I am often asked about my name. “Nabil. It’s an Arabic name,” I’ll say. “It means noble, learned and generous,” which usually demands further interest.
“Where are you from?” They’ve likely narrowed down their guess to somewhere in the Middle East, hoping for a story as interesting as the name itself.
“New York. My mother found the name in a book she liked.” I rarely take the time to explain that I’m named after Nabíl-i-A`zam, the author of The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil’s Narrative, which chronicles the Babi and Baha’i faiths’ beginnings in the mid-19th century.
It’s not unusual for people to then grow more curious, as if I’m withholding something remarkable. Their eyes look more closely at mine, or my nose, or my beard, searching to latch onto a distinguishable feature. I know that they’re trying to determine my race.
“My father is black and my mother is white,” I tell people.
That often results in a masked look of slight disappointment that my background isn’t more exotic. I have olive skin and a medium build and could pass for everything from Egyptian to Lebanese. If I feel like being more specific, I’ll tell them, “My mom is a white, Russian-Romanian Jew from Long Island, and my dad is black with some French and Native American.”
When I refinanced my New York apartment last year, my gregarious, proudly Greek mortgage broker emailed me requesting information for the loan application:
Also, filling out the personal data ... what are you? I can’t figure it out. You got a little soul in you I see … Not white … what do you pick on government monitoring stuff. I’m guessing maybe middle eastern? Black? I know you’re not on Facebook but there are shit ton of picks online. You really make it challenging. LOL. I know we are cool so I can ask you this bluntly. I put down white last time but not sure I really nailed that one. LOL.
I spent most of my childhood in Amherst, Mass., where many of my friends were of mixed race. We all looked different, and it was the white kids and black kids who stood out equally, with their clearly perceivable race. We didn’t discuss each other’s race because it simply wasn’t an issue. Cultural differences existed: Families had accents and dressed differently. No two homes smelled of the same spices. The fact that we were all different made us somehow all the same.
My friends were named Tabish, Eduardo, Tony, Malika, Aziza, Rodney, Arij, Michael and Shaun. Few of us lived with or even knew both of our parents, and none of us was the weird kid. We lived in a very safe enclave of a paranoid and fearful post-civil-rights-movement America.
My mother was never married to my father, with whom I have never had a relationship. She was 22 at the time of my birth, when mixed-race marriage had only been legal in the United States for five years. In Amherst we lived in North Village, a temporary housing development for UMass students with children. Our rent-subsidized apartment cost $45 a month and we lived on welfare, food stamps and potlucks within our community of international families while my single mother earned her bachelor’s degree and her master’s.
After my mother completed her MBA, we moved back to New York City, where I had been born. I attended fifth grade on scholarship at Little Red Schoolhouse, a liberal, private school in Greenwich Village. My class picture, which still hangs on my wall today, predates the United Colors of Benetton ads that came later that decade: a colorful representation of black, white, Iranian, Eastern European and Japanese faces, each beaming confident smiles. Only years later did I look at that photo and notice how uniquely diverse my class was.
My friends and I learned racial stereotypes from TV, music and movies, but they were hard to confirm in New York, where they didn’t seem to exist in the same way. While we ate Ben’s Pizza, Mamnoon’s Falafel and sloppy Italian hero sandwiches from Conca D’oro, I never noticed the people serving us, let alone their race. Even when I walked through Washington Square Park, junkies and dealers, cops and pickpockets, graffiti artists and street cleaners represented all ethnicities.
I felt safe in New York, but I was always secretly aware of my racial invisibility, and the possibility that at any moment, someone might judge me or treat me differently because of how I looked or who they thought I was.
In my teen years, I’d never been forced, or even presented with an opportunity, to choose my own race. I’d been constantly surrounded by many races, and I fit in with everyone. My very white mother had raised me to accept people and emphasized the fact that, while racial differences existed, we were all equal and the differences didn’t matter. My grandfather had impressed the same upon her when he called in sick from work one day and landed on the front page of the newspaper with his determined fist pumped in the air as he marched for civil rights in Washington, D.C.
When I was 10, my mother’s job moved us to Salt Lake City, a notoriously white place. The Mormon Church had only started welcoming black members in 1978, just four years prior to our arrival. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only nonwhite kid at Wasatch Elementary School. There were Chinese, Japanese and Mexican kids, and some from Tonga and Samoa, two Polynesian islands, where the Mormons sent missionaries.
But nobody looked like me, and I felt as if I stood out. For the first time, people asked me and my mother if I was adopted. It was a question I’d never heard, but one my mother heard often when I was a baby in the very Italian Greenwich Village. The question felt intrusive and caused me to answer somewhat confrontationally, “No, I just look more like my father.”
A white classmate once got up the nerve to ask me trepidatiously, “Nabil, are you poor?” I didn’t know how to respond to her. I knew that we had less money than many of the two-parent, homeowning families in my class. But I wore the same preppy Polo shirts, plaid Bermuda shorts and Sperry Top-Siders as everyone else. Then I realized she’d asked me the question because of my race, or the race she had decided I belonged to. I can’t imagine what she’d learned from her parents.
In Salt Lake, my friends were mostly white, and with ease, I assimilated. I’d never had a black role model, and I was suddenly further than ever from any black people or black culture. People asked about my background, but it never seemed to change their opinion of me. They were much less accepting of the Tongan, Samoan and Mexican communities because the gang violence that was being publicized at the time was attributed to them.
It’s possible that the lack of blackness in Salt Lake City somehow qualified me as “safe.” With no obvious stereotypical place for me, I became a nonthreatening, exotic ally. I went through high school, navigating every ritual—from academics and sports to playing in bands, going to proms and working summer jobs—with no racial issues greater than the occasional request to touch my Afro.
I graduated from a mostly white, small liberal arts college outside Seattle, where I joined a fraternity that dated back to Alabama in 1856, where all eight of its founders had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Should I be in this fraternity? I sometimes thought. But more often, I thought it was important to be there, among a relatively diverse group of people—some of whom were Jewish, Hispanic, Indian, black, Japanese or gay—helping the system to evolve, rather than rejecting it based on its history. Every semester I received a call from the Black Student Union asking me to come to a meeting. I always politely declined, feeling that I wasn’t black enough and that, oddly, my traditionally white fraternity offered more diversity than the exclusive BSU.
Not long ago, I had my first opportunity to spend some time with my father. We’d met several times, always briefly and awkwardly, during my childhood. Now, as an adult, I stared across a table full of sushi at someone who behaved so much like me and looked like a more black version of me. I rushed through questions I finally had the opportunity to ask, sloppily paraphrasing answers in a soy-sauce-stained notebook.
“Are there others like me?” I asked, referring to the fact that I was the mutually intentional product of my mother’s short-lived relationship with a jazz musician. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, telling me yes, there were. I was upset by his casual acknowledgment of the other people he’d created—siblings of mine. He had a real family with children he’d raised, but the rest of us had been relegated to a fleeting thought—a smile and a shrug.
Though we now live in the same city, I have not felt compelled to meet my father again. That feeling has been replaced with the urge to meet my half-siblings. Two years ago, I tracked down two of them. We have the same father, but each of us has a different mother. Their mothers are both black—therefore my half-siblings appear to be obviously black. I sometimes wonder how different their lives have been because of their race, which has likely been a more inherent part of their identity than it has mine.
I visited my half brother at his home in Raleigh, N.C., where I met his wife and 8-year-old daughter. He’d grown up with our father in the “proper” family, with the woman our father married two years after I was born.
Over lunch in a suburban burger restaurant, we discovered how little we had in common: He loves sports and runs a car dealership. He has never played music, while our father and I have built our lives and careers around music. He mentioned that our grandfather had “a family on the side,” then informed me about our half sister, who had recently been in contact with him but whom I had not been aware of.
Our father had told me the details of his two “proper” children, who were two and four years younger than I, and a half brother of mine from an earlier marriage, who was 10 years older. But he had not offered any information about the others like me. I was fascinated by the idea of locating them.
I was baffled by how easily I established contact with my half sister via Facebook, and felt genuinely warmed by her quick response. I discovered our similarities while visiting her in Philadelphia. We were born in the same year, when our mothers were both 22. She is musical and creative and has two sons with similar interests. She has worked hard, and chose to raise her sons in a small apartment in a wealthy white neighborhood in order to send them to the best schools. She and I look nothing alike, but her very black sons proudly call me “Uncle Nabil.”
Not often have I felt unsafe because of my race. I feel accepted by black people, who can generally tell that I’m part black. I feel accepted by white people, who often can’t figure out what I am. My worst racially motivated experience occurred when a small pack of baseball-capped, denim-jacketed hicks in Fort Collins, Colo., surrounded me and demanded, as they looked me up and down, “What are you?”
“Nabil! Where are you from?” Uber drivers in Los Angeles and New York ask the same question as the hicks in Colorado, but their tone is excited and they are of different backgrounds—Libyan, Pakistani, Egyptian—each hoping to connect with me, someone who likely shares the name of a relative or close friend.
I work in the music business and I’m often mistaken for a famous music-video director who has made videos for Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Frank Ocean and goes simply by his first name, Nabil. Backstage at concerts and industry events, it’s telling to hear people’s voices suddenly become more hip-hop, an affectation they adopt only when they think they’re meeting the rap-video director.
“Not that Nabil” elicits a humble apology. People aren’t aware that even though he has made videos for hugely famous black artists, Nabil is half-white and half-Iranian and looks much more white than I do.
People of mixed race face a common challenge: finding a way to fit in, which sometimes requires us to make a choice. If my early life had been spent in less liberal cities than Amherst and New York, I might have felt the need to assimilate with a race at an earlier age. If I’d been raised by my black father rather than my white mother, I would likely identify as black.
What if I’d been adopted? It’s possible that an adoptive family of any race might have worked to expose me to black people and culture more than my natural mother did. The opposite is also possible—a childhood in a less accepting, more white place than Salt Lake City. I am the same person in each of these scenarios, but each one has a drastically different outcome.
Nabil Ayers is a Brooklyn, N.Y., writer and the U.S. head of the British record label 4AD. Follow him on Twitter.