The following feature appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Medley Magazine.
Three biracial children sat on the sidelines of the gymnasium during recess, watching all the other kids play basketball. Although similar in ethnicity, two of them had noticeably darker complexions. In the middle of talking and watching the game, one of the children stopped and pointed to himself and the girl next to him. “We’re Oreos because we’re black on the outside and white on the inside,” he said. “Sarah, you’re an uh-oh Oreo because you’re white on the outside and black on the inside.” For Sarah Heikkinen, a Newhouse graduate student, this memory still stings.
It took her almost 10 years to realize how much of an impact that statement had on her. Her racial identity was reduced to nothing more than just a novelty cookie — one that doesn’t even exist anymore. “Even today, I struggle with hating the white part of me, especially because it’s the part of me that everybody sees,” she says. “I kind of resent it because people automatically make an assumption about me.”
Heikkinen’s mother is black and her father is white. Still, she possesses predominantly white features: blonde hair, green eyes, freckles, and pale skin. These features allow her to white present, causing her to struggle with accepting herself and being accepted by others. More often than not, people perceive Heikkinen as white, so she finds herself in the borderlands between two races.
White presenting, or passing, is having the ability to pass as another race because of the paleness of your skin. In the Jim Crow South, it was common for mixed individuals to pass. Yet the “one-drop rule” — where a single drop of “black blood” made a person a black — reigned. Now biracial, black and white Americans deal with similar discrimination in reverse. That one drop may be too insignificant to be considered part of the black race. In fact, if an individual can pass, he or she may experience difficulty fitting in with the black community.
“Even today, I struggle with hating the white part of me, especially because it’s the part of me that everybody sees.”
In 2000, the Census Bureau began to allow people to check more than one box to describe themselves. Because of that change, the number of black and white biracial Americans has more than doubled. But with this change came introspective questions in regards to identity, racial ambiguity, and classification. For Kayla Boyd, a graduate student, often mistaken for being Mexican and Puerto Rican, these are questions she’s only just started to answer. “In my mind, I always saw myself as being mixed,” Boyd says. “When I was younger, I never wanted to pick a side. Now, I want to make sure people realize I am a black woman because I feel like that gets overlooked.”
From checking boxes on forms to fulfilling quotas, society often sees race as a way to define various criteria as a part of everyday life. Sometimes this means having to choose one race over another and dealing with racial assumptions. For Boyd, it’s confusing when others don’t know she’s biracial or assume her race. “I guess being able to pass as a lot of different races makes other people not know how to categorize me, but it has also made me second guess how to categorize myself,” Boyd says.
Like Boyd, Kiara Bunting, who has brown hair and a little darker than fair complexion, is racially ambiguous upon first sight. Bunting, a junior advertising major, doesn’t deny that her physical appearance gives her privilege, but it hurts her to know that she won’t be fully accepted into different cultures, black or white. Despite being half black, she often struggles with saying “they” or “we” when it comes to including herself as part of the black community.
“It’s scary because I’m like, ‘No I am black, and I do identify with this culture,’ and on the other hand, I’m like ‘Do I?’ because a big part of the culture is the struggle that they’ve been through, the camaraderie they have because of those experiences, and the victories they can share because of it,” she says. “I’m not a part of that a lot of the time. It’s hard for me to distinguish when it’s okay for me to be a part of it and when it’s not.”
Heikkinen, who self-identifies as biracial, has the same struggle in recognizing the privilege of being able to pass as a white person. She believes it’s important if you’re passing not to deny your privilege, but to realize that the color of your skin can present an advantage in certain situations.“Just like with any ‘white looking’ person, you walk into a store and people aren’t going to follow you around,” she says. “A cop isn’t going to pull you over and question you or think you’re a threat. I guess it’s a privilege of blending in, of invisibility in a way because people just don’t notice you.”
“A cop isn’t going to pull you over and question you or think you’re a threat.”
Growing up, Heikkinen wrestled with thoughts people had about her. She often wished she had darker skin so she could encounter the same experiences as her mother, brother, and sister, who are a few shades darker than her. She felt as though people took her less seriously because she didn’t experience discrimination in the same ways they did.
“As someone who passes, I feel guilty in a lot of ways that I was afforded this privilege because of the way my DNA spliced,” Heikkinen says. “You feel helpless because it’s like how can I help a race that doesn’t fully accept me.”
Still, she hopes to use her “white privilege” to open a dialogue for mixed, biracial, and multiracial people. Although forward thinking in her mentality, she is not sure if she’s ever going to have to stop explaining herself to others. After spending so much time having people discredit her blackness, Heikkinen started to casually show a picture of her and her mother to those who needed validation of her race because of her deceiving physical appearance.
“I always had a hard time because people don’t understand that struggle,” she says. “I think that sometimes people forget that at the end of the day, I am still black. I am just a different type of black and I have a different type of experience.”
written by Brianna Moné Williams