Pondering My Black, Biracial and Multiracial Identity Post Hurricane Maria

Biracial and MultiracialI have been writing from the Biracial and Multiracial perspective since I co-authored the book, Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide in 2015. Being Biracial is an anthology of essays from either Multiracial people or parents of mixed race kids.

In my essay I wrote about being the product of a Black and Japanese mother and a White (German, Dutch and Irish) father who were married in New York City in 1960.

My father George Orick on the left and my mother Emily Allen Orick on the right. Both photos were taken before they were married, circa 1958.

I wrote about my experiences being “light, bright and clearly half White” while being raised to self-identify as Black, and of course, having to explain for the elevendy millionth time why I self-identified this way. I shared moments of complete vulnerability and isolation because I grew so frustrated trying to explain that being Black isn’t just about complexion but lived experiences as well.

(My brothers differ in complexion from me, by the way. My oldest is brown complected with an afro. My middle is a little darker than I am with long wavy, usually straight hair—like you’d see on a Native person.)

Biracial and Multiracial

Ben (my middle brother) was 14. Nicholas was 15 and I was 12.

I wrote about my childhood living in Nigeria and New York, traveling throughout Europe, spending nearly a year in Southern France, and as an adult living in Washington, D.C., California and now living in Puerto Rico. I wrote about people’s reactions to me in the various places I’ve lived and visited.

I was 24 in this photo.

I spoke of my frustrations while dating and making friends because while I never created barriers or refused to date “outside my race,” which is of course a joke for Biracial and Multiracial people, assumptions and prejudice sometimes prevented me from having access. As a kid, sometimes I’d make friends with other kids and everything could be going well until their parents discovered my mother was Black or my father was White, and suddenly my ass was out on the street.

(The Japanese would have just compounded things.)

From birth to aged 49, I experienced all of this while self-identifying as Black and walking through the world presenting as a White or Hispanic person.

When I met my husband and his family in 1996, although they’re all Black (his parents, sisters and their husbands), as you can see, we all span the rainbow—which is normal for Black people, thanks to miscegenation. They never once questioned my self-identifying as Black.

Paul and I are in the back (me with very short hair) and his family. This photo was taken in 2008.

I wrote about how as a result of co-authoring Being Biracial, reading the essays from people who proudly embraced their mixed heritages, in my late 40s I decided to come out as Biracial and too began embracing my Biracial and Multiracial heritage.

I was never really sure I could pull this off because I never knew my Japanese (maternal) grandfather (he died when my mother was five) or my father’s parents who were of European descent (my father’s father was from Germany and my grandmother was born in upstate New York but her family is from Ireland), and I never knew them. My father was disowned by his father for marrying my mother and so Black became the dominant culture in my home.

My parents—my father in particular—reminded us everyday that we were Black. Sure we knew about our Japanese grandfather and my father’s White parents but given the continued struggles PoC were still experiencing around the globe, our parents wanted us to know who the responsible party was for those struggles: White male supremacists.

I didn’t grow up disliking White people, I was just aware from a very early age that many of them wouldn’t like us instantly because we weren’t like them.

I left New York City (where most people didn’t really gave a shit what I looked like, how I self-identified, etc.) and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1993. It was there I encountered many Black people who routinely demanded I.D. from me. I can still hear my roommate—a dead ringer for Cicely Tyson—not getting why I would want to attend the Black Caucus laughing at me while saying, “Girl, you ain’t really Black!”

Perhaps because of experiences like this, I loved the instant acceptance from people who were Biracial or Multiracial, which I had fought to achieve in the Black community. The Biracial and Multiracial community / communities are nothing if not accepting. I no longer had to show I.D. or prove I knew enough about Black culture, history and our centuries-old struggles in order to enter a conversation. I no longer had to prove my Blackness could be based on my lived experiences not my looks.

And it felt very nice—like a warm and snuggly security blanket. Why would anyone want to leave and go back to being questioned?

When Alex Barnett interviewed my co-author and me about our book, I believe I was still self-identifying as Black but had started to consider the fact that celebrating my multiraciality didn’t mean I had to deny or reject the way I was raised, or stop recognizing the horrific treatment of African Americans and people of color around the world.

Although it was slow at first, I got into being Biracial. I really did. It had started to become as much a part of who I was as being a woman and a writer. I loved finally being able to see in me what others saw.

I loved creating Multiracial Media with Alex (in 2016). I am proud of the work we did and I love that Alex was able to keep the site going after I was forced to step down as co-owner of Multiracial Media following Hurricane Maria.

But there was always something nagging at me. In spite of the instant acceptance by most in the Biracial and Multiracial community, nagging at me was this belief that it was disingenuous of me to identify as others see me, not as I see myself.

Being Biracial and Multiracial Post Hurricane Maria

But I have to be honest. Living in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria changed me, and they continue to influence how I see myself and others. The hurricane destroyed Puerto Rico and we haven’t seen an end to her wrath. Each day our island experiences a new mudslide, another collapsed bridge, another road that was weakened by the hurricane and after multiple strong rains just washed away.

Our collective trauma watching our island fall apart is compounded by the fact that we’re experiencing the largest diaspora since the 1950s when the U.S. installed the island’s first governor and “officially” made it a territory / colony of theirs—although it had been one since 1898 when it took Puerto Rico from Spain, who’d colonized it since 1493.

It is also compounded by the fact that we desperately need more aid money from the U.S.—which owns Puerto Rico and has over the last 120 years forced a growing list of restrictions on us—but it seems there’s more money for starting wars than for rebuilding us.

I find myself caught up in the struggles of my island as well as those going on around the world as much as I am the struggles experienced by my Black, Biracial and Multiracial brothers and sisters. While I feel the need to continue fighting for my global Black, Biracial and Multiracial brothers and sisters, I don’t feel the need to continuing defining myself racially, ethnically, culturally or by my nationality.

And I get this is a huge luxury. People of African and Asian descent, or even European descent, have this luxury. This is only possible because I am more than one race and that I am just ambiguous enough, I can pull this off. And I hope how I choose to self-identify or not self-identify doesn’t offend you because I have to live with the consequences.

Puerto Ricans, like Biracial and Multiracial people instantly accepted my husband and me. I’m not sure if it’s because Puerto Ricans are mixed race: being of African, Spanish and Taino descent, and that we’re told we look Puerto Rican or if it’s because Puerto Ricans come and go to the U.S. that they’re accustomed to seeing Black, Biracial and Multiracial people.

I’m not sure what it is but I like it. My husband likes it. We are obviously different from Puerto Ricans. Our lived experiences differ from many Boricua (a word that comes from the Taino language that Puerto Ricans call themselves) but it’s not uncommon for our experiences to be similar to many of them because they come and go so freely.

We may dress differently, speak English and have been known to butcher Spanish but Puerto Ricans are accustomed to this both within their own family (members who’ve lived in the U.S. a long time) and from Americans they meet here.

With good friends of ours in Old San Juan in March 2018.

In some respects many Puerto Ricans straddle some of the same worlds I do. Not culturally “American,” although I’ve yet to see what the defining culture in the U.S. is, and not culturally Puerto Rican either.

This dichotomy and duality is only possible for regions that are colonies of the mother country. The influence from the mother country is absorbed into the culture of the colony and the pride of the diaspora is strong, whether or not the culture and language are maintained.

And because of this dichotomy, people like my husband and me can integrate into the culture more easily than someone from another country who holds on tightly to their culture, language, customs, music, etc.

And by integrating, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten who we are and where we come from. It just means it’s not really important to keep reminding people. The struggles of the Boricua living on Puerto Rico and the family of those living here are our struggles. This is our home and whatever happens to our island, I’m going to fight for it as a Puerto Rican, not as an American or someone who’s Black, Biracial or Multiracial.

It all means that I have come to identify not as Black, Biracial or Multiracial but someone living amongst Puerto Ricans, someone welcomed in as a fellow Boricua. As Puerto Rico continues being stuck in this netherworld, somewhere between statehood and independence, my husband and I, as well as Puerto Ricans share something unspoken with others suffering at the hands of imperialists and colonists everywhere.

I meet Puerto Ricans all the time who just assume I’m Puerto Rican and the same way I loved the instant acceptance by those in the Biracial / Multiracial community, I love it here as well. I see no reason to correct people because maybe it’s just not that important to me anymore. And it’s got nothing with trying to be someone I’m not. It’s about being able to live someplace where I’m seen as an equal, and isn’t that what all PoC strive for?

What is important is seeing myself reflected in the struggles going on around the world and in my own backyard: Puerto Rico.

My name is Sarah and I am one of the founders of Multiracial Media. Not only am I multiracial (Black, Asian and White), but I’ve also lived in or spent long periods of time in several countries, throughout the United States and now my husband and I live on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. I see myself both in terms of my racial and ethnic identity as well as someone who appreciates the food, culture and customs of all nations—like a citizen of the world. Sarah’s World Beat column reflects this.

If you would like me to write about your culture or country, please drop me a line and suggest a topic.

5 Responses to Pondering My Black, Biracial and Multiracial Identity Post Hurricane Maria

  1. Zjien Relician says:

    Very reflective of the stillness after the storm.
    My wonderful Sista, I hung on every word, and am in awe of your new found peace.
    You’ve found a way to be a true world citizen, whilst still giving reverence to the elements and cultures which lay as your foundation.
    There is no offence to be taken, and no misunderstanding to be had.
    LIVING, is something to which we all aspire.
    And dare I say, with the love and trust you have with Brotha Paul, with the years you have earned, and with crystal clear priorities emerging from tragedy, (much like the monarch butterfly emerging from it’s chrysalis)….you are now happening to life…
    rather than life happening to you.
    Go ‘head on Sis.

  2. AD Powell says:

    I wrote about my experiences being “light, bright and clearly half White” while being raised to self-identify as Black, and of course, having to explain for the elevendy millionth time why I self-identified this way. I shared moments of complete vulnerability and isolation because I grew so frustrated trying to explain that being Black isn’t just about complexion but lived experiences as well.
    _________________________________
    Sarah, I take the opposite position. If you LOOK white, then you ARE white. It is amazing how the black-identified try to frighten us into identifying with blacks by claiming that “society” won’t accept our whiteness. Yet, as you know, “society” is flummoxed by white people like yourself who claim to be “black.” The truth is that “race” is a continuum and being white AND multiracial is NOT a contradiction. It makes far more sense than calling yourself “black” when your genes and phenotype say “white.”

    • Sarah Ratliff says:

      AD,

      I beg to differ. I’ve read enough of your comments in groups we have in common on Facebook to know where you stand on this topic and it’s not how I view Biracial and Multiracial people. You can’t speak for anyone but yourself and it’s rude and presumptuous to do so.
      Sarah

  3. Magie Ramirez says:

    Hi ! Thank you for sharing your beautiful story I loved it. My Dad was a black Puerto Rican men with deep french roots and African Puerto Rican native Indian latino. Asian, Arabian. From my mom is Native taino from Puerto Rico. Italian swedish, European, African,Demark. So that is my mix and now our family is even a bigger one. We have Puerto Rican Americans, Costa Rican, Philippines, Guatemalans, Hatti and a lot more. Thank you for sharing and we know we are not alone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *