What I’m Not


Multiraciality in an increasingly mixed world.

To be honest, I’m a bit late to the game on this. I don’t really keep up with sports in any capacity, aside from cheering for Team USA every four years. When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling instead of standing at attention for the national anthem, I didn’t hear about it through first- or secondhand sources – I got third-, fourth-, and probably fifth-hand interpretations of what he was (metaphorically) standing for, and what that meant about the state of America.

There was the one headline phrase that stuck with me, however. From Rodney Harrison:

“He’s not black.”

In the interest of full disclosure, and due to the wealth of personal information that celebrity status makes accessible on the internet, I can tell you that Colin Rand Kaepernick was born to a white woman and a black man, and then raised by an adoptive white family in Wisconsin and then California. He was a good student in high school; he still is an amazing athlete in baseball, basketball, and most notably football.

He might be, in some ways, all-American. But undoubtedly, incontrovertibly, African-American is what he’s not.

Taking a step back from the incredibly important political and social dialogue in which Kaepernick’s protest is playing a role, we can begin to see the complicated space that race takes in shaping these conversations, and in shaping people’s lives. It’s a potent and poorly defined thing – made up of cultural values, parentage or parenting, raw blood, and the way you look. This has been used to make people feel, and to make them hurt. From the history of racial quantification, too, there is a laundry list of ways in which people have been identified as “other.” From US blood quantum laws to nineteenth-century slurs like mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, or quintroon.

Ugly as that history may be, what racial quantification gets at is the uncertainty in deciding who is what race, and how that race becomes part of personal identity. This anxiety is not going away. Through whatever circumstances, multiracial babies are born and will continue to be. According to the Pew Research Center, almost seven percent of the US population self-identified as multiracial in 2015. We occupy the space between culture and blood, between groups, between others. We have to figure out what that means not only to ourselves, but to others.

In practical terms, this means that people like Rodney Harrison may be right: if you weren’t raised black, and if you don’t really “look black,” you aren’t black in the same way that the leaders of Black Lives Matter are. You don’t face the same fights or the same consequences. Replace “black” with any other race, for any multiracial person of any background, and the same statements will probably hold true. There are ways that others treat you based on what they see, ways to do with both blood and water, and ways that are both cruel and real. Regardless of personal identity, the world imposes this on you.

In my life, I have had my perceptions of my own multiracial identity challenged in many ways. In my eyes, I am closer to an Asian American raised in an Asian household, with the cultural marks to prove it. I was a brief student of the Singapore math book series. I am, bizarrely, a fan of the way that all Asian supermarkets smell (and if you grew up going to Chinese supermarkets every Saturday, you know what I mean). I am fluent enough in Chinese to talk about food and school. I was deeply sympathetic to Amy Chua’s daughters when I was in eighth grade. I could go on.

But I’m tall with green eyes and not-black hair. My skin’s base tone is decidedly pink, not yellow. In the eyes of most anyone else, what I identify most closely to is exactly what I am not. I do not receive insults about my immigration status, or backhanded compliments about my English or math scores. When such racist tensions exist in the world, I cannot claim to fully understand them; despite never asking for it, I am protected in a way that is uncomfortable to acknowledge but no less real.

It is hard to put into words what I feel about the space that I occupy, or the “other” I may be to others. Every biracial, multiracial, and/or mixed person can have a different personal identity with which to navigate the world. However, the inequalities of our world are built on both physical and intangible qualities, both blood and memory, inextricably intertwined. Whether Colin Kaepernick and I are visually white-passing – sometimes, that matters more than how we identify or how we choose to use our identities.

Above football, patriotism, racism, police brutality, social justice, socioeconomic reform – or beneath it all, as the bedrock of ourselves – we have to consider race critically. Race does not go away, and for the multiracial kids coming of age in this world, we have a responsibility to ourselves to consider how we want to be seen. We have to be conscious of how others see us.

It’s important to know who we are. But sometimes, the most important thing is what we’re not.

Audrey Effenberger (effenberger@college.harvard.edu) wishes she were this motivated to write an essay for her gen ed.