who has white skin and dark blonde hair? Is she bi-racial? Or is she everything that both sides of the family are? Or is she simply what she appears to be to any person who might be looking at her?

For me, she is family. We are all family.

**I have a poem, "Pressure Mix," that addresses being mixed in the NAACP nominated CHECK THE RHYME. There is a link to it on the right.


Nadiyah Taylor said...

Thanks for posting this! It was wonderful to see your family and your own, continuing, process of self-identification. It's interesting because while my husband and I are very conscious about talking to our son about bias and stereotyping and other social-political issues, we steered away for a long time from labeling any of our family in racial terms. Sage (our son)was about 4 years old when we connected with a group that supports multi-racial, bi-racial, and transracially adopted children and families. They provide some networking and advocacy opportunities and they also have a part of their organization that works with schools to support these children and families within the school context. In any case, I was attending a workshop and the facilitator talked about the importance of helping our child have a way to identify himself racially, before someone else did it for him. That made a lot of sense. He had just gone through this experience at his preschool where we was teased about his hair and had begun changing how he wanted to wear his hair and telling me that my hair was "funny" (I wore a short afro at the time). Despite all the work that I do professionally on supporting diverse families and my conceptual understanding of identity development in multi-racial/bi-racial children, all that went out the window when I saw my baby suffering at 4 years old because he'd been identified as different. So, helping him name his racial identity seemed important. We talk about that label with him and also talk about how the terms make no sense in lots of ways. I have not-too-distant ancestors who were Cuban and Native American as well as Black and lots of folks in my family look just like my son, even though none of them identify as bi-racial, mixed or even of mixed race ancestry.

I remember when he was born that I felt so assured that I would be able to help him through this path of being a person of color in the US. And while I still think that's true, I also really understand that I don't live the mixed race experience and he will have a different perspective on these issues than I will. I am happy to have learned that early in his life and just hope to support him as much as possible.

You might also check out this film called "My People Are." It was put on by the Multiethnic Education Program (www.ipride.org) and it's all about young people's experience with racial identity with a special emphasis on those who identify as multiracial or mixed race.

Wow, this is long! I must have had some thoughts about this. Take care and thanks for the blog and opportunity for conversation. I am lucky to have lots of chances to talk about these topics and welcome more of them.


cesar said...


Your post pretty much sums up what a lot of us felt growing up. For me, being born dominican but being the palest one in the family seemed odd to some of the friends i had growing up since my younger brother is way darker than me and because my mother is even lighter than me.

But in the end, it makes us who we are.

Awesome post by the way

Grisel said...

Thank you, Nadiyah and Cesar!

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Dess said...

Hi Grisel,
I stumbled across this blog while frantically searching for cute short curly hair styles for TRULY (as opposed to roller-curled) curly hair. I was tickled at just how similar our experiences are, especially the headband business, the bikini photos, and the "half-fro" in junior high! I, too, began to grow my hair out and wear it naturally long and curly right after high school and well into college. I'm embarrassed to say it's been the same ever since (and it appears that we're about the same age). So I know it's definitely time for a change. It was great to see that you've been able to wear a cute curly bob that you like to straighen on occasion. The style I initially wanted would be worn straight most of the time, but I'm just not willing to deal with the serious maintenance that comes with it. So I was glad to see a good option. You wear it well! :)


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