Ask Lisa Advice: I’m Black but my Twin Sister says she’s Race Non-Binary!

This month, I’ve got advice for a pair of Multiracial twin sisters, one of whom identifies as Black while the other claims she’s “Race Non-Binary.”

Dear Lisa

My twin sister claims she is “Race Non-Binary,” and this has led to a fight between us. I need you to say who’s right. We’re mixed, with an African American mother and a White, German father. We are not identical by the way. I am very light-skinned with curly (3B) hair and she is brown skinned with more kinky (4a) hair that she straightens. I however identify as Black while she makes a point of letting everyone know she’s not all Black. I go to an HBCU, by the way, and she goes to a very White college where everyone makes a big deal talking about inclusivity and diversity. Sometimes I think we were meant to be born in each other’s bodies! I wish I looked Blacker and she wishes she looked more like me.

No matter. I say that Black is an inclusive term and by claiming I am Black I am not denying I am anything else. Just that owning my Black identity is important to do because so many people—pardon my French—shit on Blackness every day.

My sister says that it is different for me because I don’t look Black. She agrees that it is good for me to say I am Black because people don’t count me as Black and I am expanding people’s definition of Black.

Our fight is over how she identifies herself. She refuses to say Black. She says that is she were to use that word about herself, given her appearance, she would be rejecting our dad and denying our European heritage.

Inspired by the LGBTQ community at her very diverse college, my sister now calls herself “Race Non-Binary,” meaning she will not allow anyone to put her in a box of any kind. I respect that, but I do not respect that she won’t call herself Black. How do I persuade her that “Black” is already non-binary and inclusive itself?

Frustrated Twin

Dear Twin

Whether you say “Black,” “Mixed,” or “Race Non-Binary,” I believe both of you are right. It’s very common for Multiracial people, at least Black/White Multiracial people like us, to be somewhat defensive about our identity. We bristle when others attempt to pigeonhole us. We refuse to be pegged based on our outward appearances. We don’t like being labeled unless we chose those labels for ourselves and we value the prerogative to change labels over our lifetimes. For this reason, I think the two of you are more similar in your sentiments about racial identity than you might think. Where you part ways is largely semantic, if politically loaded.

Like many very light-skinned Black or Mixed people, you may face frequent assumptions that you are not Black or not Black enough to understand Blackness. It can be infuriating and exhausting when people refuse to accept your heritage simply because they cannot see it. When you claim your Blackness, you are claiming an inclusive identity. You are telling the world, “I am more than what you see.” You are also demonstrating pride in your African ancestry. Since European identity is not marginalized, you may feel no pressing need to stand up and claim it, especially if it’s apparent in your features.

Your sister’s situation is the flipside of yours. For her, the term “Black” is all that strangers consider when they look at her. Your twin may not consider “Black” to be an inclusive identity, since it leaves out all that is not visible in her skin tone and hair texture. Many people of color would consider her rejection of the word “Black” to be a rejection of her Black heritage. Without having met your twin sister, I can’t say whether that’s the case. I can, however, relate to her desire to clarify and self-define. After all, isn’t that your aim too?

I actually like the phrase Race Non-Binary. Like those who identify as Gender Non-Binary, it allows a person to live free of labels that don’t feel accurate. This country is so often binary in its discussions of race. You are either Black or White or your views and lives are irrelevant to politics. As multiracial people, our experiences are often unique and difficult to categorize. Both you and your twin are entitled to language that accurately describes who you are.

I recommend that you revisit this debate with her, keeping your mind as open as possible. Ask your sister to explain her position in more detail. What does “Race Non-binary” really mean to her? Explain your views as well. Why does it upset you to hear her use the term to describe herself? Do you feel that she is rejecting a part of your heritage that you hold dear? Or maybe she is embracing something you feel disconnected from. You didn’t mention this, but the relationships you have with your parents and their extended families–German and African American–may also play a role in how each of you identifies.

You are twins, but that doesn’t mean you will be united in everything. I suspect that, once you both feel heard, you will be able to find common ground, accept one another’s different self-definitions and establish your own Black and Race-Non Binary harmony.

Best Wishes

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Published on: September 11, 2018

Filed Under: Advice

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