A Fraud in My Own Skin
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
By Alameda Sky Chapman
“Hija, you are Puerto Rican...be proud”
“Why don't you speak in Spanish?”
“Why you want to be black so bad? When I was your age I wanted to be white, and you’re white, but you want to be black.”
“Eventually everyone will be mixed, so then discrimination will end because everyone will be everything.”
“You can't be Spanish, your dad is white…”
“What are you? You look Muslim.”
“If you had lighter eyes, you’d be white”
The way I move through the world has constantly been policed by my family, my peers, and even my friends. Those closest to me have said things that absolutely break my heart. Things that completely tear my identity to shreds leaving me to put together the pieces of who I am.
My parents lived in Williamsburg on the fourth floor of a four-story red brick building. It got hot in the summer and could never cool off. In the winter, our landlord would never turn on the heat until the law required. There was no sink in the bathroom. My parents had two cats they found in a garbage bag on the street. Stanley and Smilky. Smilky snuck in my bed at night. He slept at the foot of my cradle. My mother worried he would smother me, so she routinely removed him. Most of the apartment needed to be fixed, so my father began a series of projects throughout the house. Some finished, but most undone. My father drank sometimes, but only at parties, not enough to scare anyone. My mother had to choose between two jobs. One where she could take me to work and the other she could not, so she began her life as a personal assistant. She put me in an open desk drawer, as I competed for her attention.
At first I was enrolled in my neighborhood preschool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This was years before gentrification. Before the coffee shops and thrift stores and when what is now the long stretch of park by the water was just empty lots of dirt. The only white person in the neighborhood was my father and he would stay out late on the corner. A new gang of young men have taken his place, but a lot of things are different now.
On the first day of Brooklyn preschool, I got hit in the head with a wooden block. I came home with a small red stream across my forehead.
My mother never brought me back.
So we crossed the bridge to Manhattan.
I was then enrolled in a private preschool on a scholarship. Because such a thing exists. Most of my friends where white. They came from big houses with high ceilings. They had entire rooms for their toys. Their parents were lawyers who worked for Disney. They wore business suits. They went on vacations to the Caribbean. I have never been to Puerto Rico.
They had a nanny and a parent pick them up from school. When my mother picked me up, they assumed she was the help. My father, who was a white man, could fit in with these white parents in ways my mother never could and still cannot. Both my parents were educated. They had dreams to leave the hot apartment on the fourth floor. My mom would be a teacher. My dad would be a professor. Neither came true.
I was then enrolled in an up-and-coming charter school, Ross Global Academy, that would eventually fail. My days were spent in white polos and khaki skirts. In first grade, our teacher wanted to create a map of “where we came from” considering RGA had a goal to make students the best “global citizens” of the future. In promotional videos for the school, students were quoted stating how everyone is different, but we’re the same on the inside. However, when it came to our little class map, I did not know where I came from, and Brooklyn was not a sufficient answer. I did not have an origin story for my parents like some of my classmates did, claiming they were Chinese or French or Dominican. I had no answer to where my father or mother came from. They had both just existed. I was just existing. Race was never addressed in my household. I was never told I was multiracial. My father's American whiteness and my mother’s darkness were never abnormalities. It was my reality. I was almost colorless in Manhattan. I went to a school that was colorblind.
Surrounded by white people at RGA, I understood what it meant to be free of race. Being white is to be unaware of one’s skin color. It is to live in a house you have not built, but will never have to pay the debt off for. It is to float through life without having to carry the burden of what your skin means to other people. Skin color was never something I had to think about. I did not have to think about how people reacted differently to my mother or father, much less how people would react to me.
Ross Global Academy was failing and so was I. Teachers warned my mother to transfer me now before it all fell apart. “Alameda is smart, but she needs direction. She needs structure.”
So we crossed the bridge back over to Brooklyn.
Fifth grade. The start of middle school. Another charter school, but this one was different. Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School was not about how you felt or how you could learn through colorful patterns, but it was about sitting up straight and standardized test scores. The rest of my class and I had won the lottery to get the chance to go somewhere better and this was the school that would set us up to do that. My upcoming days were spent in a blue, long-sleeved button-up shirt that suffocated me on the walk to school. My mom would not let me wear flats like all the other girls, so I would trudge to class in thick black men’s shoes, tripping over my own feet. The shoes made me tower over everyone else even more. I continued to take up too much space. Right away I was an outsider. All the other students had known each other from the neighborhood. From growing up in Brooklyn. From going to school together. My dad would pick me up. He did not belong. Screaming children would fly past him. “I see how those kids act. So disrespectful.”
Girls would call me “Alabama” at school. I told my parents and my dad was furious. He was so angry, but he got angry about so many things. My mother told me he was teased as a kid, so he would take it personally. Do things that he wished had been done for him. I thought they were just making fun of Alameda, but suddenly it felt much deeper than I could comprehend. I did not understand why. I grew invisible at this new school. My whiteness would not be a problem if my classmates had forgotten my ancestry.
I continued going to this charter school. We were to be reminded by our white teachers how black and brown we were. How “other” we should feel. I brought home a book with a white hooded man on the cover. My mom hated the book. Didn't want my brother near it. He was younger than me and the baby of our family. He was born with his ears clogged. He could not hear till he was around three. My father was disappearing more and more. And could not stand it when my brother would rock back and forth. Every time he came home we tiptoed around him.
We learned about the smallpox blankets. About how slave ships were the first tombs you would lay down in and how the worst place to be was the bottom of the ship: furthest from the sun laying in a collection of waste. About how the first thing you lost was your name and then your children. About how the punishment for writing was your hand. We learned what is was to be of color, and the burden of blackness. We did not learn about the sugarcane, how it reeked of death. We did not learn about how body after body was used on plantations. We did not learn about slavery in any other place but in North America. We learned that our ethnicities did not matter because the world had the desire to box us in and it would be better if we checked black than white. Because we knew how black we were, how much America had hated us. How America did not want us to succeed. By knowing how much they hated us, we could rise above. By knowing our history unfiltered we could prove them all wrong.
I went on to go to the high school which was a continuation of my charter school. Suddenly everyone had forgotten what I was or what I was supposed to be.
“What are you?” became all anyone asked me.
Before my name.
Always before my name.
I had to be placed and coded and boxed and deemed safe. This conversation was endless and always the same. The same structure. The same questions. These types of conversations were sometimes the only ones I would have at school.
“Are you Muslim?”
“What type of Indian?”
“Where are you from?”
“No where are you from?”
“My dad is White and my mom is Puerto Rican”
“So how white are you?”
“What's growing up with a white dad like?”
“I don't know. I don't live with him”
At this point, my father had been exiled from my life. When he, in a drunken rage, tossed full cans of paint onto the street from the apartment downstairs, my mother decided he was not worth moving for. I did not grow up with all the pretty white promises my peers had been dreaming of. To them, whiteness was the equivalent of wealth. It was being picked first and being told that you are always beautiful and you are always right. To them, my father’s race was something I could reap the benefits of. My reality of whiteness was that it caused a lack of belonging that has followed me throughout my life. My white cousin once told me that we could never be related because of how dark my skin was. I hated being half of something that I knew so many of my peers hated. Since I went to a school composed of black and brown minorities, that hatred was directed towards whiteness in any form, whether that be a history teacher or parts of my ancestry.
My classmates could be full of mindless cruelty. They would look me in the eyes and spit out knives, “I don't care. If I had the chance I would kill a white baby. I don't care. They are the fucking devil.”
I did not feel white. I did not feel Latina either. I can't speak Spanish. Trying to learn in high school just made me feel small. I can't dance. At family parties, my mother mocks me for how my hips never seem to move on beat. I am ashamed. There is no place where I can feel safe or comforted on either side. I am ashamed of my whiteness even though you would never know unless you asked me about it. I am ashamed that I am a “fake Latina.” A fraud in my own skin.
Many members of the African Diaspora struggle to find an identity that truly acknowledges both their ethnicity and race. It is difficult to exist when a community praises and despises both whiteness and blackness. Whiteness can be used as a claim of separation from blackness, but the importance and obsession over genetics and lineage in a modern-day mindset can become consuming. The desire to have both white lineage as well as a certain separation from whiteness is very prominent in Afro-Latinx communities. The desire to have white lineage, but not have any real whiteness comes from a history of anti-blackness and a precedent distrust of white people given a history of violent colonialism and continuation of American racism. Those who come from a mixed background, meaning they have one parent from the African Diaspora and they have one parent who is white-identifying creates a displacement for that child. Although the term “mixed” can be used in many ways, for the sake of this essay and my relationship with the term, I am using mixed to describe the children of American white and Latinx parents. The term mixed can be used to describe the children of relationships between non-white people, people of different races within the same ethnicity, and the variations continue. Throughout this paper, when using the term mixed, I am solely speaking of my experiences as a child of racially and ethnically different parents. Children who have parents who identify as different ethnicities and racial categories have a entirely different struggle when it comes to identity. These children often end up feeling a lack of belonging in both communities. The complication of a more visual and prominent mixed identity creates feelings of a lack of belonging that varies due to colorism.
The issues mixed individuals deal with stems from how they are visually perceived by the world. There is a false perception that mixed individuals can potentially end racism or lead to a post-racial society. There are countless articles discussing the future of the human race after widespread racial mixing, which tend to argue there will be a preponderance of tan, “golden” people with green eyes and loose curls. When looking at the experience of being mixed, the idea sold to most is a fetishized racially ambiguous person whose worth mainly derives from the single dimension of their appearance. This desire for biracial people to act as this point of neutrality between black people and white people is both unfair and unrealistic.
Looking specifically at Afro-Latinos and those from the African Diaspora, the desire to appear “socially acceptable” or white can manifest in a variety of ways. Especially when there is a desire to alter one's features to become more socially acceptable through things like the straightening of hair. “For Dominicans, hair is the principle bodily signifier or race, followed by facial features, skin color, and ancestry” (Candelario,223). Candelario details how hair can easily transform one's race from being read as black to being read as Latino or even white.Having “good hair” or rather, straight hair, was something I was subconsciously told to value growing up. We straighten my hair for special occasions--for birthdays, graduations, for family parties. My mother is a black Puerto Rican woman and my father is a white American man. Growing up, my mother was encouraged to seek out a husband that could provide her children with “good hair” and a lighter skin tone. So, when I was born with straight hair, my family was full of pride. I grew up hearing how beautiful my hair was, how I had Asian or white girl hair. However, once I hit puberty, my hair changed. It went from pin straight to frizzy, unruly curls. Suddenly my family began asking what was wrong with my hair and if I was sick. I had no idea how to take care of my hair. My hair suddenly needed attention my mother and I did not know how to give. The white girl hair that I had not even realized I was “blessed” to have was taken from me and I was no longer what everyone wanted me to be. Growing up, my family and my peers did not know how to respond to me. I was always deemed an ethnic “other.” I lived in between blackness and whiteness by the way I looked and the way I was read by my peers. The way my hair looked was a determining factor in deciding if I was the right kind of mixed. If only my hair was still straight, if only my eyes were lighter, if only. So much of what I have been told is beautiful has revolved around how I would look if more of my features derived from my white father. An important part of mixed identity revolves around the desire to appear more “white” or appear as if only the socially desirable parts of whiteness have touched you. If you are mixed and do not have these white features, then you are not the socially desired mixed person because you didn't come out white enough.
My parents never prepared me for racial bias and, in doing so, little racial pride was instilled within me. Being proud to be white (singularly) is basically white supremacy, and my mom never wanted me to have a culture separate from my father’s. I did not grow up learning to speak Spanish--my mother's excuse was that her grandmother taught her, so I was simply out of luck. I did not grow up surrounded by family to teach me the culture, like my mother had. Instead of living in the same neighborhood, her family has dispersed throughout the city. My mother went the furthest, all the way to Brooklyn, while the rest of my family stayed in the Bronx. Children of color who are made aware of their race and how it is perceived in the world can either walk away with pride in their race and a sense of awareness about race, or they can grow up with “a sense of distrust in interracial interactions” (Hudges,757). This case study goes in depth on how family practices can instill bias or pride within children of color. The themes that emerged from the data around mixed identities that include American whiteness directly relate to my experiences growing up and the types of responses I received to my identity as a child. The role parents take within explaining race can lead to distrust based on a desire to protect children, but instead this explanation results as a general distrust of whites. When looking at this ideology and then comparing it to the one-drop rule, it can potentially explain why whiteness and blackness can be both adored and hated in mixed-race people. The one-drop rule was used to prevent children of slaves who had white lineage, due to sexual assault, from being free in the eyes of the law. The inverse of the one-drop rule today can also be used to remove one from blackness. Having one American white parent is enough to make someone no longer a real “black person” or no longer a “real Latina.” Mixed children struggle to find a group they inherently belong to because they do not receive white privilege nor do they have the same experience as other people of color. Looking specifically into white ancestry and the praise of white features---whether that manifests itself in hair, skin color, or eye color---those of mixed race “do not follow the long standing norm of hypodescent (identifying with the lower status race), blindly accept the one-drop rule (that would mandate a black identity), nor do they uniformly identify as Black” (Rockquemore, 23). Some mixed people have the ability to identify where they would like to fall on the spectrum of race. The power of choice when it comes to racial identity is something very exclusionary to those who are not racially ambiguous, though. The ability to identify with a certain ethnicity or race you feel closer to is a specific experience. Racial ambiguity, which is something I possess, does not necessarily affect mixed people’s power to choose their identity, t because regardless of how one is visually read, the way they choose to identify is theirs solely, regardless of societal perceptions and expectations.
Being able to claim or hold onto whiteness, even if you are not phenotypically read as white, sprouts out of a long history of colorism and anti-blackness due to unforgivably violent colonialism. Having white ancestry is a stamp of approval for what White America has deemed as beautiful for Latinx communities. It is the ability to say “I am like you” (the white colonizers of the original peoples), “I am not like them” (the enslaved). It is as desire to separate yourself from a past that is cruel and full of bloodshed. Similarly, the desire to not claim one’s blackness stems from a greater repressed desire to not acknowledge a vicious history. My grandmother has often tried to argue that we have Native ancestry to further my family from the blackness that is so present in the array of our skin tones. However, having white ancestry can be seen as a negative to those who have spent more time in the U.S., where having official roots or some type of purity is valued. Having whiteness means “you are not one of us.” “You do not fully understand the experiences of a person of color.” This does hold some truth, though, because colorism and light-skinned privilege does exist and is prominent in Latinx communities.
Often the relationship between how Afro-Latinxs identify versus how they are perceived by the world is completely different. One’s “street race” is how Americans perceive your race. The “street race” of many Latinx individuals tends to contrast with their self-identified race (López,50). López’s study of these intersections reveals the dimensions identities can have. Within every choice about one’s identity there is an awareness of outsiders’ perspectives. The way you want to be read as is not always recognized. The perception of what a certain race is “supposed” to look like can be damaging to mixed or biracial individuals. This is very common due to pervasive media portrayals of what blackness and Latinidad look like by ascribing what it means to be black solely to African Americans--while blackness can and should include Afro-Latinxs. As a society, we do not get media representations where Latinidad and blackness can coexist. Instead, the media displays these identities as polarized from one another. Connecting back to the concept of street race versus how one self-identifies, often Afro-Latinos end up being misidentified due to what blackness is believed to be. In an American view, blackness tends to be associated with African American-ness, so darker Latinx can get misidentified. This misidentification leads to isolation since members of one's racial and ethnic community can reject one as not being “really black” or “really Latino.” Similarly, the ambiguity mixed race individuals may possess, depending on their physical appearance, can allow them to continuously cross racial and ethnic lines depending on who is interpreting their race. A false interpretation can be seen as an invalidation and a rejection of one’s identity. This constant rejection and fear of being misread is harmful. And the assumption, denial, and isolation from one’s identities are common microaggressions faced by those who are mixed race (Nadel,192-193).
Writing this personal essay came from a desire to finally get to explain myself on my terms. I feel like so much of my story has been explaining myself and my identity to other people through their terms. I am tired of feeling like people I should be comfortable around are trying to box and code me to determine whether I am “safe.” I do not expect my story to cause a change. I write for myself and, whatever you may take from this collection of thoughts, I only hope can further help you walk through the world with a more accepting and open heart. Biracial and mixed identities are multifaceted. There are countless experiences that, depending on a variety of factors, change the experience entirely. Someone could have the exact same parents as me, a white American father and a black Puerto Rican mother, and have an entirely different experience. Although their experience may be different from mine, their experience is still valid. Studies of the role of race within the world will always exist and be talked about, but there is room at the table to include a larger array of identities. When we learn about mixed race identities we can further learn about how the world analyzes race and how we can make a more equitable world. I do not think my story holds all the answers, but I do think, like most stories, it deserves to be told.
Alameda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “From Bi-Racial to Tri-Racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 27, no. 6, 2004, pp. 931–950.
Candelario, Ginetta E. B. “‘Black Women Are Confusing, but the Hair Lets You Know.’” Black behind the Ears, 2007, pp. 223–255.
Hughes, Diane, et al. “Parents Ethnic-Racial Socialization Practices: A Review of Research and Directions for Future Study.” Developmental Psychology, vol. 42, no. 5, 2006, pp. 747–770.
López, Nancy, et al. “What’s Your ‘Street Race’? Leveraging Multidimensional Measures of Race and Intersectionality for Examining Physical and Mental Health Status among Latinxs.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 49–66.
Nadal, Kevin L., et al. “Microaggressions Within Families: Experiences of Multiracial People.” Family Relations, vol. 62, no. 1, 2013, pp. 190–201.
Rockquemore, Kerry Ann, et al. “Racing to Theory or Retheorizing Race? Understanding the Struggle to Build a Multiracial Identity Theory.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 65, no. 1, 2009, pp. 13–34.