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Self-Affirming Lessons That Come With Age on Being Biracial

I now have the ability to let go of that which I cannot control.

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Mixing two colors of paint
Jamie Chung/Trunk Archive
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I am a 59-year-old female attorney of Filipino American descent who was repeatedly mistaken as the nanny of my own child. My son inherited the coloring of his father, a white man primarily of Danish ancestry. So, my son does not look like me.

He has blue eyes and fair skin. That seemed to throw people off, and led to a lot of rude comments, as most people assumed I was his nanny.

Such flawed assumptions based on my skin color occurred in other contexts as well. We belonged to a country club and a yacht club where, on more than one occasion, older women would ask me to take their drink orders, thinking I was a waiter.

The dentist assumed I was the babysitter bringing my child into his office for the mother. The Gymboree class teacher assumed the same. Assumptions frequently overcome people’s manners in the questions posed to me by strangers.

My parents were forbidden by law to marry in our home state of Maryland in 1962. So my Asian mother and Caucasian father crossed into the nearby District of Columbia to enter matrimony. Interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states until the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 1967. Racism in this country has always been harsher towards African Americans, which likely is a remnant of slavery. The “one drop” rule used to govern race determination —  if a person had one drop of Black blood, they were considered to be Black. Passing as white used to be a virtue.

Now that we have a vice president, Kamala Harris, who is is biracial, perhaps things will change. As Harris wrote in her 2018 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: “My mother understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see [my sister] Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.” And they did.

The U.S. Census reflects how our society views race. In 1960, people could select their own race on the census questionnaire. Prior to that, an individual’s race was determined by the census-takers. It was not until 2000 that people could choose more than one race to describe themselves. In 2020, for the first time, the census form asks respondents who choose white or Black for their race to give more information about their origins, like if they are African American, Somali or another race or ethnicity. The latest U.S. Census statistics demonstrate that the multiracial population will be the fastest growing over the next several decades. Caucasians in the United States population are projected to be a minority in 2045. At that point, perhaps race will matter even less.

While most of us in midlife and older grew up in a world of racial boundaries, our children grew up in a more accepting milieu. The concept of race has been somewhat deconstructed by the younger generation. A friend my age suffered greatly when her white parents refused to attend her wedding to a Black man. I do not think parents of our generation would do that.

Interracial marriage increasingly is losing its taboo. I grew up with a double consciousness. I was frequently the only dark-skinned person in my schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. I was acutely aware of my surroundings, especially when I was the only person of color in a room. I felt instant kinship with people of different ethnicities and developed a chameleon-like persona, adapting to become whomever I thought others wanted me to be.

Los Angeles resident Heidi Durrow, the New York Times best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, didn’t really have a sense of what race was until she was 11 years old and her family moved to the U.S. from Denmark. She describes herself as an “Afro-Viking” — her mother is Danish and her father is African American.

“We didn't talk about race at home,” Durrow told me. “Andi if I were to identify as anything, it would be as American and Danish. We spoke Danish at home and often visited with my mom’s family in Denmark.”  “But in America in the 1980s, it seemed like there were sharp lines between who was white and who was Black and what that meant,” Durrow continues. “I lived in a mostly Black neighborhood and tried my best to fit in. There wasn't any real discussion about being biracial when I was young. I thought it was confusing, but that’s just the way it was. It’s different for me now in midlife [at age 52], because I've had a chance to wrestle with the questions about my mixed identity through my writing and by creating community with others.”

It was not until my 50s that I learned how to drop the rocks of self-judgment and of never feeling good enough. I embrace my half-Asian ethnicity and the differing perspective I can bring to a situation. Large corporations are increasingly recognizing this value in their marketing.

I believe that with age comes acceptance and self-confidence. Jennifer Frappier, 45, of Los Angeles, whose heritage she cites as “Black, white and Filipino,” speaks to this point. After noticing many people staring at her as a child and realizing that she did not blend in, her mindset changed in middle age.

“I know myself better and care much less about what others think,” she says. “In fact, I take pride in being different and sticking out.” As the mother of a multiracial child, she advises that parents need to let their children freely explore all parts of their background and know where they came from, so that they “can blossom into the beautiful human they are meant to be.”

While I wish feeling good about who I am had happened earlier in my life, I know that everything in my past prepared me for this chapter. I now wear life like a loose garment, armed with self-knowledge and the ability to let go of that which I cannot control. I especially appreciate that I cannot control what others think of me.

One of the gifts I gleaned and treasure from a lifetime of feeling other-than is the ability to make all people feel welcome.

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