Last weekend, I took a survey at my local grocery store; specifically, a survey on the quality of the store’s meat and seafood section (generally: great price, mediocre quality, reasonably fresh and enough organic choices to make you feel okay about the entire endeavor).
I got a two-dollar bill for my time. I also got asked about my race.
I’ve gone back and forth on how I identify myself over the years. I tend to identify myself as biracial now, and mention both races – black and white. Black is always first, because white is a cultural norm, almost tossed in as the presumed racial filler. Of course you’re part white; what’s interesting is the other thing because it makes you exotic and different to white people, who are utterly bored by their own racial identity until you can get into the fractional particularities of their European ancestry.
When asked what race I was, I only got one option. This, of course, is problematic. So I said, “biracial,” which placed me in the dreaded other category, and before I could think about it, I explained my relative mix. It’s a matter of habit, after all.
The woman taking the survey, an overly cloying woman who felt the need to congratulate me at length for being able to randomly pick a number between one and five for the purposes of obtaining semi-obscure currency, looked at me after I explained this and said, “You know, I like that. White and black. You’re a middle of the road guy, you know? Not too much of one, not too much of the other. No extremes with you.”
And I made my money. Then I bought my fish.
I’ve thought about that moment for much of the past week. In an odd way, it was a compliment — you, friend, tell others who you are. Inasmuch as race matters, you’re honest about it, and don’t try to hide behind it. The problem is, it’s an incredibly ignorant compliment. It’s a way of congratulating someone for identifying the correct way, of putting your imprimatur on their identity as they reveal it to you.
In another, truer sense, it’s a judgment on your identity, the person telling you that the way you identify comports with their sense of justice. In the age of Obama, there’s a nasty undercurrent of resentment at the multiracial being able to take “advantage” of their backgrounds by not having to be saddled with the increasing burden of whiteness. (For some reason I don’t get guaranteed any of the benefits of identifying as white, because the White Privilege Package always gets lost in the mail.) Why does Obama get to be special just because he’s part black? He’s part white, too, and nobody ever gets entered into the history books for that except every other President in American history. What injustice!
There’s an inherent tension in how you’re treated when you’re bi- or multiracial. One, there’s a distinction between white-plus mixed kids and non-white-plus mixed kids (those who are multiple non-white ethnicities). White-plus kids become the majority’s safe minorities – the Asian girl you can ask about hot Asian submissiveness, the Latino kid you can make a surplus of taco jokes around, the black kid you can assume speaks “proper” English and is able to explain rap lyrics to you. Non-white-plus kids are like the majority trying to walk to the corner store through an M.C. Escher painting – intermarrying minorities are the sort of odd spectacle normally reserved for your truly progressive department store ads, not real life. There’s a presumption that you live in a constant tension between other people’s stereotypes, and are unable to reconcile your identity in a way that makes sense to the world outside.
For the multiracial, identity is a complex thing. I largely identify as black outside of surveys, not to gain some ephemeral advantage, but because that’s how I’m treated by the world around me. In survey situations, I identify as biracial because I want people to know we walk among them. It has nothing to do with taking an “extreme” position (and, for that matter, does identifying as one race make me extreme? Is each race a mutually exclusive extreme that cannot be reconciled except through the bumping of uglies?), it has to do with how I live versus how I want to live. I cannot change society’s reaction to me simply by insisting I’m not what others think when society does not care about that distinction, but I can certainly tell those who ask who I am and where I come from.
Perhaps that’s extreme. Perhaps I’m a closet racial radical. Perhaps the union of my mother and father was something truly transgressive from the start, and I have no choice but to use my racial identity as a social salve to heal the wound.
Or maybe identity is complex, and there’s no radicalism in being born.