People put individuals into boxes because it’s easier. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we don’t do this because we don’t organize people into cliques like Janice in Mean Girls, but Hollywood’s exaggerations are based on truth. Even though we may not draw a map of our school cafeteria explaining where different people sit, we all draw mental maps of how people are different from each other. It’s instinctual but can become dangerous.
It’s natural for people to categorize others because that’s how we’ve taught our brains to work. From an elementary school age, we are taught that English is different than math, that social studies isn’t the same as recess. The basic elements of our language involve putting barriers between activities. So how does this relate to putting barriers between people?
What starts as learning different words for different things transforms into being rewarded for recognizing what is different. A year ago, I saw a performance given by the actor, psychologist, and poet, Dr. Michael Fowlin in which he explained why we categorize each other. If you’re six years old and are given a picture of five bananas and one apple with the instructions to cross out what doesn’t belong, you’re rewarded for putting a big ole X through what’s different. You are trained from an early age to notice what “doesn’t belong.” We put individuals into boxes because, really, one person of color in a group of white people is just another kind of apple that “doesn’t belong.”
Here’s the box that most people put me into: White. People Whitewash me because not only am I not an apple in a set of bananas, I’m an apple-guava-soynut hybrid that children wouldn’t even recognize if it was included in the fruit jumble. Since no one has a box for what I am, they put me into the box for what seems the most obvious: apple.
I am a multi-racial American (actually, I’m also half English because my stepfather is from Maidenhead, but let’s not go there). My mother is Caucasian, and my father is half-Chinese and half-Panamanian. Which makes me half-White, a quarter Chinese, and a quarter Panamanian, otherwise translated as “what the hell do we do with you?” Even though I do not identify as White, that is what most people tell me that I am. On multiple occasions, the fact that I may as well be White has been either implied or explicitly stated. Given the fact that we were taught to recognize apples and not apple-guava-soynuts, this is understandable. I live with my mother and stepfather, both of whom are White; I went to a New England private school, a privilege most often associated with White people, so I “talk White”. But when people look at how I live today and learn where I have gone to school—erasing the other half of my racial identity—they are erasing half of my experiences.
I’ve been in rural areas where I don’t feel safe walking around due to the color of my skin. I’ve been in diners with my mother and received dirty looks for the color of my skin. My family has been kicked out of a hotel because the manager did not expect a man of color to pay the bill. I’ve been forced to move across the country because the ministry work my father was doing for Hispanic youth was no longer the church’s priority. When I’ve had a bad day, instead of mac and cheese, all I want are platanos maduros. I didn’t understand how anyone would want me sexually because my nipples are brown instead of pink. To a certain degree, I still don’t. In middle school, I spent two hours straightening my hair because curly brown hair was ugly and warranted teasing whereas straight brown hair was pretty.
When people look at the fact that I live with White parents and have gone to “White” prep school, they assume I’ve never known anything else. When they tell me that I’m White, they invalidate the lifelong harassment I’ve endured because White is something I’ll never be.
I don’t mean to complain about my hardships as a mixed race American, because compared to the racism so many others have had to endure, and are still enduring, my experiences are not even the tip of that iceberg. But that doesn’t mean that my experiences don’t matter, and that the difficulties multi-racial Americans face should be ignored.
So the next time I identify as an apple-guava-soynut think twice before telling me I’m an apple.