The first time I heard about the “American melting pot,” I figured I contained many of its simmering ingredients. As a child, I remember being mesmerized by Schoolhouse Rock’s cartoon version of the great American story, with people of all races (including one Statue of Liberty) happily ending up in a large cooking kettle. I was a living example of that culinary experience – Black, Italian and Irish. I was the color of hot cocoa, which I decided meant I was sweet and delicious. I was living proof that everybody could get along.
I was happy in my cultural fondue for many years. I grew up in Seattle, the adopted daughter of a black man from Virginia and a white French-Canadian woman. I thought it normal to have one light-skinned parent and one dark-skinned one, to speak French as well as English, to travel the world, and to live in a funky, colorful neighborhood filled with artists, gay men and women, and bizarrely dressed, transient youth. I didn’t think it strange that my community didn’t include many people of color. My life was well-seasoned and familiar.
But in my early twenties something started to feel wrong. Maybe it began when a black teenager approached me and some white friends and kicked me in the shin. “Don’t forget you’re black,” he hissed. Or it could have been the Spike Lee movies about the inexorable separation between white and black. Or perhaps it was the black man who, upon discovering my boyfriend was white, notified me that as a black woman it was my duty to carry on the black seed (I had no idea black people were on the endangered species list). Whatever it was, I was no longer feeling good about being an unofficial representative of the melting pot. It wasn’t OK for everyone to get along after all. I felt pressured. What was it going to be: white or black?
Everywhere I looked, minorities were making a case for why they should dislike and distrust the dominant society. I saw their point. Who didn’t know the history of slavery? That a country run by white men had stolen land, culture and hope from the Native Americans? That just a few years ago in Texas, white racists had dragged a black man to death behind a car? I was proud to be part black, part of the legacy of survival. But I didn’t hate white people. Many of my friends were white, my boyfriend was white, an entire branch of my family was white. I was part white. But because of the way I looked, to some I was a black woman fraternizing with the enemy. It was a label that made my stomach churn.
The more I tried to figure out how to be acceptably “black,” the more depressed I became. I could not create that schism within myself – it was too late. I didn’t know many in my situation, and I felt isolated. I wanted out of the melting pot, wanted to have just one heritage and be done with it. Perhaps I would be more bland, but I would have less psychological indigestion. I fantasized about leaving my boyfriend, running away, and immersing myself in a black community where I could raise a nice black family and disappear into normalcy. But I could not imagine carving away most of my life. And when, in a fit of distress, I admitted to my boyfriend my thoughts of escaping his skin color, he sat down and cried. “Then racism really will have won,” he said. I was ashamed.
Relief came in my late twenties when I stumbled across a web site called Interracial Voice. Hundreds of people posted their thoughts about being multi-racial, living in interracial relationships, and having interracial children. They shared the challenges and joys of transcending color lines. “Identify with love,” one woman wrote. “Don’t categorize yourself, even if others do. It just pushes us all back to ‘those days.’” I had finally found others who had tried to identify with one race over another and had given up, finding strength in embracing their unique identity as mixed-race people.
I discovered this new wave of thought just as it was cresting. Similar websites cropped up. Magazines for mixed-race people hit the newsstands. Mixed-race celebrities began refusing to be pigeonholed into one racial category. Singer Mariah Carey, who many think is white, spoke proudly about being tri-racial. “When people ask, I say I’m Black, Venezuelan, and Irish.” Pro-golfer Tiger Woods declared himself a “Cablinasian,” a nod to his Caucasian, black, Native American, and Thai heritages. This pronouncement drew sharp criticism from many black people. “Doesn’t that boy know he’s black?” a black friend said to me in disgust.
But it wasn’t just celebrities who were challenging existing racial divisions. In the late ‘90s, the U.S. Census admitted they could no longer ask people to only choose one race by which to define themselves. The 2000 census made history when it offered 63 possible racial combinations. The result: 6.8 million people identified themselves as multi-racial.
All of this helped me let go of the need to choose one racial identity. I could embrace all of my flavors again. I realized I had myself internalized a form of racism, thinking I should act a certain way because of the color of my skin. I now envision a day when our country will be less race-obsessed and divided. I hope for not only the end of racism by whites, but also racism by minorities against whites and other minorities who don’t fit stereotypes. As we move into the 21st century, geneticists are saying that race doesn’t exist on a genetic level, that fundamentally we are just humans with interesting variations. This speaks volumes. I hope we, as a country, will listen.
Today I am married to the man I almost ran away from, and we are expecting our first child. Although I sometimes fear that my son will be pushed to categorize himself according to how he looks, I hope to show him a way free of boundaries and limitations. He heralds what is possible with the next generation – that perhaps someday the concept of race as we now know and experience it will cease to exist.
And to him I will say, “Welcome to the melting pot. You are sweet and delicious. You are all people in one.”