By Ellen McGirt
March 6, 2017

An opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review caught my eye, though I admit a cringed a bit before I clicked on it. The title: What Biracial People Know.

Now what? I thought. It’s been a strange adventure growing up biracial: Rejected by some white family members out of the gate, then subject to a lifetime of existential questions – What are you, anyway? Choose a side. I was too light for some, too lippy for others. I’m routinely mistaken for whatever Latino demographic happens to populate the zip code. Hola, I’m Ellen, Mexican in California, Puerto Rican in New York.

Some of it’s been funny, like the persistent liberal myth that biracial people have somehow won some attractiveness lottery, by shocking the plain Jane genes of uniracial parents into producing a better-looking human. No. “Here’s how I do the math,” I like to say. “Funny looking White Person A and funny looking Black Person B aren’t getting Halle Berry no matter how hard they try. People are going to look like the people they came from and that’s that.”

But the strangest of all, perhaps, is feeling the weight of light skint privilege so keenly. I know the world is easier for me and I never let myself forget.

So, it was through a lifetime of stinkeye that I pressed ahead with Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s guest editorial. It’s excellent. He’s better known for his book “An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease,” but he’s also a person who comes from people:

As a multiethnic person myself — the son of a Jewish dad of Eastern European descent and a Puerto Rican mom — I can attest that being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent. Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal.

You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole. That task of self-creation isn’t unique to biracial people; it’s a defining experience of modernity. Once the old stories about God and tribe — the framing that historically gave our lives context — become inadequate, on what do we base our identities? How do we give our lives meaning and purpose?

His essay is a smart reminder of all the things we know, that America’s ethnic identity is changing, and that diverse teams make better decisions. But he lets those truths sit next to a broader assertion that all the lofty talk about multiculturalism under a black president failed to make the case that diversity is good for white people. “[W]hat of the white nationalism that [Trump’s] campaign seems to have unleashed? Eight years of a black president didn’t assuage those minds, but instead inflamed them,” he writes.

The business case for national diversity has failed.

So, at what point is someone like Srinivas Kuchibhotla, by all accounts a lovely person and exemplary Garmin engineer, going to be allowed to claim American as part of his identity? He was shot and killed by a man who asked him a version of the What are you, anyway? question. “He asked us what visa are we currently on and whether we are staying here illegally,” Alok Reddy Madasani, who was shot in the same incident, told The New York Times. Kuchibhotla’s widow is asking questions of her own on her Facebook page. “Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?”

And then there is Stuart Wright. He’s white, 31 years old, an accountant, and lives in the Chicago suburbs. His father is a retired investment banker. He has a tattoo that reads “Jesus is love.” We know this guy, right? But he was also just arrested for a hate crime in which he allegedly smashing the window of a downtown synagogue and putting swastika stickers on its doors in early February. His other tattoo is a swastika. His newly shaved head has made the curly haired boy that smiles out from his yearbook picture all but disappear. This guy, we don’t know so well.

So, how do we help all the Mr. Wrights out there who are feeling so terribly wronged? Who feel so entitled to the default American identity? Is there a way for them to define themselves that doesn’t involve existential loss? I wish I knew. As Velasquez-Manoff makes clear, diversity is hard but essential work. It takes practice. There’s going to be rough spots. But perhaps those of us who have struggled with understanding our own identities do have an important role to play in helping those who haven’t yet find their way.


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