I am a whole person, not just that half that makes you comfortable.
In college, I was one of three women co-coordinators of the African American Cultural Society. The other two women both had two black parents, yet there was NO line between us. We did good works and had a fantastic time. I never heard any whispers about why I was in that position.
One day, a German/Irish woman in my Honors Latina Writers class told me that by calling myself “multiracial,” I was a traitor to my white parent. She asked me if it bothered my mother that I identified as “multiracial” as it seemed like I was betraying my white heritage to do so. She told me that the fact that I was coordinator of the African American student group showed I hated my whiteness.
She said: “You have blue eyes. You look white to me and everyone else. Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if you would just stop feeling the need to tell everyone you are mixed and just pass? It seems selfish.”
What stuck with me from the whole discussion was the plea for me to “just pass”.
I have never, would never and will never pass. In fact, at first meeting me, if you talk to me for long I will tell you my heritage. I do so to preempt some of the judgment people put on me. My blackness shows through the blue eyes, from deep inside.
That experience in college was not the first, nor the last time I was either told to pass or told I was lying about having a Black father. Since I grew up living with my Irish mother, people assumed I was white, so some kids were cruel to me when I inevitably told them about my father. They called me “zebra” or “oreo”. I never thought for one second about keeping my father’s race to myself. My mother encouraged me to be myself 100% of the time in all aspects of life whether racially, spiritually or otherwise. I credit her with teaching me to explore and fully express my ethnic heritage.
My whole life my mother went out of her way to immerse me in diverse environments so that I grew up a well-rounded person. The effect of this was that I gravitated toward my Blackness almost like a magnet. I still feel most strongly identified with my Blackness. It informs how I experience the world. It has made me an activist, it has made me an advocate for people of color, it has made me a strong, confident woman with deep roots in the community. I have primarily ended up in jobs where I work in communities of color. Did I seek this out or did it find me? Good question.
Truthfully, the bigger issue for me has been finding ways to participate in my white heritage. One would think that a blue-eyed girl like me would just fit right in at an Irish cultural event, but I always feel like a bit of an outsider. I know that this experience is coming from inside of me and not some blinking sign that says “mixed chick” above my head. This is something I have to step back and look at for myself, as my blue eyes and light skin afford me a good deal of “privilege” and this is something which I have always been acutely aware of.
As for the Powhatan slice of the pie…well, that is a bit more ambiguous. Due to the fact that the Powhatan Nation was systematically slaughtered and dispersed, it has been a journey for me to find bits and pieces of Powhatan culture to fold into the mix. Indigenous culture has become an integral part of who I am ever since I was exposed to the sacred Indigenous ceremony of Sweat Lodge. I am now a Board Member of an Indigenous Women’s organization called the Morningstar Foundation and part of the volunteer web team of One Spirit an organization that does work with the Lakota Sioux Nation.
With all of the rich cultural experiences I have had in my life, the idea that I would “pass” for white because of my blue eyes and skin color tears at my inner fabric. How do I choose one category to define me? I am a patchwork quilt of all of the above and the only reason for passing would be to make others comfortable. What’s most important is that I am comfortable with all of me.
Tatyanna Wilkinson identifies as a multi-ethnic woman of Black, Irish, Powhatan Indian descent and many other “drops” mixed in. She is a “Jane of all Trades” – an independent web design consultant who works in non-profit management and also teaches cooking classes for kids.