A few weeks ago, my Peruvian mother asked me with genuine curiosity, “Syd, do you identify as a Black woman?” Without hesitation, I answered, “Yes, I do.” But I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question quite so easily just a few months ago. It took me 23 years to arrive at this point where I finally feel confident in my racial identity.
When I was an elementary school kid, the way I answered questions about my race did not actually include me. It was always, “My mom is Peruvian, and my dad is Black.” I framed my identity by pivoting to theirs, leaving myself completely out of the equation.
As a pre-teen, my answer evolved to, “I’m mixed.” Sure, this label was vague and incomplete, but it was the first definitive declaration of who I felt I was.
Then high school came around, and suddenly my peers started labeling me without my consent or input. I was constantly on the receiving end of microaggressions like, “You’re so white” and “You don’t seem Black.” Others’ perception of me started to colonize my mind until I felt almost completely powerless in my own racial identity. I didn’t know where I belonged. I wasn’t actually white, but according to other people, I wasn’t Latina or Black either, so I struggled to claim space in any of these communities.
The “What are you?” question—which every biracial person is asked at some point or another—implicitly begs for an answer that is easy to understand. The racially “ambiguous” human is too confusing, can’t be categorized, is an anomaly. The person asking the question just needs a response that seamlessly fits into their world view, okay?
Sometimes, I would antagonistically answer “a human” which would always be met with a chuckle, a rejection, and a correction: “No, like, your parents…” they’d say. “Where are they from?” Well, both of my parents grew up in New Jersey, so that’d be my follow-up response if I were feeling extra spicy that day.
A post shared by Sydney Johnson (@sydney_alana21) on May 21, 2019 at 3:16pm PDT
Eventually, though, to make my life a little easier, I stopped playing this game. Instead of challenging my interrogators, I settled into the next stage of my evolving identity: “Oh, I’m half-Black, half-Latina.” Even though the “What are you?” question remained as irritating as ever, I had reached a place where I felt proud of “what” I was. I was the product of the marriage of two cultures, which I thought I was pretty cool. With this answer, I felt like I was reclaiming ownership of my identity.
I stuck with this half-identity throughout college. It was comprehensible, an acceptable answer to everyone who needed to know my race. But truth be told…dividing my DNA into fractions never felt right. I still didn’t feel like I fit in with either group I was supposedly “half” a part of. And that’s the thing about being only “half”: it meant wherever I wandered, there was always a part of me missing.
Fast forward to the last few months, which have been incredibly emotionally taxing. After the death of Ahmaud Arbery, I was devastated. The fact that a young Black man could be hunted and killed while jogging in broad daylight was beyond gut-wrenching. Then the death of George Floyd threw me into a dark, cold room where every wall was covered in screens that played videos of Black people being murdered and protesters being brutalized on an endless loop, and cries of “I can’t breathe” echoed from the speakers nonstop. Learning the details of Breonna Taylor’s death and hearing the pain in her mother’s voice every time she’s asked to speak about her daughter, was almost unbearable. Finally, the viral video of Elijah McClain begging for his life almost made me vomit. My little brother walks to our neighborhood 7-11 several times a week. I couldn’t help but think, “What if he were killed one day because he went to buy me a Kit-Kat?”
In the weeks following George Floyd’s death, my family has had a lot of conversations about race. Aside from dissecting the news, I questioned my parents’ tendency not to talk about race while raising me and my younger brother. We debated the importance of teaching my brother what to do if he is stopped by the police, and I explained to them why it was so important to me to participate in a local Black Lives Matter march. During these complex and exhausting discussions, I repeatedly referred to my younger brother and myself as Black people, which made my mom wonder how I currently label myself. Even though I had talked about being Black with friends a bit throughout my college years, my mom had never really heard me identify that way.
Milk’s Favorite Cookie is LIVE! • Click the link in my bio to read the personal essay I wrote for @arlingtonmagazine. • In the print issue, my writing is paired with this photograph my mom took of me when I was four. She is incredibly talented behind the camera and this is actually the first time her work has been published as well. There is no one else I would want to share this moment with. Truly is the icing on the cake. • Now, go read my piece! Hope you like it. Cheers!🥛
A post shared by Sydney Johnson (@sydney_alana21) on Jan 21, 2020 at 2:58pm PST
The loss of innocent Black lives and the mobilization of the American people against racial injustice made me realize that I’m actually most comfortable with the following identity: I am 100 percent Black, 100 percent Latina, and 100 percent biracial. Yeah, I know, that all adds up to 300 percent, but guess what? It doesn’t have to make sense to you, or to anyone else—it just has to feel right to me.
Biracial people are blessed with the ability to fluidly transcend narrow ideas about race. It’s not just “half” of me that experiences the weight of recent tragic events; I feel it throughout my body, my mind, my soul. I can’t fully express how I feel by reducing myself to a fraction.
I used to think that if I only acknowledged my Blackness, I would be neglecting my Latinx heritage, but now I know that’s not the case. The Black woman and the Latina in me—they’re both me, all the time, at the same time. And it’s okay that in this moment, the Black woman in me needs a little extra TLC. It just means the Latina is there to assure her that her life matters.
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