First Person: “Picking One” not so easy for mixed-race students

Mckenzie Barrow


Holding my number two pencil in the cold gymnasium, I stared at section three of my PSAT, and thus began my identity crisis.  My sisters had warned me of how I would feel: too enraged to be sad, but too disappointed to be angry.  It was in this moment that I was forced to decide which parts of me I was not.  My eyes blurred as I looked down the page, praying it was not as it appeared to be, but knowing it was.  “Pick one.”  The simple directive made me question everything I knew about myself.  I am of the select group of people who wish that there was one more bubble that begged me to select it because I am two or more of the previously listed ethnicities.  I am a mixed fifteen-year-old female.  As a toddler, I learned English throughout the day only to have a Spanish lullaby sung to me at night by a dark-skinned Panamanian baritone.

Grandma and Grandpa, an African-American pastor and his English teacher wife, moved from Mississippi to Sacramento before my mother, their tenth child, was born.  Grandma was from an impoverished small town that decided to send the girls to school and keep the boys home to work, believing that girls would rather marry a strong man and boys would rather marry a smart girl.  As a young child, she grew up in the home of her mother’s parents, a kind African-American and his loving Native American, Irish wife.  Grandpa was the son of a pastor and a nurse and the great grandson of a Native American.  In accordance with their dark coloring, my grandparents were by all means culturally black.

Abuelo and Abuela, a dark-skinned man from Belize and his chocolate-colored Panamanian wife, owned a little store in Panama City, Panama, until my father was nine and the family moved to America. As a young orphan, Abuelo had run off and become a sailor until he was eighteen and made his way to Panama. The two met a laundromat where they worked.  She was a spirited girl who loved God, her family, learning, and chocolates.

This is my family.  This is my heritage.  This is my culture.  To be asked to deny all but one part of me to take a test is one thing I cannot allow myself to do.

Truthfully, I have attempted to distance myself from every part of me at one time or another.  I often surround myself by people who appear to be ethically different from me — perhaps popular views of African-Americans have shaped my own.  Once after my friends made a series of racist jokes, I sat in shock with a look of disappointment.  One looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, I forgot you were black.”  For a while it was pleasant to think that in spite of my complexion, they had been able to accept me as one of their own — as if this may have been what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., meant by “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  However, upon reflection, I once more felt my initial reaction of disappointment, because if I had, in fact, not been black, they would not have felt bad about their remarks, nor should I have felt that there was anything wrong with them.

But that day in the cold gymnasium, I remembered a moment from kindergarten when I was first called black.  I had become upset then because my skin did not match the crayon labeled Black from my thirty-six pack of Crayolas.  So in that moment in the gymnasium I attempted to forget the stories Grandma told me of her grandmother that she called Mama, and Abuela’s stories of childhood in Panama.  In that moment of failed attempts at forced forgetfulness, I picked one.

Still, every time I see my Abuelo, he tells me in his Belizean accent that I, his mixed race granddaughter, am beautiful.  Yet, as a young person who sees the images of beauty which are in the media around me, I sometimes have a difficult time seeing myself through Abuelo’s eyes.  I am part of a beautiful history.  I am a mixed race child.  I am who my Abuelo says I am.  I am beautiful.  So if ever I must choose again, I will choose to be the invisible bubble, until there is a bubble that does not force me to deny who I am.