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My review of The Beiging of America

Posted on 30 August 2017 by Barbara Beckwith (0)

In my local cafe the other day, I watched a customer order a coffee and then boldly put in a second order. ”What are you?” he quizzed the server. “Black and Cambodian” she replied, handing over his latte without visible flinching. But who knows how she felt about “The Question” that the contributors to The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century constantly face?

The 40 narrators recall schoolyard taunts (“you look like burnt toast!”), jokes (“If you mama was white and your daddy a Negro, you’d look like a zebra!”), challenges (“If there were a race war, what side would you be on?”), and compliments like “exotic” that don’t feel complimentary (“the word stuck like a burr in my mind”).

Early on, they learned who would or would not protect them. Nadine Knight was forced to stand up in 8th grade biology class so that the entire class could observe her “negroid nose.” Timeka Drew was asked, when she was just a first grader, why her white mother was “a nigger lover.” She ran to a white mother, who comforted her with a hug but didn’t report the insult to a teacher or the principal. So she learned at age five, “I was not safe. I knew I would never be safe in a space run by a white person. Race seemed to be a game I could not win. I was constantly on guard, wondering how others saw me.”

Most painful for a person who can “pass as white” is that, as contributor Carly Bates writes, “You are the product of interracial love, and every day you are witness to interracial hate.” Charles Snyder writes that “Because I look ambiguous, I got a keen insight on how white people view black people in our country, and also experienced black neighborhoods that viewed anything white as enemy, evil or a system of oppression.”

Words can hurt and words can help. As Jackson Bliss writes: “Until there’s a word for you, coined by people like you, it’s like you don’t exist in the world. In a very literal sense, you need language to sanctify your struggle. It wasn’t until I discovered words like happa [Hawaiian pidgin for mixed race], multiracial, and Nikkejin [people of the Japanese diaspora] much later on in my life that I felt real in an existential sense.” Carlos Adams takes on an identity similar to “gender fluidity”: “I am not biracial because I’m trying to balance two competing selves. Nor am I mixed race because I’m trying to heal the split between two opposing sides. I am interracial, trying to understand the fluidity of my identities.” Anthology co-editor Sean Frederick Forbes has at different times in his life identified as Latino, Colombian, Black/Afro-Caribbean, and now Afro-Latino, even though he says “Afro-Latinx-Anglo-Scot” would more accurately describe his multi-diaspora heritage.

And Jewel Love now embraces both lifestyles that come with her mixed race heritage: “Forever I will have a sense of the calmness presented at our white grandparents’ house and the fun of my Black grandma’s home. “Both pieces add to my personality: boisterous and stoic, formal and loving, boundaried and eclectic.”

As the number of biracial/multi-racial individuals continues to grow, Abra Mims is hopeful: “We will become a more visible part of the population, and that it will become easier for us to be our whole selves, completely seen, in whatever ways we identify.”

The server in the coffee shop may have been okay with her curious customer’s double order of latte and racial identification, but I wish that white customer had read this anthology, and heeded Diane Tsuchida’s advice: “No one will write a handbook telling you the correct questions to ask when you’re curious about someone’s racial background.  So perhaps the key to your curiosity is to silence it.”

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