Recently I sat down to be interviewed by a blog whose owner is a mixed-race woman. She travels quite a bit and loves interviewing fellow BIPOC travelers. I struggled quite a bit with this concept: am I allowed to speak on what life is like for a BIPOC? Do I have anything to add to this sphere?
I ended up not discussing my ethnicity or race in the interview, choosing instead to highlight other travel stories. So what happened? Well, friends, I was hit with something we call Racial Imposter Syndrome.
So I am very mixed. So this is for those mixed kids—the in-between crowd. I see you. The one’s who don’t identify as “this” or “that,” but the world will try to pigeonhole you there anyway—the one’s who feel like imposters: Racial Imposters.
My mother is mostly white and raised me in a very stereotypical Midwestern town. I say mostly because she’s very into genealogy and can proudly name our Native ancestors with scary accuracy. Look, let’s be honest: my mother should be proud of that. When you realize many women in your family history were probably slaves to French fur traders, you give those women props for being badass enough to make it through life at all. Especially when you benefit from the white parts. However, I in no way go around telling people I’m Native American. To me, it really would be a slap in the face to the Indigenous peoples who grew up on Reservations.
My biological father, however, is Panamanian. To what degree, I don’t know. Is “degrees of ethnicity” even a thing we should be discussing? I don’t know my father, and I don’t know his culture. I remember him speaking Spanish to me as a small child, but it’s fuzzy. I never felt like I was Hispanic enough to identify with it. I’m not even sure if the Spanish words I was hearing were correct. When I go to a panaderia or a supermercado, no one bothers to speak to me in Spanish. Hey, I don’t blame them; my Spanish is horrible.
However, growing up, people never failed to remind me that I didn’t “look white.” Most people actually thought I was of some Asian ethnicity (I’m not). It was a new guess every week. I often had people walk up and speak to me in languages I don’t know, first in relief and then in exasperated confusion.
The “where are you really from?” was a question I got a lot as a kid. Who else here as ever had this conversation:
“I’m from St. Louis.”
“No. Where are you really from? Where were you born?”
Cue eye roll by the interested party because obviously, I must be lying, right?
I once had a school teacher stop in the middle of a lecture and ask me to translate Mandarin. Ten years old, I felt embarrassed, sure, but also wildly confused. So I wasn’t white enough to be considered white, but not anything else enough either. It was a bit lonely and a bit frustrating.
“Can someone just come over here already and teach me Spanish already? Does anyone know how Native Panamanians look or dress? Should I just tell people I’m frickin’ white?”. I actually tried that last one once, no one believed me. Racially, I’m all the things, I guess. Culturally not so much.
I know that I cannot be alone in that feeling (right? right?) and that a lot of Second and Third Gen people have to feel that way, too. Where you’re at this point where you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes culturally, but racist people are still racist to you. Catch-22.
How do you live with all of these aspects of yourself? How do you justify being an ethnic nobody but a racial everybody? How do you cure the Racial Imposter Syndrome and move on in a way that isn’t completely privileged or insulting?
My remedy for that feeling was to travel, honestly.
Travel to where your family is from, and then travel some more. Travel to places that have nothing to do with your family history. Travel to the place you’re pretty sure your Abuela was born, but who knows. Then go to Africa, because at some point we were all from there, right?
Traveling as someone of mixed race has given me a new perspective on the world. I highly encourage anyone else who felt the way I did growing up to travel — everywhere. Do what I did and start thinking of your ancestors coming from everywhere. Embrace it. Hell, if all else fails, take a DNA test and start at the top. My DNA test had thirteen different results (sadly, not one of them was “that b*tch”). Anyway, sounds like a great excuse for a round-the-world ticket, am I right?
I’ve begun to feel like a global citizen, actually. If people want to mistake me for an ethnicity, I’m not? That’s fine; it’s not an insult. I’ll learn about their culture first hand and consider it a compliment. Next time be prepared with, “Oh no, I’m not but have you ever had fresh bao or seen what Shanghai looks like at sunrise?”. I’m not “Hispanic enough”? That’s fine — I’ll learn Spanish in Central America. Volunteer on a coffee farm and never again take for granted the amount of money I make. Maybe it’s not the same thing, but it’s a new form of appreciation for some of the people who made me.
Traveling has opened my eyes to the beauty of cultural diversity in all of its forms. If you go far enough back in your ancestry, everyone has a mix of more than one race in their blood. That’s just the human experience. It’s beautiful. Traveling has reminded me of that experience. I, like many of us, am the product of many cultures. Traveling has allowed me to learn about and embrace every one of those cultures in some form.
So I guess this isn’t just directed at people of mixed race. Maybe it’s directed at everyone, in a way. At some point, seeing all of our differences across the world, you start noticing how we’re the same. I’ve taken enough Anthropology classes to know that there aren’t many cultural constants, but there are a few, and they are worth discovering. Hint: one of the constants is human emotion, and it’s worth discovering in all of its forms. Travel can help you embrace that.
So try the food, speak with the locals, wonder at the traditional songs, and walk through landscapes your ancestors walked through. Or someone’s ancestors walked through. In my experience, it will help you stop feeling so “in-between” and start making you appreciate what you are as a whole.
*I originally published this story on Newsbreak. It got a lot of hate! Hate it or love it, I know I’m not the only one who felt this way growing up, so cheers to my fellow mixed-kids.