As I got older, my eyebrows and hair frequently launched the “What’s your ethnicity?” conversation. When someone commented on how long my hair was, I would smugly reply “thanks” while tossing my ponytail. Then there were shameful times, like when my older brother told me that I needed to get a real hairstyle. I pined over the fact that no gel would be strong enough to mold my hair into a trendy appearance, like the rest of my black friends.
In my 20s I knew that what guys called my “exotic” appearance was a lot of what was behind their enthusiasm about talking to me, as well as the accompanying free drinks. That thrill was empty and short-lived, though, and before I met my husband, I feared I would never encounter a man who didn’t make me feel as if I were an animal completing his search for a rare pet.
Reconciling my appearance with my identity has been a challenge that only gets more complicated the more I learn and the more people scrutinize my decision. I stubbornly consider myself black, but I’m well aware that there are many like me who identify as multiracial.
I know the difference has less to do with genes and more to do with how our families dealt with race during our formative years and how we experience it in the present. My childhood environment taught me that my being African American was undeniable. My adulthood experiences, especially at an HBCU, taught me that I’m just one of many who have a complicated background but who identify as black—and that I might spend the rest of my life explaining that.
Alicia LaChapelle-Friday lives in Houston and is a Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses on the impact of culture and race on the academic, civic and community engagement of adolescents. Follow her on Twitter.