One-half-this and one-quarter-that. Biracial, mixed-race, “two or more races.” In a world obsessed with labels, the pressure to claim oneself as part of a racial group is an inescapable reality for a small but growing population. We are confronted by it with questions like, “What are you?” which we can instantly recognize as a question pointing to heritage. Census forms or surveys ask us to check a box identifying our ethnicity; on rare occasions we’re offered “Multiracial” but we frequently settle for “Other.” People identifying as mixed race may feel connected to all of their backgrounds, only one or some of them, or to none; race is complex enough as it is, but once two or more categories come into play, even more questions are raised.
What is clear is that people who carry a mixed race identity do not experience their race in the same way, even if they share the same racial mix. Location, social interaction, family attitudes about race and environments all inform how they think, feel and speak about being mixed race. Even more, an individual’s own interpretation of their multicultural background may shift and change with time; it is a process of discovery, affirmation, questioning and rejection.
Below, five individuals share their own journey of a mixed-race identity. No story is the same, but all lead to one reality that is obvious: they are hardly a fraction of a race. They are full, whole, complete, and here are their stories, in all their diverse glory.
Zachary Elvord-Zolot: Native Son
The thing about mixed-race folks is that they are, at times, hard to identify. As I searched for people willing to speak with me and share their story, I asked Zachary if he knew anybody who identified as mixed race, only for him to reveal he himself identified as biracial. With so many possible mixes and the multitude of ways DNA chooses to physically manifest, it’s difficult to tell whether someone is mixed race just by looking at them, as was with Zachary.
Born to a Jewish mother and an African American father, Zachary’s connection with both sides of his identity is clear. He speaks of a desire to improve unequal conditions Black Americans must deal with, while also speaking about his trip to Israel with a clear love, respect and awe.
“We are connected to each other,” Zachary said of African Americans. “There’s a bond that connects us, for the most part. There’s always been a connectedness with the people.
“As far as [being] Jewish, I feel there is more a connection with the earth. When I went to Israel, [I felt] an amazing connectedness with the world around me, and I think that helped me connect with the people around me, too. When you’re in Israel, everyone is connected by that one thing.”
Zach is warm and lighthearted, and throughout the interview he is relaxed, maybe even nonchalant. He strikes overly-dramatic poses when I get up to snap a picture, and twice stops mid-sentence to look past me and smile; he’s watching a little girl jump on top of picnic tables, fall down, cry to her dad.
“I’m sorry, I’m distracted. That little girl is adorable,” he says.
I met Zach while volunteering at the Lussier Community Education Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where he mentors, organizes and hangs out with kids of all ages.
This semester, Zach, myself and other University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students are working with kids in radio club to create a radio show that will be aired on the Center’s radio station. Just from the little time I’ve spent at Lussier, I can tell it has an important role in the communities it serves. Nestled between Jefferson Middle School and Memorial High School, it’s lively every Thursday we volunteer, with kids playing basketball and eating snacks, using the computer lab, or chasing each other through the main foyer, their voices and laughs bouncing off the high ceilings and walls.
Many of the kids Zach works with at Lussier are kids of color, some from low-income backgrounds. In Dane County and Madison, which is heralded as a progressive haven with a world-class university and some of nation’s best bike lanes, the achievement gap between white and black children is one of the worst in the nation. In Madison in 2011, 50 percent of black kids did not graduate high school on time. In Madison, black kids are 13 times more likely than white kids to live in poverty. Zach knows this; he can cite the statistics. Not only that, but he sees the effects racial and economic marginalization can have on young minds. His tone changes when we shift gears to talk about the kids, and it’s clear this isn’t the first time his has considered what it means to be a person of color in Madison.
“That is the idea that we have set out as a community: that if you are poor and black, you will not succeed, or you will have to work ten times harder to do it. That is wrong,” Zach said. “That is derogatory.”
I think back to what Zach said about the emotional and organic connections he feels with the African American and Jewish communities, how he feels completely a part of both simultaneously. The injustices he witnesses in Madison are in his community, done unto his people, occurring where he grew up and now once again calls home. Zach has started writing letters to Gov. Scott Walker and senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin about funding decisions that he sees as failing to address the disparity that exists between white Madison and communities of color. Zach gestures to a large, block-like building under construction on the downtown skyline— “luxury high-rise apartment buildings that don’t get filled”— and asks why the state funds them instead of homeless shelters. It’s a good question, asked by someone who sees the implications firsthand. So, I ask Zach, what should we do to fix it? Legislation? Grants? A task force?
“What we can do is start caring. What we can do is start funding these kids,” Zach said. “We can make them feel like they’re not defeated right away. That’s what we can do.
Renee Moe: Perfect Fit
For many mixed race individuals, it’s easy to connect with one another due to similar experiences related to racial identity. I spoke with Renee Moe, president and CEO of United Way Dane County, about her upbringing and journey of coming to understand her identity as a mixed race woman, a mother, a community leader and more.
I spoke with Renee Moe, president and CEO of United Way Dane County. She shared her experiences as a prominent mixed-race woman in her community, and how her racial identity informs, shapes, and inspires her life and work. Here is our conversation
Sato: Could you tell me about your background?
Moe: Yeah, it’s Taiwanese and Norwegian. My mom is Chinese and my dad is American. I carry a biracial identity, I carry an Asian identity, I carry a mom identity, a wife identity, a daughter identity. And just from a professional identity, I feel like I’m a community connector and collaborator and change-maker.
Sato: So Renee and I actually share quite a few things in common. We’re both half Asian and half white; her father is white and her mother is Chinese, and my father is Japanese and my mother is white.
Moe: I’m always conscious of [my identities]. That’s what I think is so interesting about being biracial is you think about it all the time, it’s always a part of you, and I think it’s a huge part of who you are. The racial identity specifically, I feel like I’m always conscious of that. I walk into a room and I notice what are the racial compositions of the folks that are there. I’m in a meeting and I think about the conversations that are being talked about.
Sato: Of course, I really relate to this sentiment. For me, I feel like my race always plays the most prominent part. As I was growing up, I always felt conscious of my race. I was conscious that I was not white, and in Japan, I was conscious of the fact that my mother was white, and therefore we were a mixed family.
Moe: As I was growing up I felt never white enough to be white, never Asian enough to be Asian. Right, that’s a very common feeling. I had always thought of myself as Asian American until coming to college, where I heard ‘biracial,’ ‘multiracial.’
Sato: Like her, I have felt not white enough to be white, not Asian enough to be Asian, and feeling a lot of confusion and displacement as to where I fit in in the fabric of society and the fabric of labels and groups of people.
Moe: Just you know … how people interacted with me based on what they thought I was. So if they thought I was Asian and the kind of Asian: if they thought I was Vietnamese or Japanese or Chinese, or if they thought I was Latina, or if they thought I was Italian or Black or white, it all felt very different. I kind of learned early on that people make judgments based on what they think you are, before getting to know who you actually are.
Sato: Renee said for the most part, race doesn’t really come up in conversation, or at least it didn’t. It was always something she thought about in her head, but really didn’t take forefront in conversation with other people, until more recently.
Moe: In the last three to five years specifically, I think I’m known more in the community as a biracial person, as a person of color, as an Asian woman more so than before. I think it’s definitely an asset when it comes to solving community problems.
Sato: The pain mixed race people often face over confusion about their identity is often also their greatest strength.
Moe: So I really grew up [with] two parents of different races, three continents, half a dozen schools … you just really knew the world was so much bigger than the community right in front of you. I have a feeling that people who are mixed race — it doesn’t necessarily have to be race either, people who come from mixed backgrounds. Maybe it’s religion, maybe it’s international, maybe it’s sexual orientation, maybe it’s whatever — that people who can sort of see the different facets of tension, of coming together, can accelerate learning and accelerate collaboration and create change. Because you can see different points of view, you can meet people where they are.
Something that I realized in my early adulthood was “if you don’t fit anywhere, then maybe you can fit everywhere.
Sato: Although my journey in my racial identity is far from over, I hope to one day feel like Renee does — that I can fit wherever I need to. Not that I’m half of something, not that I’m not enough, but a perfect fit.
Matthew Braunginn: The Good Fight
“What are you?”
It’s a question mixed race people hear frequently and without warning. Strangers on the street, people you’ve just met, adults who should know better than to try to guess a child’s racial make-up; the question can come up anytime, anywhere, with anyone, as casual as a question about your weekend.
You can add Matthew Braunginn to the side that hates that question. As a light skin Black man, Braunginn is used to the questions, the stares, the guessing games due to his lighter features—what some call “white passing.”
“I remember as a kid being with my parents at the Memorial Union Terrace. My [Black] father went into the bathroom and I was waiting outside for him, and a man asked me if I was safe and if that was my dad,” Braunginn said.
Despite “passing” as white at times, Braunginn said he also has experienced the opposite response of being treated as a person of color.
“Particularly white classmates of mine, growing up in Madison, would be sure to let me know that I wasn’t quite white. They would let me pass at their own convenience, and then call me ‘niglet’ or ‘half and half’ and a bunch of other things,” he said.
The double-edged sword can extend beyond strangers and classmates, insensitive questions and name-calling. Braunginn described an instance in his teenage years of being in a car full of friends that was pulled over by police officers. He and an Asian American friend were the only people of color among other white friends, but all were carrying marijuana.
“He and I were the only ones arrested,” Braunginn recalled. “But I know that those police encounters that were a little bit more aggressive towards me than my white peers, would have been much more aggressive if I was darker. There have been certain encounters that could’ve very much ended in the loss of my life if I was darker,” Braunginn said.
Sentiments like the above show that Braunginn situates himself carefully and precisely within the Black community as a mixed race, light skin man. Although he self-identifies as “a mixed-race, Black male,” he is also keenly aware and conscious of the privilege that exists in regards to the actual pigmentation of one’s skin. In his work with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, Braunginn says he is careful to recognize his privilege as a cis-gender male who is also has the lightest skin.
“I understand that is means I need to step back and cede space to others,” he said. However, the distinct place Braunginn finds himself within the Black community does not prevent him from feeling connected and embraced by those in Black spaces. He recounted being a high school student, encouraged to more fully embrace his blackness than he was, and contrasted those experiences with how he felt in white spaces, where he said sometimes he feels uncomfortable and hyper-conscious of his race.
Braunginn is specific in his racial identity, and his landing place as both biracial and Black is nuanced, informed by his 30 years in his skin and the countless instances of being labeled as “not really Black” and “not really white.” But through his lived experiences, Braunginn has found where he fits… and where he does not.
“Through time and study and being able to intellectually understand the types of experiences I was going through, the subtle oppression, I [began to understand]. It’s not that I’m not Black enough or white enough, it’s just that I’m mixed race, I’m Black, and I’m part of that Black American experience and that Black story and history,” Braunginn said. “I’m not part of the white American experience because I’m not white; I can’t ever be white.
“I think my own experiences have given me unique insight into the depths of white supremacy and what it is, how extensive it is, in a very unique way. Like being able to look past the curtain when you meet the Wizard of Oz.”
Does Braunginn want to be part of the white American experience?
“No. Not at all. It’s not anything I want to be a part of. I think there’s a sickness that rises out of it. The U.S. built its empires on oppression and enslavement and genocide and this idea of superiority.
“You can’t tell me things are going to be better. Even [now], police are killing us — it’s a different form of lynching. A different coat of paint,” he said. “The structure is the same. I’d be a bad student of history to believe [things are different].”
He pauses briefly when asked what should be done about white supremacy; that’s the magic question. Braunginn doesn’t think fixing it is enough. We need to start from scratch.
“I want to not just deconstruct it — I want to conquer and destroy that mentality. It’s sick,” Braunginn said. “My ultimate goal would be a constitution founded in the idea of inalienable human rights. Just because you’re existing, you are given the rights to determine where you want to go — housing, food, education, being able to live and exist without having to fight to survive. So many people are fighting.”
If that sounds like a tall order, it’s because it is. To upend the white supremacy that built, sustained, and remains in America’s institutions and identity would be to challenge and overturn what the country was built on, and Braunginn is under no illusion that it is an easy — or even possible — victory. He isn’t optimistic that change will happen in his lifetime, maybe not ever. But that’s not really the point. The liberation is in the struggle, the fight, and the inherently political and personal act of defiance.
“I don’t know if the fight is worth it. I just think is has to be fought. Whether it’s worth it or not, whether there will be an outcome or not, someone has to fight it,” Braunginn said. “The act of resistance in itself has to happen, no matter what the outcome. You must always resist. Always.”
I’m white until I’m not
I’m told I’m white cus I’m light skinned
My dad’s black
I’m white until I commit a crime
I’m white until I speak out
I’m white when I go to school
I’m a “statistic” when I’m not
I’m white when I’m silent and proper
I’m white until I’m not
I’m black when my classmates call me half & half
I’m white when someone ask if my dad is my dad
I’m black when my dad and I get told, “we don’t have non-smoking”
I’m black when I’m called nigglet & half nigger
I’m not “really white, but not really black”
I am “what are you?”
I would’ve been black If I was expelled from school
I would’ve been black if I was locked up for a felony
I’m white when I do good
I’m black when I don’t
I’m white, until I’m not
I’m told when I’m white and when I’m black
I am white, unless I’m not
I’m black in this complicated world of Black America
Unless, I’m told I’m not
I’m white, until I have my hands up saying “no gun, don’t shoot”
Then I’ll be black, with a “criminal” past, laying face down, shot by the cops
I am Black
Students of Lussier: Precious Stories
Over the course of eight weeks, I worked with a small group of other University of Wisconsin-Madison students to assist the Lussier Community Education Center with the launch of their own radio station. It’s a unique and empowering idea, to allow middle and high school students the freedom to conceptualize, write, record and edit their own program, and then give them the resources to make it real; to let their voices, thoughts and opinions on the air waves for several thousand listeners to tune into.
Every student I encountered was bright and thoughtful. We watched them become more comfortable in the recording studio, open up, and show their beautiful personalities every Thursday afternoon. At the end of the semester, two students spoke with me about their own experiences being mixed race openly and eloquently. It wasn’t their wisdom that surprised me—I knew they were capable of thinking critically about race and what it means to be a person of color. What surprised me the most was that they even agreed to speak with me at all. As a reporter, I am learning to recognize that I’m not entitled to anybody’s story, especially not stories as precious and personal as these. Their candidness was humbling, their cultural competency and sensitivity despite their young age was inspiring, and as they shared their own experiences living as biracial people, I felt so much gratitude to be able to share relay their lived experiences.
One student, Malcolm Gibson, 16, described the increasingly frequent conversations about race he has with his Afro-Trinidadian mother as he gets older. Malcolm said he talks about race with his mother, but not with his father much.
“My mom wants me to break the stereotype of the lazy Black person who doesn’t do much,” Malcolm said. “But I don’t personally see that [stereotype] ever happen.”
For the most part, Malcolm says he does not think about his race much— he focuses more on himself as an individual rather than someone who is biracial. However, he senses that race is often on his mother’s mind.
“I think my mother thinks about it a lot. She’s always paying attention to what I’m wearing, how I act around other people, and it also usually connects to my grades,” Malcolm said. “She wants to pressure me to do my best, and I can understand that.”
Educational outcomes and their relation to race is very likely on most parents’ minds, considering the striking disparities in Madison for students of color and their white counterparts. As I observed Malcolm grow in his role as a future radio show host at Lussier, though, it was clear that Malcolm was not only intelligent and thoughtful, but witty, quick and engaged with the task at hand— to create his own radio show. With each new take he improvised lines and cracked jokes, proving to be a natural in the recording studio and the perfect host for a radio show about movies, or wherever else he might want to be in life.
Mia Rose Sato: In My Words
When we learned about World War II in U.S. history class in high school, we didn’t talk about the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans beyond a sentence in passing. Instead, we were assigned to make propaganda posters; I made a poster condemning Nazism. Some of my classmates recreated anti-Japanese propaganda, and the posters hung in the classroom all year, the word ‘JAP’ large and foreboding, staring at me everyday.
My teacher must have forgotten to mention it was a word brewed in hate and racism. He must have not known I was Japanese, my dad was Japanese, my blood and heart and homeland are Japanese. He must have not known the heat I felt in my cheeks every time he said the word without an asterisk after it, to teach his students it is a word of division, a word of national disgrace, and a word nobody should be using in a high school classroom beyond educating teenagers of the injustice of Japanese internment. He must have forgotten all of that, because I sat through weeks of my classmates casually tossing the word into the air I breathed, fighting to keep breathing as the back of my throat constricted tight enough to hold back tears.
I didn’t tell my white mother about the incident until more than a year later, while I was trying desperately to make her understand even a fraction of what it is like to be a mixed-race person of color. Despite her and my dad witnessing every step and defining moment of my life, my racial identity is one thing they will never understand.
When I spoke with my mom, she echoed this reality — she will never understand what it is like to live in my skin. But the more I talk about my race, the more I hear a person who is trying their hardest to listen and accept the things she cannot understand. The more I talk, the more both of my parents can begin to see the pain I have felt, the confusion I’ve wrangled with, but most of all the joy and pride I have come to feel in who I am.
So I will keep talking.