Essay: My rich, mixed heritage

In her diverse hometown, race never mattered. Now that she's moved away, she's learning to field questions about her origins.

I've always tried not to identify myself by race. All my life I've said it didn't matter, and I still believe it doesn't. I grew up in Sacramento, Calif., where it was not that unusual to have a black mother and a white father.

But since I've gotten older and left my hometown, I've gotten more looks and questions.

"Are you adopted?" That's the question people ask when they see my parents and me together.

"No," I reply.

"Are you sure?" they often counter.

I'm never quite sure how to answer that. I'm not completely sure. My parents tell me I'm their biological child, but I don't remember my birth.

I've seen the pictures, but the alienlike creature covered in goo could have been someone else. It doesn't look like me, but I don't think I'm adopted or was switched at birth.

I don't know what to say. So, I simply smile and reply jokingly, "Pretty sure," or "As sure as I can be."

The question has always bothered me. Even if I were adopted, would that mean that my parents aren't my parents? Would I introduce them as my adoptive parents? I don't think so.

My mother has a big Afro and coffee-brown skin; my father is white with straight, light-brown hair and blue eyes.

In "The Color of Water," the author's white mother tells her half-black, half-white son that he is "the color of water." But I am not the color of water; it's not that simple.

I look like the perfect mix of Mom and Dad. My hair is usually smooth but wavy and sometimes so frizzy that it looks as though I've been electrocuted.

Depending on the season, my skin ranges from almost pasty white to light brown to olive.

I'm honest about what I am, but people never think I'm black. Most people describe me as "exotic looking," which translates to, "What exactly are you?"

They think I might be Latina, Filipina, Asian, a Pacific Islander, or sometimes even Middle Eastern.

It's kind of a compliment, and I'm always impressed. The truth is so boring by comparison.

I went to a dinner with my mother and her Pakistani friend. The man stared at me and asked if I was Pakistani.

Mom said, "No, she's my daughter, and her father's white."

The man replied "Are you sure? Because you look like you could be from some particular region of Pakistan."

I giggled as the man pressed my mother with the usual guesses as to my race.

I don't want to sound like one of those mixed race, multiethnic, or whatever-you-call-them kids who tell how their lives were destroyed because they never fitted in or weren't a member of a single race. I'm not that.

Race was never an issue when I was growing up. In 2000, the Census Bureau rated Sacramento as one of the most diverse cities in the United States. And the different groups socialized, dated, went to school together, and married each other. Many of my friends were of mixed races, and no one cared.

But now, for the first time in my life, at the tender age of 21, my race has become a bigger deal.

My grandma wrote a book, "When We Were Colored: A Mother's Story," and I'm helping to promote it.

When I go to bookstores and tell people that my grandmother wrote a book about being "colored," they stare at me in disbelief.

I show them the family photo on the book cover and tell them that the chubby black baby on her father's lap is my mother. More disbelief.

They don't ask directly, but I can tell what they're thinking:

"What is this girl of unknown race [they may not be sure what I am, but I'm definitely not black] doing with a black mother and grandmother? And what is she doing using the word 'colored'? Doesn't she know that's not politically correct?"

(Grandma is working on a new book that she may call "Tales of a Negro Grandma," and I dread going to bookstores with that word.)

Still, people are always polite – just surprised. Sometimes they ask me what my family is like, fishing for an answer. Mostly, they say nothing.

I feel compelled to explain. I don't know why, but I think I should satisfy their curiosity, and I also feel I must prove that I am actually related to the beautiful black family on the book cover.

"My father's white," I usually say, and that takes care of it.

Book events are more troubling. My aunts and uncles are immediately recognized as the author's children, and people ask the black grandchildren, my cousins, if they're part of the family. But me – they just assume I'm some person hired to sell the book.

When customers ask to take pictures of the whole family, they give me that "Why is she trying to get in the picture?" look. That is, until my mother explains that I am her daughter. Then they smile and mumble something about multiculturalism.

It bothers me that people think I'm not related to my mother and grandmother because I'm proud of my family – proud that I come from a long line that endured slavery, survived segregation, and prospered.

My grandma's grandfather was born a slave. After the Civil War, he started a shoe shop in Atlanta that was so successful he was able to send his nine children to college.

I'm also proud of the white side of my family. They were Texas sharecroppers who came to California during the Depression. But that's another story.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.