Age 5: I tell my mother I wish she were black. She has pale skin–the same shade as almost everyone else’s in our neighborhood. People won’t know I belong to her if my skin is dark and hers is light.
Age 7: Kids call me Michael Jackson in the pool. MK is not quite white yet but not as black as he was born. His and my hair do curly q’s that partially hide our faces. I can tell the kids’ comparison isn’t a compliment.
Age 11: My best friend Brandy can’t see me anymore, after her parents realize I’m black. I call out to her as she swims in the deep end in P.E. She looks the other way and swims away from me. Whenever I pass two black 8th graders who call me white, I want to scream that if I were I wouldn’t have lost Brandy.
Age 13: Someone writes “White Power” on my locker in white out. My white best friend escorts me to the office. I’ve never forgotten how to walk before. My tears make it hard to see the concrete in front of me. The next day the message is gone, but I can still see it. It’s etched in my consciousness like the crack in the Liberty Bell.
Age 15: I freeze on the standardized test form that asks me to pick one box for race. The auditorium seems filled with students who know which box to check. I walk over to my friend Linda who’s half Mexican and half white. “You choose black,” she says. “And I choose Mexican.”
Age 16: I abandon the chemical treatments I’ve used for the past three years and opt for my first set of braids. I like the way they confirm my identity. No more being put in a bilingual math class based solely on my Mexican last name. No more strangers coming up to me speaking Spanish and then looking confused when I say I don’t understand. “So what are you, anyway?” my crush asks me as my braids hang defeated from my head.
Age 19: My Mexican / Native American / White boyfriend says he thinks it’s natural for a father to question whether his daughter should be with a black man. I answer a call in the newspaper for a roommate. The girl speaks enthusiastically through the telephone. She sees me step out of the car and her white face falls. “I’m sorry, this won’t work out,” she says.
Age 23: My white husband and I have a code for a dangerous situation, if his white skin and my black skin cause animosity. A finger pointed to the sky. A voice that says, “Airplane.”
Age 26: After my divorce, I try to surmise ways to attend Tiger Woods’ golf tournament. He’ll see me from the sidelines and fall in love with his biracial double, minus the Thai and Chinese.
Age 27: A black classmate in college asks me to participate in the African dance routine for International Day. “No,” I say, “I don’t think so.” I’ve never been to Africa, and I have no rhythm. On stage, he wears a grass skirt and dances shirtless while beating a drum, with his braids whipping to their own beat. I bet no one has ever asked him what he is.
Age 30: My white advisor suggests I write my Master’s thesis on Ebonics. I’ve never spoken Ebonics. I’ve never written a paper on Ebonics. Instead, I write 85 pages on the past 150 years of the “tragic mulatta” narrative.
Age 33: My white upstairs neighbor and I find ourselves making out on the couch after two months of smiley flirtations in the hallway. He drives a Subaru hatchback. He plays golf. “I just knew that big butt and those big boobs would get me in trouble.” My Venus Hottentot ass leaves, but long after it should have.
Age 35: I say “us black folks” to a friend as we laugh and joke at a New Year’s Eve party for black women. In the swanky hotel, her expression turns deadpan. “You’re not black,” she says.
Age 37: My Colombian boyfriend laments my inability to speak Spanish even though I look like his race double. “What is the KKK?” he asks.
Age 38: A Chinese middle school student from the suburbs says she’s quiet around “people like me.” I’m not sure who she means until she asks if my dad is black. A black woman rants against “those Mexicans” when I ask her to close her car door so I can back out. She continues her tirade as I amble down the parking lot. “Bye, Sister,” I yell with derision. She rants again until I deliver the punch line. “I’m black.” “Oh, sorry,” she says, with absurd regret.
Also at age 38: I publish a viral article about how everyone disagrees about how I should identify. It goes viral because everyone disagrees in the comments about how I should identify. Mixed race women say, “Me too. We know you. Welcome.”