Dorian and I are sitting across from each other at Dado Tea in Harvard Square. It’s a warm evening; we have both come from work. I’m sipping away at an iced tea. When I told people I was starting a blog about mixed heritage, more than once, someone would say to me, “You should interview Dorian!” So now, after a few weeks of coordinating, here we are.
Dorian graduated from MIT in 2014 and currently works in healthcare. His mother is from Sweden, where she was born and lived until she was six, when her family moved to the U.S. His father, from Louisiana, is African-American. They met in Oklahoma at grad school and then moved out to Buffalo, New York — where Dorian grew up — to work with Buffalo Teen Challenge.
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint a specific moment,” Dorian says, when thinking about his first realization of being biracial, “but I know when I was a kid, there were several times that I’d reflect on it. I think when I was very little I thought I was adopted, because just looking at my parents, I didn’t know that I looked much like either of them.” When he was six or seven, he used to refer to himself as “half and half” and joked that “mom puts me in her coffee!”
All of his mom’s family still live in Sweden, except for his grandfather. His dad’s family is mostly in Louisiana, except for a handful of relatives out in Texas. Dorian’s maternal grandfather and grandmother were pretty well off because, although his grandfather didn’t have a college degree, they came to the U.S. and he made his way into banking, eventually becoming vice president of the international wing of his bank. On his dad’s side, Dorian’s grandfather was an entrepreneur and inventor and also owned a liquor store that his father worked in as a kid. Dorian’s mother is an only child — his dad has seven brothers and sisters and two half-brothers. “I was the only grandson on one side, one of many on the other,” Dorian says. “So my grandfather on my mom side took us on vacations; we got to see them all the time. Because my other grandparents didn’t have the resources to bring us over there, although they wanted to see us, too.” Dorian has been able to visit his family in Louisiana a few times, and more so in recent years.
“I grew up in a very different culture than either of my parents,” Dorian tells me, referring to his childhood in Buffalo in comparison with his father’s Louisiana roots and his mother’s Scandinavian heritage. “I’d definitely say I learned a lot about Swedish culture growing up. Our Christmases were fully Swedish — all the Swedish food, Swedish songs, all the cultural stuff.”
“What’s a Swedish Christmas like?” I ask eagerly, curious.
“We had at least eight or nine baked goods. You always have to bake pepparkakor, which is like ginger snaps, you know like the Anna’s ones, but thinner, and a bunch of other types of cookies, some sweet breads and things. We’d always have a cold ham, baked beans, red cabbage, little potatoes, Swedish meatballs — much better than Ikea,” Dorian laughs. He and his parents would gather the week before Christmas and spend hours in the kitchen together, preparing for their Christmas Day feast. “Me and my dad would always be the ones rolling out the meatballs; my mom being like ‘They need to be smaller!’ Christmases were times that I really felt like I got to celebrate Swedish culture, even though I didn’t even know Christmases any differently, since that’s all that we ever did.”
Beyond the holidays, Dorian’s travels to Sweden also gave him the opportunity to connect to that part of his heritage. “That was part of the identity too — the food there. I think the other part of it was learning the language,” he says. “I made a huge point of trying to gain more and more vocabulary over the years, as I heard my grandparents speak.” Dorian recently returned from a business trip that allowed him to visit his family in Sweden. “The last day I was there, when I had dinner with my aunt, we spoke Swedish almost the whole time. I was really shocked; I didn’t think I’d picked up that much Swedish.”
“It’s cool just being linked to something outside of the US in a way,” Dorian continues, “but also it’s just definitely a conversation piece…I think it helps me understand and appreciate other cultures too. I know even as a kid I was homeschooled — ”
“Hey, me too!” I interrupt. (Like mixed people, homeschoolers similarly band together.)
“Nice — good times!” Dorian laughs. “So, we had a homeschool chorus and there was one song, ‘I’m Proud to be an American’ or something, and there was this one line that was like, ‘Because I know the U.S. is the best land of all’ or something like that. And I literally would not sing that line, because I also had allegiance to Sweden — at age 9.” We chuckle over his dual Patriotism that would not allow him undermine his Swedish heritage.
Because Dorian saw more of his mom’s family growing up, he felt closer to Swedish culture. “I think I definitely felt like I could relate more, or I almost idealized, my mom’s side of the culture in a way — and my dad’s side, I was like, ‘I don’t know if i want to be associated with this culture.’ Especially growing up, my church that my dad pastored was pretty inner city…so I think I kind of associated a lot of negative things with certain cultures or races.”
Compared with his more effortless relationship to his Scandinavian roots, Dorian’s journey to connect more with his African-American heritage has been a bit longer. “Even as a kid — I think at six, seven — definitely like I said, idealizing one culture over the other. Sometimes I’d go to bed praying that I’d be able to change my hair color and my skin — or at least my hair color — so I’d wake up with blonde hair and blue eyes, and then I’d go down to the mirror in the morning and go ‘Dang it, God! Why?!’” Dorian was actually born with blue eyes and super straight hair. And sometimes he’d wonder, what if he had stayed that way? How would his experience of life been different?
“I think whether it was just media or other things, I think I just started associating African-American culture with a lot negative things,” Dorian says. “In college, one of my friends who was also multiracial encouraged me to take another look at that and really explore my black heritage. I was kind of resistant for a little bit. I remember me and Tiandra were hanging out with another friend who’s black and she was like, ‘So, do you consider yourself black?’ and I was like, ‘No actually, not really.’” His friend was shocked. It was towards the end of college when Dorian tried thinking about his relationship to his African-American heritage and, as he says, “I started thinking that it’s in my hands now to connect with both sides of my family.”
It was after he graduated from college and started a new job that he decided he really wanted to connect more with his African-American heritage. One day, while he was attending an “Undoing Racism” training at his work, the minorities in the room were asked what they loved about their “non-white” heritage. And for Dorian, at that time, it was really hard to come up with something.
“I remember one instance when I was maybe 14 or 15,” Dorian reflects. “I was walking with my dad down the street, and he was like, ‘We have to be careful, you know — [we’re two] black guys walking down the street, people may think things.’ And I [thought], ‘Oh my gosh. Crap.’ You know? And like things like that [made me feel] like, ‘How can I shed this?’ And I’d be really careful growing up to dress as white as possible. I had no idea how much I was worried about being associated with negative black stereotypes or how I’d subconsciously made a white/good, black/bad association.”
He started praying, asking God to have more time and resources to connect with his African-American identity and that side of the family. “I started recognizing just how biased I’d been and how much I’d internalized a lot of the racism in the media and world around me,” Dorian says. “And it led me to a lot of compassion and solidarity for the culture and what a lot of black people were going through at that time.
“And so with all of that, I started reading a few more books. I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. That opened my mind to a lot of what’s happened through the government and through the incarceration system and just to a lot of things that I felt I’d been blind to — whether it was intentional or not.” Around the same time, Dorian traveled to Texas for a business trip, and while he was there he got to hang out for a day or two with family from his dad’s side. It was the first time ever that he and all thirteen of his cousins were together with their grandmother. “Which was amazing,” Dorian tells me. “And then even later that year, so at the end of 2015, I was in Florida and tacked on another side trip to Louisiana and got to go for my cousin’s graduation and see my cousins again and that side of the family, and feel more part of that family, which was great.
“It was interesting to see like some of the cultural differences, but also just to feel like a strong sense of family too…it was very cool to be there with them. So I feel like God gave me some awesome opportunities to connect with that side of the family and, amazingly, to go to this other conference in Sweden to and see that side of my family again too.”
As an only child, Dorian witnessed a lot of the little differences between his parents’ two drastically different cultures. “My mom would put butter on her toast, and my dad never did that, and started doing it when they got married. My dad had a big point of calling people ma’am and sir, which I guess is a Southern thing as well, and my mom never really grew up with that, but my dad tried to teach me that. I don’t think it really caught on,” he laughs. “There’s definitely like an austere cleanliness [in Sweden] compared to Southern hospitality.”
Like many other mixed people I’ve talked to, Dorian’s also found it easy to connect to others with multiracial background. “I think it’s been really interesting how many biracial friends I’ve made and how easy it is to connect with them,” Dorian says. “And I feel like it’s [because] you’re so used to fitting in, in a way, you’re so used to adapting.” Dorian talks about how, depending on which side of the family he’s with, he subconsciously adapts to his surroundings. “So when I was in the South, I started having a Southern accent — out of nowhere, there it comes. I can’t stop it, but I need to feel more a part of that culture when I’m there. Or when I’m in Sweden,” he continues, “[when] I’m speaking English it’s gonna be with a little bit of a Swedish accent, or [I] try to speak as much Swedish as possible.
“And I think that comes out of a desire to fit in…I think that’s one interesting thing I’ve found with my ‘split’,” he goes on, referring to his Swedish/African-American mix. “Sure, I grew up in a lot more of a white culture in Buffalo, but I would still see myself in pictures and be like, ‘Yeah I’m not white,’ you know, or there would be things that people would say…and would lump [me] in a fully black category. And I’d be like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t fully resonate with that.’ I think it’s easier to lump me into a black category because phenotypically maybe I look [more black].”
Dorian goes on to tell me about others’ perception of him. Occasionally, he’d be called an “oreo.” Other people would tell him he wasn’t really black at all. “And there was a point when I couldn’t say, ‘I am [black],’ really,” he says. “That’s definitely changed as I’ve started to understand and try to relate a lot more.” This conversation makes me wonder…What does it mean to belong to a race or a group of people? When someone told him, “You’re not black,” what does that even mean? Were they referring to group of characteristics that they felt he did not posses — his mannerisms, dress, or the timbre of his voice? Who gets to define what it means to be part of a group, anyway?
“It’s taken me a long while to appreciate some things, like music,” Dorian says, speaking of his African-American heritage, “And I think I actually distanced myself from things like rap or jazz or blues, or other types of arts or things like that.” So much so, that Dorian didn’t celebrate Black History month for a time. “But I’m finding there’s a lot to explore there was well…It’s hard. I think for so long I’ve had a lot of negative connotations, so I’m trying to flip those around.”
As we chat, jazz music streams from the cafe’s speakers. What Dorian is saying makes me think about my conversation with Christian, and how, for a time, he intentionally distanced himself from his Cuban heritage, because in his mind, it was a negative thing. And how it took him several years to begin to recognize the beauty in Cuban culture.
Dorian gets a kick out of playing guessing games with people and seeing how long it takes for them to figure out his ethnicity. “I’ve gotten all sorts of things,” he says, “In other countries, people think I’m Southeast Asian — ”
“You could be Middle Eastern,” I observe.
“Yeah, Middle Eastern for sure,” he nods. “Definitely [gotten] West Indian or other sorts, South American…But then there’s the other people, too, who are like, ‘Oh you’re definitely black’ — sometimes not even thinking there’s any other mix in there too.”
Without me bringing it up, Dorian mentions something a lot of my multiracial friends have touched upon — “Taking standardized tests and having to check the boxes,” Dorian laughs, referring of the first page where you have to fill out all your personal information. He never knew which box was the right one for him to check — African-American, Caucasian? He was both. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that you could check more than one box on the US census. Before that, you were required to check only one.
“I was like, ‘There HAS to be a biracial [box] here or multi- check because otherwise, I would feel like I was lying if I put [just] black. [But] if I didn’t put black in there, I was lying.”
I remember how I would also linger over that section of the test or form as a child, №2 pencil hovering uncertainly above the boxes. I’d usually just pick Caucasian, because it was simplest. Dorian’s words make me think about how as human beings, we have a hard time with that which defies category. We like things to be easily definable, easily categorized. This goes in that box, that goes in this box. And mixed people don’t fit into a straightforward category.
Interestingly, during college, Dorian found himself easily connecting with the Asian community at MIT. “During the preview weekends I was put in the black living group, fraternity — Chocolate City — and really didn’t feel like I’d be able to fit in.” Dorian didn’t feel fully at home in the African-American group, and he never sought out the Scandinavian club — but, he was able to connect with the Asian community: “And so I felt pretty comfortable with the Asian group because I could explore another culture, and I didn’t have to feel like I knew one or the other types of cultures.” He could experience it without the tension of feeling like he should see himself reflected in it.
“It wasn’t till my sophomore or junior year that I went to a black student event. And one of my first times really feeling a part of that was learning the wobble,” he laughs heartily. I love how dance and music and art have the power to connect us when other mediums fail.
This conversation, hearing Dorian relate his journey of discovering the beauty of his mixed heritage and the doors God opened for him to do that, reminds me that God cares about all aspects of our lives. Because each culture reflects something different about the nature of God; each culture contains glimpses of His image.
“I really do enjoy being biracial,” Dorian says, “It’s been a great bridge, in a way. And honestly, a gift.”
What he says excites me — thinking about a growing multiracial population, and the power that could have to bring communities together and heal barriers. With more and more mixed-people-human-bridges, people who, perhaps more than anyone, can understand the tension and friction between two cultures. It’s a hopeful thought. ~
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