The first time I remember someone saying that I looked more "other" than African American, I completely misunderstood the comment. My second-grade teacher told my mother that I looked Samoan. I had no idea that "Samoan" referred to an ethnic group and wasn't some frivolous adjective like "cute."
In my 7-year-old mind, the word sounded like "s'mores," and I figured she meant to say I looked "s'morean." I did have a fluffy, bouffant bang that could be described as marshmallowy. I also thought my skin was about the color of a graham cracker. "S'morean" made sense to me. I didn't give it another thought.
Today things are different. I've given my appearance and identity endless thought because I haven't had a choice. I keep a Howard University mug on the most conspicuous spot on my desk at work. It's a hint to people who might wonder about my ethnicity. It also represents the place where I learned to appreciate the many distinct experiences of being African American, including my own: the black woman who many see only as ethnically ambiguous.
I stepped onto campus freshman year and assumed that because I was an HBCU student, it was obvious that I was black. I assumed wrong. I was both surprised and ashamed when people constantly inquired about my ethnicity. I wondered if my family and I had fraudulently claimed to be black. I hadn't learned yet that we weren't the only black Americans with a complex history of racial mixing—our complex history just happened to be more physically apparent.
To understand how clueless I was about how others perceived me (and why I identify so strongly as black), you have to understand my upbringing. I was blissfully unaware of my ambiguous ethnic appearance as a child. I was raised in Houston by parents whose families both have Louisiana Creole roots. My maternal grandparents conversed in French Creole. My paternal grandfather, known as "King Creole," sold andouille and boudin made from his own recipes. My family taught me to appreciate this heritage. At the same time, they taught me that being Creole was a part of, and not separate from, being African American.
Passing for anything other than black was taboo for us. The first time I asked my mother if we were Creole, she confirmed that we were and then quickly instructed me to tell people that I was black. She backed that up my making sure that just about any depiction of a person found in our home was black. White Santa and white Jesus rarely made an appearance. However, brown-angel statuettes guarded our rooms, and a painting of a dark-skinned Jesus with 12 black apostles presided over the dining room. Did they look just like us? No. But they reflected who we felt we were.
Remember when Beyoncé listed her heritage as "African American," "French" and "Indian" in that L'Oréal ad? Because of the early messages I got from my parents, that's simply not a choice it would ever occur to me to make.
My black identity was further nurtured at an elementary school run by the Catholic Church in the Frenchtown area of Houston's 5th Ward. Plenty of other students looked like me and had similar French last names, but posters of black heroes lined the hallways, and we learned black history daily. I was never singled out as different, and identifying as African American wasn't up for debate.
I didn't really begin to become aware of the incongruity between my looks and my racial label until I was 13. I overheard someone ask my dad about our family's ethnicity. She saw my picture and wondered if we were Arab because I had "those thick eyebrows."
After this incident, arrogance and shame about my questionable appearance began to tag-team in my emotions.
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.