A few years ago, as new demographic reports were flush with a growing wave of multiracial youth, I revisited the topic of my roots.
My African-American mother and grandmother raised me at a time when identifiable biracial children were still just a fraction of the population. As a child, I had no contact with my father or anyone else on the white side of my family, which only contributed to my general confusion about race. I wasn’t mad at my father, exactly. Nor did I hold his whiteness against him. I had (and I say this without a trace of irony) many good friends who were white.
But I was bitterly divided in a place deep inside of myself. Much as our country is today.
Mine is a story about growing up biracial and eventually making peace with my father and the white side of the family that I never knew. Our tale traverses several decades, landing in my middle-aged years and taking several surprising twists and turns along the way. Fundamentally, though, it’s a story that goes beyond race. Our journey is about relentless faith, and second and third and fourth and fifth chances. It’s about healing by turning the gaze inward.
I gradually began to know my father in my 20s. Once, I remember getting annoyed with him when he claimed to be “colorblind.”
“That’s not a word you should use anymore,” I said. “ No one is colorblind. Not even children. It’s been proven.”
“Oh,” he said.
It occurs to me now that our political leanings and understandings have everything to do with the people we know, where we’ve been, what we’ve seen. Studies show that many Americans operate in echo chambers, listening only to those who share similar beliefs and blocking out the rest of the world in a circular kind of confirmation bias. Some people say the Mueller probe exonerated Donald Trump because they trust the president and believe what he says. Maybe we’ve known people like him and aspire to be like them. Or not. Maybe we’ve known people like him and have not trusted them and they are not who we aspire to be.
While visiting my father’s home in Washington state, he took me to meet my paternal grandmother. She made her disappointment clear to us. She wasn’t thrilled to have a black granddaughter and was rude. When my father was locked up at Los Angeles County jail for any number of misdemeanors during the troubled years of his youth, he’d look out and see her staring back at him from the courtroom benches, the only white person, as he recalled, “in a sea of black faces.” She’s gone now, and I’ll never know what she thought of all the black faces or whether she ever bothered to talk to any black people.
It occurs to me also that people we don’t know shape our political understandings, too, as do the places we haven’t been and the things we’ll never see. It’s kind of like how when you learn a new language, you’re not just learning words you knew. In fact, what the multilingual person discovers is that he or she now has a whole new way of seeing the world. The universe expands and entire thought patterns that never before existed in their minds are now available.
It took decades for my father to become my dad, but we got there. Today we are both so grateful for this fact that it often moves us to tears. The personal is political, as the old saying goes, but so, too, is the political personal. If my story is a lesson for the nation at large, one thing I do know is this: Redemption is possible. In politics, and in our hearts. If we choose to seek it.
This essay appeared in the April 7, 2019 Sunday Opinion/Commentary section of Newsday.
Americans younger than 18 are only 26 percent of the population but make up 46 percent of those who identify as multiracial. This is a revolution. #ImNotAlone #biracial #multiracial #mixedrace https://t.co/NzNqavc9T2
— Revolution ImNotAlone (@ImNotAlone2019) March 5, 2019
Thank you all for following The Girl in the Yellow Poncho, a blog about my forthcoming family memoir. Your support is appreciated!
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She doesn’t know it yet, but my daughter Olivia lives in a world that is deeply and intensely global and multiracial. Miami.
Once, while passing through Little Havana, I stopped at a drive-through Subway and was in the process of ordering a turkey sandwich (in English) when the cashier turned and made a comment to her coworker.
“Imaginate. Una Americana por aqui.”
Can you imagine? An American? Around here?
It’s precisely that kind of remark that freaks out xenophobic Americans. Our country’s axis is shifting dramatically. These are seismic, earth-shattering jolts. Gone are the old civil rights-era discussions about black and white. Today, any conversation about race and families will have to cross borders.
My story is a part of this trend.
In my memoir, The Girl in the Yellow Poncho, I describe being African American with family roots in Chicago’s South Side and small-town Arkansas. I’m also white with a Dutch-Amish last name and a father who spent his youth hanging out with what he calls “vatos locos.” To add to that pot, I’m married to a Spaniard, living in a largely Latino city, and raising a brown-skinned child of African American and Southeast Asian descent.
Here in Miami, our friends are from Haiti, Brazil, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Singapore, Colombia, El Salvador, Canada, Germany, Nicaragua, and Spain. Here in Miami, I feel the tectonic plates heaving more profoundly than anywhere else. Often, as I glance around the room at dinner parties I’m the only American at the table.
Among Olivia’s school friends are Rudy, who is Lebanese. Julian, of Jamaican, Italian and Cuban descent. And Abbas, who is Indian and Pakistani and was born in New Jersey to parents who lived for many years in Dubai. Abbas speaks fluent Spanish, English and Urdu, and as a Muslim, will soon learn Arabic.
It’s time we tell these stories in much more vivid detail. The era of simplistic, black-white racial binaries is over. So is the myth of a “colorblind” society, which is exactly what we don’t want. Instead, we should strive to see the contours of the world with more definition, not less. Instead, we should strive for a new lens, a new filter. And more bright, open light.
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Last month New York’s Commission on Human Rights declared that it’s no longer okay to discriminate on the basis of hairstyle. Meaning, employers and other authorities can no longer force people to get rid of their dreadlocks, cornrows, box braids, Afros, or otherwise curly, biggish, non-white hair.
The city’s groundbreaking decision has been a long time coming.
Volumes have been written about black hair, that most deeply deep cultural signifier. I won’t rehash those tear-stained reams…except maybe…just for a second…to point to my own Washington Post investigative piece about Rio, a company that preyed on black women’s hair insecurities and was, in the end, made to pay $4.5 million in a class action settlement filed by some 54,000 victims who’d used the product.
But I will say this.
About a year ago, as the glowing new mother of a multiracial baby girl (below, smile), I too decided to give up relaxers (again) and to allow my hair to do whatever the heck it wanted to do.
I’m not gonna lie. At first, I didn’t like the generally clumpy feeling of thickness on my head. Going natural took some getting used to.
But I am getting used to, and even starting to relish, the new bigness of my hair. And I’ll continue to do so for one simple reason. Because the world is changing. And I’m changing with it.
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Mom dressed me up and took me to a Venice Beach motel to see my father for the first time. Or at least, it was the first time that I could remember. I was four or five and over the moon with excitement.
My father was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was white and my mother was black.
This is my story.
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March 5, 1921 – October 26, 2018
It’s a very special day for us as we launch #ImNotAlone. Happy birthday to my beloved grandmother who is here with us every step of the way. @ImNotAlone2019
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23:6
A few years ago I decided to revisit the topic of my roots and childhood in this Washington Post essay. One thing led to another and soon I had a memoir on my hands…one that took surprising twists and turns that even I never would have expected. I was raised by my African American mother and grandmother in Los Angeles. Santa Monica and Hollywood, to be precise. During most of my life I had no contact with my father, or anyone on the white side of my family. But then, in the summer of 2017, when I was well on my way to middle age and a new Mom to boot, everything changed. My father reentered our lives and, this time, he finally became my Dad.
Ours is a family story about relentless optimism and faith. It’s also about forgiveness. And redemption and second (and third and fourth and fifth) chances. It’s a love story that took us all by surprise.
Have you also traveled down a unique path as a biracial or multiracial person? Share your stories with us!
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*The Girl in the Yellow Poncho, copyright Kristal Brent Zook, 2019