Life in the Gray Area: An Exploration

Last year in their 12th anniversary edition, National Geographic predicted that by 2050 the average American would be mixed. They published this series of photos, speculating on what we can expect to see in the next five decades.

America is often portrayed as a melting pot, a place where people of all colors and backgrounds can come together and pursue the American Dream. In fact, I remember a schoolhouse rock episode that I used to watch in elementary school featuring a song called The Great American Melting Pot. From personal experience and from looking at our history as a country, I know that this idea is mostly inaccurate. Still, despite inequities and prejudices that still exist, there's no arguing that the lines that once restricted racial mixing are starting to blur.

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I'm very familiar with the mixed experience in America, probably due to the fact that I grew up living it. The only thing I ever knew was to have a white mom, a black dad, and two very different extended families. The majority of my childhood friends we're mixed as well. It wasn't until high school that I truly to started to understand what it meant to be half black and half white in America. The history of the one drop rule has made it so that regardless of your ethnic background, if you look at all like you could have African heritage, in America you're considered black. Coming to understand the fact that I identify as mixed race because I never want to have to choose one side took a while. Through my experience, I also have come to understand that a lot of people will always consider me as only black. This was my experience in America. What I started to wonder was if other mixed individuals had come to the same understanding that I had and if it had taken the same course in their experience. I wanted to explore what it meant to be half black and half white in places around the globe, and I wanted to explore the mixed cultures that seemed to be growing.

In 1761, Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in the West Indies, the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a white British naval officer. She was taken to England and raised in her uncles house as a proper English lady. She lived as a free woman and was awarded a dowry and a title in the family. She is often considered England's first black aristocrat. In 2013, the film Belle came out, and it told Dido's story of being mixed race in 18th century England. In the film, Dido is raised with her cousin whose mother died at a young age and has also been adopted by their aristocratic uncle. Dido is largely unaware of her status in the family during childhood, even though in the eyes of the outside world she is seen as simply a companion for her white cousin. As she grows up, she begins to understand what sets her apart. Her final realization comes when she confronts her uncle as to why she's not allowed to dine with the family when guests are over. She questions how her status is too low to dine with her family, yet too high to dine with the servants. She battles with these issues of not fitting into any social structure that she sees. Eventually, she falls in love with a liberal white man who is trying to make a name for himself as a lawyer despite his lowly title as a clergyman's son. She continues to break social stigmas by marrying a white man and continuing her mixed lineage.

This film highlights the mixed experience during slave trade times in England. Even though it takes place over two centuries ago, the experiences that Dido had still feel very familiar. Shes confused as to where she stands in society and is often only seen as black. She finds solace among her black maids because they're the only people in her world that look like her. Still, neither the black community of servants in the house nor her white family fully accepts her as one of their own. The black servants aren't willing to see past the fact that she is basically passing as white, while her white family makes it very obvious that she never actually will be white. She seems to not fit in anywhere and is expected to choose a side; black or white. By the end of the movie, she's come to accept her mixed heritage and refuses to be ashamed of either side.

This particular example of a mixed experience in England seems more similar to contemporary examples then to what could've been expected as normal during the 18th century. Many of the things that Dido discussed struggling with because of her mixed heritage are similar to another mixed woman's story, despite a huge difference of circumstance. Lacey Schwartz was born in Woodstock, New York in the 80s. Raised by two white, Jewish, parents, she believed that she was also white and Jewish for the entirety of her childhood. Her parents told everyone that her dark skin and curly hair was due to a Sicilian grandfather on her dads side who looked remarkably black. It wasn't until she was accepted into college as a black student based off the photo that she sent in that she finally understood that there we're secrets being kept from her. She documented her experience of coming to terms with her black heritage as well as the fact that her parents had tried to pass her as white for her whole life in a film called Little White Lie. Her mom had had an affair with a black man early on in her marriage, and Lacey was the result. Instead of coming forward, her mom let her entire family believe the lie about the Sicilian grandfather. Even Lacey's own father was unaware of her paternity until her 16th birthday. Despite not even knowing that she was mixed, Lacey still experienced many of the same struggles that Dido Belle had faced. She didn't feel accepted by her white friends and family members and wondered where her place in society was as a strange looking white girl. She was ashamed of her darker skin and curly hair. The black kids in high school also ostracized her because they thought she was lying about her heritage so that she could pass for white.

Her experiences differed from Dido's in the 18th century because she had the opportunity to join the Black Student Union in college. By being accepted as a black student she unknowingly took on the title of black in society. She was introduced to the idea of blackness and finally felt accepted. Her hair and skin, which she had always considered the thing that made her the most abnormal, came to be something she was proud of. In the black community, she had good hair and was praised for her light skin. Still, similarly to Dido, she found it difficult to claim both her black and white sides. When she came forward to her parents that she knew about her black father and identified as a black woman, they felt betrayed and that Lacey was disappointed in them. Her father especially thought that by identifying as black she was actively not identifying as white. In my own experience, I've had similar encounters over the idea of being ashamed about one side or the other. I don't want either of my parents to feel that I'm ashamed of them, but society makes it extremely difficult to not lean towards one side or the other.

Lacey's experience was unique because she had grown up in an orthodox Jewish community where heritage was extremely consequential. Still, she expressed many of the same feelings that Dido had expressed and that I'm familiar with in my own life. Despite these large circumstantial differences, there seems to be a common mixed experience.

In South Africa, the history of colonialism has made for a strict racial climate. To this day, white South Africans who descend from British colonials are generally wealthier than black South Africans who descend from the indigenous South African population. Interracial mixing is stigmatized due to the tension created by colonialism. A distinct social sect exists for mixed people in this culture. Coloured was the term for children of black South Africans and white colonials. This term has come to encompass all multiracial people in South Africa. The majority of these coloured people live in communities and often don't interact with other races. They attend coloured schools and marry within their social groups. Being coloured is essentially to be considered a completely different race. A young coloured South African woman was interviewed about her experience, and she expressed feeling rejected by the black South Africans. These communities of coloured people are places where they can feel accepted and safe from judgment.

Mixed people in places around the globe are sharing their stories and finding commonalities. Each persons experience is unique and defines their identity, but there is no denying the common themes that transcend geographical differences. From 18th century England to small communities in South Africa, there is a common mixed experience. Being confused as to where one fits into society, and what status they're supposed to claim seems to be something that most mixed people experience at some point in their lives. I know in my own personal experiences, I definitely have been unsure about which category I fall into. The idea of being expected to choose one side or the other is also global and can create tensions in the families of mixed people. Its hard to identify as either white or black and not feel like you're choosing one parent over the other. Both Dido and Lacey experienced this dilemma and it's something that I'm familiar with and that I've heard from many of my mixed friends. Despite a changing racial environment, stigmas surrounding blackness and whiteness still exist and make navigating the world as a mixed individual complicated. In the future we can expect to see a growing number of mixed people around the globe, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the experience will change. These cultural boundaries have existed for centuries, and what's to say they won't exist for centuries to come? We may even see situations like the one in South Africa gaining popularity, and mixed communities becoming more common. Living in a world where you are literally considered to be living in the gray area, it's nice to know that a growing number of people share the same experience that you do.

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Posted in Health and Medical Post Date 12/25/2018


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