“Composite soul” & “Being mixed means always having to say you’re sorry”
Part of an EmbraceRace series on “mixed-race” identity.
Based on how people identify themselves, and accounting for their parents’ and grandparents’ identities, the Pew Research Center recently found that 7% of US adults are “mixed-race.” Mixed-race kids are at least double that proportion of all children.
EmbraceRace invited members of our community to talk about their experiences as mixed-race people. We provided Dr. Maria Root’s 1993 Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage as a prompt, which several writers identified as crucial to their own early development as multiracial/mixed- race people. We asked them to use it in any way they wished, or not at all.
Below we have Kelly Bates’ “Composite Soul” and Pita Oxholm’s “Being mixed means always having to say you’re sorry.”
By Kelly Bates
Today, I declare that I will not keep the races separate within me
I will polish off my veneer of black and white, and dare you to see
ALL that is ME,
All that is REAL, and
ALL that is misunderstood, even by the ones that love me the deepest and love the “uniqueness”
Can you handle it?
You’ll watch my wild curls spring from my head, every frizz uncovered, every strand untamed, every piece unstraightened
You’ll watch me jump, bend, sway, and lift up my fist to fierce soul and hip hop, deep defiant rock and the sounds of steady African drums and off-cue Irish bagpipes
You’ll watch me over my lifetime love black men, white men, and women of every hue because I won’t fight their beauty or humanness
Can you handle it?
You’ll see me wearing big J Lo hoops on my ears with a long Janis Joplin dress hanging from my tan body
You’ll hear me talk trash with an urban roots accent, slapping my hands in loud laughter, and next talking quiet with plain words and no inflections, as the freckles rise from my face to yours
Will you accept this freedom and smile with joy?
Watching ME be ME
Watching me discard YOUR images of what you see, or want me to be
And still love me?
I carve up the black and white versions of me
And toss them to the fire
And take back out my true composite soul
Glistening, warm, and never fading
Today, the races are no longer separate within me
And I am ME,
Can you handle it?
Being mixed means always having to say you’re sorry
By Pita Oxholm
Shortly after I went back to work after the birth of my first son, I read an article in the New York Times titled, “Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.”
Reflecting on what it means to me to be a mixed-race person, I keep coming back to a variation on that title, “Being Mixed Race Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Always feeling like I have to apologize or explain myself.
As a kid, I was apologizing for my Mexican parts. In the small, predominantly white town where I grew up the word “Mexican” meant “illegal,” which meant criminal, which meant bad. My racial identity felt like something I needed to atone for.
I have felt sorry for the times my racial ambiguity has created discomfort in other people. For the awkward pauses that have followed my explaining that “Pita is short for Perfecta. I’m named after my father. He’s from Mexico.” I sometimes wonder if, in that pause, the person is flashing back through past conversations, trying to remember if I was there when they made those racist comments. Sometimes, I don’t have to wonder.
The last time I heard, “But I don’t think of you that way…,” my instinct was to apologize for not explaining who I was sooner — WHAT?! Every time I say, “No, I don’t speak Spanish,” I feel like I’m saying I’m sorry, again.
For me, being mixed race has meant feeling like I needed to continually justify, excuse, or explain myself. I felt like I didn’t quite fit anywhere, and while being the perpetual out-group member — alternately judged, belittled, or simply ignored — often made me feel rejected or apologetic, it also made me want to fight for others who I imagined felt the same way.
Fighting meant, and means, pushing back against social conditions or situations where I thought people were being treated unfairly. What’s interesting to me now is that while I was working to create a space for others to be themselves, until more recently my concern did not extend to myself.
These days, although as a mixed race person I still don’t quite seem to “fit,” I no longer need to justify my existence to the world. Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent and making space for myself is no longer just about me but about my children too. Perhaps it’s because we have more ways to think and talk about being mixed race than we did in the past.
I still feel pressure to be something I’m not — to identify myself as others expect me to identify, to be at times more or less of a different racial and ethnic part of myself. I haven’t found a clear way to hold all the internal and external pressures and not feel like I need to apologize, but I am starting to make space for myself.
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