WRITTEN IN BLACK AND WHITE: A Discussion of Race and Social Justice from a Biracial Career Counselor's Perspective

Article excerpt

In a public high school in suburban Connecticut, it is a novelty.

"Why is he wearing those clothes?"

"It's cool. He's actually part Black."

In a public bathroom amidst a circle of leather-clad teenagers, it is a threat. "What, you think you're Black or something?"

At a jazz show in Harlem it is a challenge.

"This is your father? Your real father?"

On the side of the road in South Carolina in the presence of a state trooper who is letting me go with a warning, it's a secret.

"You have a nice day, son."

Around the cafeteria table on a small college campus in Boston, it is access.

"Homeboy must be lost."

"It's cool. I know him."

At a restaurant in San Francisco, it is a cool party trick.

"I'm black."

"No you're not."

"No. Really. I'm half black."

In my counseling office at a San Mateo community college internship, it is all of these things. When I ask clients to guess what ethnicity I am, I get all kinds of answers-Mexican, Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Italian, Greek, Native American, Latin, and of course White. But never Black. And never half Black. With my stick straight hair alongside my slow pace, relaxed enunciation, and laid back demeanor, my medium dark complexion loses it's ethnic power and becomes nothing more than the perfect tan on a White guy who probably surfs a lot. Like most multiracial individuals, my heritage (Scandinavian and African-American) hides within me and unless I find myself confronted with those demanding check boxes on an application form, I usually don't find reason to bring it up. Maria Root (1996) introduced a model to address the complex identity issues of multiracial people. Within this model she offers the possibility that a multiracial individual may experience a shift from one identity to another according to the situation he is experiencing. From a personal standpoint, the result of such oscillation is not only a lack of a singular and continuous identity but also a resentment towards the widespread acceptance of categorizing individuals by one and only one race.

Like most biracial people, my life has been all about shifting between identities. As a child, I grew up with black culture all around me, culminating in big family holiday gatherings at grandma's house with candied yams and collard greens. Despite my lighter skin and "good" hair, I identified more with the Black side of my family, if for no other reason than that they were geographically closer than the White side. (My closest Norwegian-American relatives lived 2,000 miles away in Montana and North Dakota). But in grade school, there wasn't a Black kid to be found (besides me) so I became just another White boy in Connecticut equipped with all the privileges to which White people become accustomed. Peggy McIntosh (1988) refers to this compilation of unearned privileges as the "invisible knapsack." So while I had all this wonderful Black culture pouring into me through my father's extended family, I was simultaneously and unknowingly acquiring a sense of entitlement, belonging, and advantage as a member of the dominant White culture. One aspect of being biracial that is particularly irritating to people with definitively dark skin is that I have the "choice" as to whether or not to reveal my secret depending on the context of the situation (Tatum, 1997). In other words, when I get pulled over by a cop or when I am buying my Gatorade at the corner store, I have the ability to keep my race hidden so as to maintain the advantage of being perceived as White or, perhaps more to the point, not Black. While I admit this choice protects me from the oppression of racism, there is a drawback to the power of choice. In not appearing Black, I have encountered numerous racists, in the most true and ugly sense of the word, most of them my friends and acquaintances. Especially during my formative years, I swallowed their slurs, telling myself "they did not really mean it," while secretly battling the idea that I should end the relationship. …

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