We sat in a diner at 4 a.m. with a stack of chocolate chip pancakes and chicken fingers between us, the only meal that made sense at that time of night. After a while, the food soaked up enough of the alcohol that we could converse somewhat effectively. He looked up at me and smiled, pancakes drooping from his fork. "Babe," he said, "the guys and I were talking last night, trying to figure out who had hooked up with the most girls of different races. And I won!"
I sat stiffly as he listed off different ethnicities, not attaching a name or even an anecdote to any of these women, as if he was running through ROYGBIV for some elementary school test. When he finished, he took another bite of pancakes and added triumphantly, "We thought no one had hooked up with a mixed girl, but then we realized: Natasha! She's ... what was that word for you? Mulatto?"
I took a sip of water, stalling for time to gather my thoughts. I ran through the timeline of our three-week relationship. I was a freshman, newly free from my childhood; he was a senior, well-liked on campus. Over warm keg beers, he had vowed that he would watch over me. But this wasn't the first time I had told myself, "He's just drunk. He means it as a compliment."
I had found myself making a lot of mental excuses during my first month of college. I'd been justifying the continual inappropriate jokes, invasive questions, and strange obsession with my lack of melanin: How can you be Black when you're so... white?
Back home in New York City at my progressive, diverse, specialized public high school, my ethnicity wasn't an anomaly. I had always proudly claimed my identity and embraced both my differences and my sense of belonging in my family's Black community in Harlem. But on campus people acted as though I had unveiled strange, secret sparkle skin like the Twilight vampires. Everyone around me seemed to be trying to throw my body into the sun and watch the transformation. Unfortunately for my peers, my skin does not sparkle when it comes in immediate contact with natural light, nor does it darken. Like other pale people, I just redden and peel.
Once, I showed a new friend a photo album of mine from high school; having grown up in upstate New York, she was curious to see what a childhood in the city looked like. Afterwards, she looked confused, and I asked if everything was okay. "I've just never met that many Black people in my life," she explained. I felt similarly, I realized; for the first time, I was now spending my time with large quantities of white people. I looked like I fit in, but every time my friends asked nosy questions or put me and my ethnicity on display, it reminded me that I did not.
People on campus treated my racial makeup like a party trick -- like when someone opens a bottle with their teeth or ties a cherry stem into a knot with their tongue. I was introduced to new people with a game unofficially called "Guess Natasha's Race, No Seriously, You Won't Believe It." The contestant usually guessed a smorgasbord of Eastern European descents, and would eventually object "you're lying!" when I finally told them the correct answer. I began to carry a photo of my family along with my campus ID, something I could hand over as proof -- or at least a way to sidestep a long-winded inquisition into my family tree.
I wasn't used to being the center of attention because I was the diversity in the room. It's sad to think that if I'd grown up darker, or grown up in a whiter environment, I might have become accustomed to casually racist treatment by the time I hit college -- but I hadn't, and I couldn't. It was an overwhelming experience.
But I could make it stop, I realized; all I had to do was give up my voice. Weakened by the unending scrutiny, I responded in a way that my family members have never had the luxury of doing: I blended in. I stopped speaking up when I saw other students of color weather racist jokes, snide comments, or double standards. I didn't correct people who assumed I was white. Sauntering around in this fake persona, I lost my way; I started trying to fit in with the values of those around me, instead of living as my authentic self. Which is how I found myself across the table from this man -- a cappella singer, athlete, improv performer and fraternity brother -- in this diner, at four in the morning.
Finally, I cleared my throat. "That's not a term you can use -- it's highly offensive. And really outdated. Historically, like way back in the day, I would have been referred to as..." I stopped for a moment to gather my strength. "As a quadroon. Which is also highly offensive, and you can't say that either. My mom is Brazilian and Liberian... which means I'm a quarter Black..."
His dismissive laugh interrupted me. I had missed the point. "That definitely counts, babe. I won't because of you." He beamed at me, confident that he had just bestowed upon me one of the great accomplishments that all multiracial women hope for: the badge of honor for completing the last arch in a white man's hookup rainbow.
The nausea slowly creeping up my esophagus, I realized, wasn't from the beige, greasy meal I had barely touched or the excess of alcohol swirling through my bloodstream. It was shame. Shame for the self-involved deal I'd made, the one that won me the prince as long as I gave up my voice. My subconscious had persuaded me that it was just for my own well-being, that it was okay to make concessions in exchange for a seat at the table. It had foolishly assured me that declining to speak up didn't mean I was enabling or condoning racism. I had been sitting by and listening for too long. It was time to take back what I had too quickly sacrificed.
After that night, I began to surround myself with people interested in working to dismantle the segregation on campus. People who celebrated me when I shot down an insensitive joke rather than acting like I was a burden for "killing the mood." People who engaged with me about my experiences, rather than projecting their ignorance and passivity onto my already complicated social identity.
My boyfriend broke up with me soon after, potentially due to the fact that I was no longer a sock puppet, devoid of perspective. Despite the personal visibility I had gained, I was still heartbroken. Perhaps, I thought, with time our dynamic would change. He was funny and witty and had friends in a variety of social groups; his lack of awareness was a symptom of a larger cultural issue, not one rooted in malice. When it ended, we met up in front of a laundromat, and he reassured me, "I still think you're pretty. Exotic, even." On the way back to my dorm, nauseated and sad, shame swept over me one more time; I had done it again, allowed myself to be silenced in the wake of the final veiled, misguided compliment he would ever give me. This relationship was the last remaining tie to the deal I was sure I had already revoked.
As I walked onto campus, wiping tears from my eyes, someone asked me if I was all right. Embarrassed, I assured them I was fine, and in that moment, I knew it was true. I heard my voice for the first time in a while. It was back, and that felt good.
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