Gray: A Very Short Story About Racial Ambiguity
“‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, and you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’” — Mindy Kaling
I’ve often been called a “particular” person. I order the same drink at Starbucks every day, I often don’t post pictures of myself without makeup and I get a little panicky when my phone is under 70% battery. All my sensibilities and peculiarities have very discrete parts. I have complete and total control of my style, my mannerisms — even my accent is specifically manicured. It’s compensation for a luxury I felt always escaped me: distinction.
When you are racially ambiguous, your parts are less clear. A stranger on the street does not have the ability to walk up to me label my identity directly, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. You have a little Latina in you, don’t you? So when did your family move from India? Look at such big eyes for a pacific islander! There comes a point where you yourself forget your race and begin to run along with the identities that others thrust upon you.
There are many versions of myself: a beautiful, quiet Hawaiian who moves to Manhattan to pursue her acting dreams; a loud and brash Filipina who dreams to move to Miami and open a food truck, a shy immigrant from the West Indies works at her mother’s roti shop in Los Angeles. These and many more personalities are stored in a mental rolodex of selves. I flip, flip, flip through the cards searching frantically for a persona that would make sense. An identity that is clear. No mixed signals.
I am a “mixed chick” of the most direct and perhaps boring variety. Older folks call me mulatto, ignorant folks call me ethnic, and younger folks settle on black. I’m more off an off-black. My mother is a medium-dark skinned woman from the island of Trinidad, half of the pair of the poverty stricken southern Caribbean islands Trinidad & Tobago. My father is a white man born in the outer boroughs of London right on the line where poverty kissed comfort ability. Together they had two children, my brother, and eleven years later, me.
My nickname in middle school was “Gray.” I never understood it in the beginning. I was the same as the other eleven girls in my grade: short, talkative and from Long Island. I wore the same itchy wool plaid skirt and puffed out white polo as the rest. I even had the matching headband. I never wore gray. I didn’t get it.
Until, one day, I did.
“Ha-ha! Look at Gray opening her locker!” a male classmate of mine yelled in the seventh grade.
“She matches it! Gray locker and gray girl living in harmony,” another chimed.
The room became an echo chamber of this bland color based insults until I finally said, “Hey, cut it out. What do you even mean?” I remember pushing my hair out of my eyes with a headband that matched my kilt.
“Wow, Gray must be stupid too! She doesn’t even get it!” another boy yelled.
One boy was cavalier enough to lay everything out for me, “Look. Think about it. What does black plus white equal?”
“Um, I don’t know. Why does this matter?”
“You know what I mean. Take some blank paint and add some white paint and you get gray paint.”
“I don’t understand how that connects.”
“Your mom is Black; your dad is White! So it’s you! You are gray! I’m white, Greg* is black, and you are both so you are gray!” The boys laughed and laughed but all I could hear was the high pitch of a bell ringing deep into my eardrum. I thought of my mom, deep and rich in color in tone swirling into a vortex with my pale father, creating a lifeless grey sad sack that looked and sounded like me.
The room had lost its color right then. Like an old timey film, everything was in black and white and operating slightly off kilter. I hadn’t been so aware of my race until right then, when it was thrust upon me, smothering me like a pillow pressing and pressing and pressing against my face. You are not white. You are not black. You are not like us. You will never be like us.
From that point I began to operate in the in-between. In a literal gray area, ambiguous as my race and heritage. Being an “other” was one of many nails in my soon to be “mental illness” coffin. I guess it is filed somewhere under the “self-loathing” category.
“Maybe I just don’t want to date a black girl anymore,” Fred*, a boyfriend of nearly three years, said to me as we were breaking up. We were watching Breaking Bad and sitting on my couch in my apartment. I remember my stomach growling a lot. I guess I hadn’t eaten that day.
“What? What do you mean?”
“It’s just, I don’t know, I’ve dated a black girl for a while, and y’know, maybe I just want to shop around.”
“Shop around, what the fuck...”
“Calm down, you know what I mean. It’s like, you’re a pretty girl but not the prettiest girl. And maybe that has something to do with it for me. Maybe it’s just part of my type.”
“So, what you’re saying is because I’m black — ”
“You’re not just black Britt. You’re white too. It’s part of you. Like my taste is part of me.”
“I guess, I don’t know, I mean, you probably have a point.”
His brash and horrible sentiments seemed reasonable to me at the time. He was right. I wasn’t just Black. I guess I was grey, like those elementary schoolers said. And nobody wants to date some halfsy.
Since then, that dating theory has proven false. I’ve met several folk who recognized my complicated identity and appreciate that as a facet of who I am. Through them I have learned to treat myself like a fully realized individual, regardless of how or what my race presents itself to be.
In this particular political climate the impulse is to cling onto any label that can help define you or lets you feel something beyond your lonesome. Sometimes it is gender, other times it is race or sexuality. Oftentimes it’s a messy combination of all three. While I’ve not been able to have as firm of a grasp on my identity as I’d like, I found out that the struggle with racial ambiguity was not a tribulation handed solely to me. I met several other people, particularly women, who were mixed race and had seen their race overflow and slither into every facet of their life like the River Styx.
These women have taught me that is is very ok to not fit into a particular racial label. If you are reading this and have struggled with racial identity, know that there are people like you — with “different” hair, facial features and maybe a really particular Long Island accent — who accept and love you for who you are. Don’t be ashamed of yourself or the struggle. Push forward, especially when it seems most difficult.
Eyes up, friend, we got this.
*Names were changed for privacy reasons. Sorry people, no guessing here!