“What are you?” That question irks a racially ambiguous-appearing person more than any other. In my 20s, while I spent much of the decade as a commercial model with an ego larger than my frame, my answer was, "I'm a Goddess. What are you?" Jokes aside, asking someone “what” they are implies a lack of human-ness, and even if you inquire more kindly (by asking about someone’s racial background or where their family is from), chances are you’re still stressing them out. That’s because, by telling someone that their looks can’t be easily categorized, you’re reminding them they don’t have an obvious racial identity. Chances are, they’re already painfully aware of that.
I was born to a white mom of Eastern European Orthodox Jewish descent and a self-made dad who’s light brown by MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) heritage. My mom taught me that, despite the fact that my skin was darker than other children in our rural Massachusetts town, my family was white. Kids asked me inadvertently offensive questions about my race often, othering me long before I understood what othering was. “Are you one of those people with the red dots on their forehead?” one asked. “Are you an Arab?” questioned another. “I’m white,” I always replied. “No,” said every child who asked about my race. “You’re not.”
Though undeniably brown at birth, my skin color has changed often throughout my life, turning pale white when I was a toddler, and darker again as a teen. Suntans are one factor, but it also shifts around on its own to this day.
I change hair color often, and in 2013, I went blonde. I refer to it as my "white girl year," as that time made me realize I’m seen as a person of color only when my hair is dark and natural. The difference in how I was viewed and treated in public when I was blonde was alarmingly palpable. Shop owners were nicer, I was hit on more, doors were held open for me frequently, strangers spoke to me—not about my tattoos, but just to make casual conversation—more than I’ve ever experienced before or since. When my hair started breaking off in chunks, that was the end of my white experiment. I put my hair into a protective style and subsequently garnered less attention overnight.
Throughout my adulthood I've been spoken to in countless languages, and have had people unwaveringly insist I am a member of their ethnic community. Black people have thought I'm part Black, Persians have been convinced I'm Persian, and occasionally, white people so fully presume I'm caucasian that those facts shock them.
I am too brown to be white, and too white to be brown. I live in a race-limbo.
It’s the combination of not fitting anywhere or having a sense of community, along with not knowing how I’m being viewed, that I continue to find the most challenging. Online groups for multiracial people have provided comfort as well as important perspective about the amount of privilege I carry. Specifically, they’ve helped me realize there are innumerable ways my life is inherently easier than anyone in the Black community.
Because I never know how I'm being seen, it's difficult for me to gauge how much white privilege, or not, I possess. This is a time when even those of us who considered ourselves anti-racist are delving deeper into our privilege and inherent racism. And as I traverse the relationship I have with white supremacy, I have more questions than answers to the workbook topics. I am too brown to be white, and too white to be brown. I live in a race-limbo.
There's no simple answer to what race I even am. My father's grandparents emigrated from Turkey, but 23andMe, which updates drastically and inexplicably every few months, says at varying times that I have Algerian, Moroccan, Bedoiun, Egyptian, Tunisian, and/or sub-Saharan African blood. As other ancestors emigrated from Eastern Europe, in theory I am just a fraction MENA, which belies my curly, thick black hair, large dark eyes, and other features that have me read as POC by so many. Choosing to embrace my looks and my heritage, I identify as a WOC.
Genes defy logic: My brown-haired, green-eyed older sister resembles my mother as much as I take after my father. She has only ever considered herself white. Though my parents acknowledge my dad’s skin color, there has never been conversation around his ancestry. When I met my great-grandmother as a child, I was told she spoke Spanish. I later learned that actually, her language was Ladino, the Spanish/Arabic Sephardic dialect equivalent to Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Yiddish. Ladino is considered a dying language, rendering me simultaneously blessed to have heard it and saddened to not have known it better.
Though my experience felt isolating and unique growing up, as more and more people choose partners of different backgrounds the inevitable result is more people in our society will be of ambiguous racial identity. When I asked what I "am" nowadays, my answer is simple. I quote a friend who told me how he views me. I say, "I am the future."