By Alexander Jasienowski
As a young girl, I remember my grandfather saying to me, "You're black, you're black, you're black. It doesn't matter how much white blood you have, you'll always be, and always be seen as black." My black grandfather said the words but my white relatives reinforced the message with their actions.
Growing up with a black mom and a white dad has been central to my life experience. I struggled to fully fit into one identity as each side of my family imposed its views on my identity. The black side of my family said it directly: I could never completely fit into the white community. My white grandfather, aunts and cousins were never comfortable enough to directly confront the strain that race placed on our relationships. Yet the tension of race always slipped into our encounters.
When we were young, my father would regularly take my sister and me to visit his family in upstate New York. Looking back, these memories are tinged by recollections of strange behaviors. One day, after my sister and I took one of our many swims down to the lighthouse, my aunt looked at our hair and said, "your hair is too wild, it's so difficult!" I cringed -- her words filled me with disgust and frustration. The behaviors of my father's family continually pointed to this singular difference of race -- when they gave us skin colored band-aids (which were actually too dark for our skin tone), volumes and volumes of Temptations CDs, and the strangest gift of all, eleven black dolls dressed in different animal costumes. With each visit upstate, my feelings of discomfort became stronger. My sister and I were always included in the family, but there was a growing sense of awkwardness that seemed to justify the words of my black grandfather. No matter how hard my white relatives tried to make it appear that they were comfortable with our racial differences, their behavior ultimately helped push me to choose an identity, black.
The choice proved to be complicated. I began to identify as black internally, and at the same time, externally, I was still seeking acceptance from the white community. Early on, I used my hair as a way to conform to white expectations. I tamed my wild curly locks by straightening them, changing an aspect of myself so that I would blend in with my friends at school. Gradually, I realized that more of my friends were people of color, and I experienced a level of comfort I had never felt before. By the end of 9th grade, after years of conforming to the expectations of others, I let my hair go natural, freeing both my hair and myself. Feeling liberated, I felt a new sense of confidence and pride in my multiracial identity as I embraced my black heritage more than my white roots. I made this choice under pressure from both my black and white sides. They made it seem that one culture had to dominate.
Looking back, having to make a choice at all is unsettling. In making one side dominant, I abandoned a piece of myself. People shouldn't feel that it is necessary to abandon a part of their identity in order to be accepted.
Now, identifying as multiracial, I am learning to get beyond the pressures that were placed upon me as a young girl. While my connection and sense of affinity with the African-American community grows increasingly stronger, I continue to lean into my multiracial identity, although I sometimes feel a lingering sense of unease. I work through these vulnerabilities by reaching out and supporting others who seem to be experiencing similar struggles. Every now and then, I feel the urge to safely lock away my curls, but I do not give in to this temptation.
Alexander Jasinowski, a graduate from The Spence School, graduated from Pitzer College last Saturday