Yesterday, I had brief but angst-ridden Twitter exchange with two friends regarding the inner turmoil of being a half-breed. We were prompted by the re-tweet of a Thought Catalog piece bluntly titled, “How to be Racially Ambiguous,” but, at least personally, this is a discussion that replays itself internally at least once per day.
Some personal background: I grew up having to check off a box inscribing my ethnic identity to the Milwaukee Public Schools’ quota-minded database every time I took a standardized test. I was told, by my parents, that the appropriate bubble for my No.2 lead smudge was “Hispanic,” so that’s where I put it. And that’s where it felt right, really. After all, hadn’t I grown up sharing a residence with a pair of non-English speaking refugee grandparents? Hadn’t I been subjected to toddler-era questioning, by my mother, over whether I was “Gringa o Salvadoreña?” wherein responses other than the latter would result in tickle torture to the brink of tears?
I grew up in a truly bi-cultural setting, with two bilingual parents who worked (and continue to work) in a largely Spanish speaking, Latin-American immigrant environment. But I also grew up white. I came out the spitting image of my Polish/German-American father, and I wonder how different my life would have been if the opposite had been true.
Truth is, it’s hard to live in between the lines; at some point you wind up becoming one thing or the other. Boring and cliche as this is bound to sound, society puts you up to it. And despite my parents’ best wishes, I suspect people are more inclined to process me as “white girl with Mestiza mother” (if, in fact, they know of my parentage at all) than “Latina girl” or “mixed-race kid.” Perhaps this is because of my unaccented English, the lack of melanin in my complexion, the fact that I have a name like “Kelli Korducki,” or that I dress more like Aimee Mann circa 1984 than a chola.
I may rock the white priv, but it’s never sat so great. I grew up speaking Spanish and attending quinces, and dancing merengue and bachata, while simultaneously feeling like I was a stranger in my dominant culture just because I looked more like I stepped off a boat from Poland (thanks, Papa) than my Salvadoran immigrant mother. Growing up, I would hear peoples’ reactions to my mom speaking to me in Spanish–rude stage whispers, in English (which both my mother and I could understand), about how people shouldn’t be allowed in America without being able to speak English–and I would burn inside while my mother dutifully rolled her eyes and moved along. They never assumed I was her daughter, which always stung me.
Back to the Thought Catalog piece. “Why would you want to be just one simple, uncomplicated race when you can make yourself more interesting at parties with your heightened sense of worldliness and traumatic multi-racial identity?” asks Carmen Villafañe. This is totally tongue-in-cheek, by the way. Sure, it’s great having that invisible backback to carry around when convenient, so that you can take people by surprise with your wacky “ethnic” background tales, but sometimes you want to feel your mother’s discrimination. Not because it will give you cool stories and street cred, but because she is your fucking mother. That is half of you. Just as much of you as anything else.
Segue: my best friend in the whole entire world, Carmen, is a blonde, blue-eyed, sunburn-prone curlytop of a babe who is both the hottest Fulbright scholar you will ever wish to have met and, also, a total halfie. African-American dad, white mom. We met in high school and immediately bonded over our shared neurosis, lit love, and half-breed status. Our 10th grade English teacher called us “fake minorities;” we called each other “house slaves.” We made inappropriate jokes over our mixed identities, because that was the only way we knew how to celebrate them. We live an ocean apart now, but I think our halfie status is one of the main reasons we’re still BFFs. No one understands a halfie like another.
So, recent news: a few weeks ago, I caught a Tweet from my younger brother, Casey. “I’m a McNair Scholar!” he announced. Casey is his university’s VP for MEChA, an American Chicano student organization–which means my li’l bro wears his Latino identity a little more prominently than I. The McNair scholarship is a “minority scholarship,” and Casey felt nervous interviewing for it. “I know I’m not the candidate you have in mind for this,” he nervously told them. Needless to say, they gave it to him anyway.
I guess I don’t know how to close this subject, so I’ll just say this: It’s hard to be a halfie, because on the one hand you’re so damn privileged, but on the other, you never know where you belong. I suspect it’s an issue I’ll have to grapple with for my entire life, and my children (provided I have any) will also have to carry on the baggage–because, regardless of our Canadian dwelling, they will be Spanish-English bilingual or not exist at all. And, while my brothers and I will always have the unassumingly white names of “Kelli,” “Casey,” and “Ricky,” we are still the amalgamations of our heritage: “Kelli María,” “Casimir Enrique,” and “Richard Fernando.” We fit outside the box. And, increasingly, so do many others. We halfies are bound for the mainstream, and conversations about race are destined to change for good.
This post is part of EthnicAisle, a blog about race and multiculturalism in Toronto and beyond. Check it!