When Raven Symone announced on national television that she was “an American, not an African American,” Oprah Winfrey warned, “Oh, girl, don’t set up the Twitter on fire.”
Just the night before the interview aired, the internet reminded me how bothered people can get when you avoid defining your ethnicity.
A guy sent me a flattering message on a gay dating site and after I responded with thanks, he asked, “So what are you mixed with?”
“Just ‘other,’” I replied. “C’mon, tell me,” he persisted.
About half an hour later I noticed that our conversation disappeared, as had his profile from the list of those I had viewed. He blocked me, which might have been surprising if I didn’t know how much race matters to everyone.
Our exchange—his question, my response, his insistence and dissatisfaction— was an online rendition of my real-world experience since childhood. One of the reasons I know race matters to everyone is because on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, I am asked by strangers to clarify my race/ethnicity/heritage/nationality/origins—a question almost inevitably prefaced or followed by some version of, “Not that it matters.”
Prior to adulthood, this felt like a benign routine of growing up “mixed.” However, the endurance of this inquiry—as well as its priority, often coming within seconds of meeting someone—turned exhausting and troublesome.
This sifting of my identity is not necessarily malicious or bigoted; boxes and definitions provide stability.
But questions about my ethnicity became unbearable when an increasing number of people deemed my response insufficient, even when my answer offered specific, Census-certified categories. Then, after several years of angst and a few months before my 27th birthday, I learned that the story of my birth—the plot, the players—were different from what I had always understood.
I woke up one morning as one ethnicity, and went to bed that night as another. More precisely, in the seven years since then, I’ve considered myself ethnically homeless.
The term’s somber connotation might overshadow its liberating essence. Yes, there has been loss and estrangement outside the shelter of labels; but there is also a freedom to pursue an authentic self, with fewer guideposts or restraints.
I recognize the absurdity of playing coy about my ethnicity, and the peevish novelty of meeting someone who seems to be closeted about his skin color.
However, there is no category or combination thereof that fully captures my experience or sense of self. Providing an answer that satisfies you would guarantee misunderstanding; answering in a way that leaves me comfortable requires the sharing of more information about me, my family and my journey than any passing acquaintance is entitled to know.
This rejection of a race classification for myself should not be mistaken as blindness toward the influence of ethnicity and skin color in our society. I understand that Ryan and Raven’s choice to resist ethnic definition does nothing to alter how other people view us, and subject us to privilege or prejudice based on that perception. Centuries of race-based human interactions are unchanged by the literal post-racial identity that I am exploring.
Although we reached a state of colorlessness via different routes—Raven seems to have arrived voluntarily, while I have voluntarily accepted my place—our position opens us to the usual criticisms of self-loathing and utopic delusion.
Symone, whose ethnicity seems a bit less ambiguous than my own, has been accused of forsaking ancestors and being ashamed of her roots—concerns that I’ve meditated over when deciding what to claim and what to forgo.
But lineage, while important, is not something I have the luxury of hitching my identity to. For now, “Other” is where I feel most comfortable.
Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.