Daughter of the American Revolution & Slave

If you followed the two sides of my family tree up, up, up to about 160 years ago, here's what you'd find:

On one side, the women were Daughters of the American Revolution. My mother's family - the Coxes - can trace itself back all the way to Bishop Richard Cox of Ely Cathedral in England in the 1500s. After a stop in Ireland in the 1600s, ye olde ancestors finally made it to Virginia in the 1700s. My mother's dad, Granpa Charlie as we knew him, was a Son of the American Revolution. I guess it's not surprising that he temporarily cut my mom off when she married a Black guy. What would the Bishop say?!

On the other side, we've got Billy, the slave. Billy escaped. I don't say he ran away because that sounds cowardly and condemn-able. He escaped, which seems like the smart thing to do when conditions are a lifetime of "12 Years a Slave." Anyway, Billy made his way to Canada, married a nice French-Canadian girl and started a family line where twins and freckles pop up every other generation. Blame Canada.

Many, many generations later, the Bishop and Billy met, in the form of my parents, Sarah and Spencer.
Bishop Cox rocks 16th-century shoulder pads

My great-grandfather, grandfather and dad (the baby) on the family farm

So what do you get when you combine a could-be Daughter of the American Revolution and a coulda-been-a slave?

Me in Morocco

Hypocritical Pride in Being "Mistaken" for Black

Last weekend, at my college reunion, someone who has known me for a long time was shocked to learn that I'm mixed. He thought I was Black, like him and almost everyone else in our homecoming crew. In return, I was shocked to realize that I was...flattered? Proud? Something about his error made me happy. For someone who says being mixed is no big deal, this is embarrassing.

I'd like to say it was the context. I had asked the group if my alma mater's quarterback is Black. A former player said yes and then the caveat was put on it. "Well, Biracial."

Because I've known this person for a while and understand where he comes from, I was able to genuinely laugh and respond, "We count, too!" Shock and confusion ensued. And I was happy. I now knew that, if someone had asked him, before this exchange, if I was Black he wouldn't have equivocated. His answer would have been the same as mine. An absolute yes. And I was sad to know that I had lost that "in-the-club," without-qualification acceptance.

People who know me and my lifestyle even better than this guy put the same equivocation on being mixed. I get sad when I experience it and that's what makes me a hypocrite. I say that being bi- or multiracial is no big deal but the truth is, I experience most of the distresses of any person of color who is sensitive to race and a bit extra I still don't deserve the key to a city or special paperwork, but maybe it's time to accept that there's no shame in being sensitive to other people's deep or shallow biases.

p.s. Yes, I'm still proud of my heritage.

Multiracial health issues Part 2

Fifteen years ago, I was at a party in a typically dark club. Which is why it surprised me when a woman, maybe five years older than me and my same complexion, walked across the room and said, "If I had freckles like yours, I'd be unstoppable."

It was weird. I was surprised because:
  1. I used to forget that I have freckles (the past tense is deliberate and will lead to my point)
  2. I certainly didn't think they could be seen from far away, in the dark
  3. This woman also had freckles; they were big drops of molasses on her cafe au lait skin
These days, I see women with freckles like I used to have - the kind that I could forget I had - and I'm a little envious because one of the "health" issues that has come with being mixed is that I have melasma.

Melasma is hyper-pigmentation of the skin on the face. It is most common with women of color. It often shows up when women are pregnant - hence its nickname "the mask of pregnancy." This is so common, in fact, that when I met up with a male friend of mine who hadn't seen me in a few years, the second thing he said was, "Serene, are you pregnant?" I had acquired the same facial freckling as his pregnant wife. The only upside to melasma, and this is a stretch, is that it tends to be symmetrical. So, giant freckle blob one cheek equals giant freckle blob on the other.

My blobs are above my lips, above my eye brows and on my cheek bones. That's a lot of blobbing. I can no longer forget that I have freckles because the blobs are extremely sensitive. Even 15 minutes in the sun, without sunblock, can turn them into coffee stains, swiftly spreading across my face.

I worry about the blobs because both my mom and her mom had skin cancer. I have seen multiple dermatologists. The derms run their fingers across the blobs and tell me that, so far, I'm ok. They suggest creams and retinols. They insist on sunblock and recommend hats. They do not recommend lasers or lights that White women use to beam away this problem because my naturally tan skin could respond by scarring. That would be even worse.

The best treatment would have been knowing 25 years ago that, as a biracial woman, I was more likely to end up with melasma. If I had known, I like to think I would have been more diligent back when my freckles when cute. More sunblock and hats, less hormonal birth control, which can make melasma appear. Maybe I just would have appreciated what I had (or didn't have) 15 years ago, when that woman surprised me in the club.

Multiracial health issues Part 1

I used to work for a stem cell bank. Yep, we collected, stored and released the cells that are the root of the human blood and immune systems. It was cool because using stem cells to treat diseases works. Not just in the lab. Not just in Germany or China. Here and now, stem cells are saving lives. Like I said, cool.

But here's the thing, if you're mixed, like me, and you have a health issue that could be treated with stem cells, you're probably screwed. And by screwed, I mean, get your affairs in order because the odds of finding a match are slim. Unless, of course, you have full-blooded siblings who are your exact same mixture. Then, you're in the double-digit percentile of finding a match. Phew!

Without those potentially matching siblings, your odds go up and down, based on how common your mixture is. For example, if you're "mixed" German and Irish (I'm being nice; everyone's heritage is sacred, even if it's ordinary). In America, the banks have LOTS of German-Irish stem cells. It's another one of the upsides of being part of the White majority. Yay!

But, maybe you're mixture is Ugandan and Irish. Like I said, screwed. Because, really, think about it. How many Ugandan-Irish people have you met? If you're answer is more than one, please, tell me: Are you part of some secret enclave of Irish-Ugandans? Where is this Oz-like land? And where are you storing your babies' stem cells?

The solution, going forward, is for every expecting parent to save their future child's stem cells. Your little Norwegian-Egyptian baby's stem cells could save a life in the future. And, if they don't get to save a life, they might be able to regrow your baby's own damaged cartilage. Knowing that you have those stem cells stored could ease some of your concern when little Italian-Filipino Jimmy goes all Peekaboo Street while skiing (she tore her knee THREE times). Maybe his stem cells will help him recover faster and better. Cool!

But seriously, my main point is that mixed kids are more likely to die from leukemia because they can't find a match (I'm not siting a source because I don't feel like searching for the data). If they are part Black, they are more likely to have sickle cell anemia, which afflicts people of African descent more than Whites, and yet they are less likely to be find matching stem cells that could cure them.

So, please, save your babies' stem cells. Now that I no longer work for a private stem cell bank, I can publicly root for you to donate them via the National Marrow Donor Program (www.bethematch.org), if you don't want to pay the private storage fee.

And no, this blog post was not sponsored by anyone. I just got home from the gym and was thinking about mixed people health issues.

Multiracial Family Stories

Since my last post, something has slowly dawned on me: my whole family's immigration and migration story is interesting and valuable.

Sometimes, I devalue the experience of the white side of my family because it is one of the things that makes me different from my friends. I wish that I knew more about my black family in Georgia and that I could talk about being sent there for summers. I can't because I wasn't. I spent summers in Colorado where my white and black halves converged.

And it was great, just not like everyone else - filled with southern food and gospel and R&B. I spent my summers riding horses, learning how to drive, biking at altitude and hiking in the mountains. The neighbor kids weren't cousins but they were friendly and we did everything from jump on the trampoline to break into their own homes when we got locked out.

Aside from my experiences, here are some of the things I value about the two sides of my family. Both of my grandpas left the south. They were the only ones of their generation to do so. They both joined the Air Force and used it to pull themselves up from poor country boys to the middle/upper middle class.

Both of my grandmas were smart. One was a teacher. One started her own beauty salon (one might assume this was the black grandma; one would be wrong) and then went on to be a secretary in the Air Force. They both left the north with their husbands and lived all over the United States.

On both sides of my family, relatives have left what was comfortable for a better life. On one side, a Jewish great-grandfather left England. He arrived in Ellis Island with his sisters. He supported his growing family by running numbers and gambling. My grandma inherited his love of betting and took it to the dog track. She loved to wear stilettos. I'm not sure how those went over in the stands.

I have lived in seven states and two countries. When people hear this, they ask if I was in the military or married to someone who was. I think that, without an understanding of my family's willingness to seek out better opportunities, to keep moving until they found home, to bet on a long shot, I would feel weird for having moved so much without a "good" excuse. Instead, I am able to make it a part of my family story and accept that we are adventurers and optimists.

I hope everyone can see how their family has shaped them in a good way.

Im/migrant Stories

My book club is made up of an interesting group of women. We are all well educated with degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Northwestern, etc. We all like to read, at least enough to belong to a group that mind if you haven't finished the book, "Just come, and catch up!" We've all converged on the Bay Are. We are all at least partially Black/African American

Today, we each shared a part of our backgrounds that makes us different from one another: the stories of our families' migrations and immigrations. We were inspired by "The Warmth of Other Suns," a nonfiction book about three unrelated people who each were a part of Black's Great Migration out of the South.

Despite the things that bind us, our tales varied. One in our group - a chemical engineer - is the first in her family to leave the South. Another woman's parents left the South to pursue higher education but returned, PhDs and Master's degrees in hand, because they wanted to give back to the system that made them. There are several multiracial women in our group. Each of us were able to share the stories of our African American families' migration and our White families' immigration.

I feel fortunate to be a part of this group. All are strivers who have made the most of their boot straps, pulling themselves into lives rich with work, children, culture and travel. Lives made richer by honoring the family histories that make us who and what we are.

Family is a complicated thing. Up close, it can be painful. At best, embarrassing - I keenly remember a particular Hawaiian shirt my step dad loved to wear. At their worst, emotionally or physically damaging. We all have baggage. But, if you can back away and look at the big picture, that baggage includes brave travels, unimaginable ventures, a patchwork of people and places that, sewn together, produced me. And you.

I can't tell anyone how to interact with their family. All I can say, is that I am beyond glad that I had time to talk with most of my grandparents about their history. White, Black, Native American - all of that history is real and it's mine.

Biracial Characteristics: Awkward Outsider

Encountered an interesting new assumption the other day: Because I'm biracial, I must have been awkward or an outsider in high school. Wrong.

This sounds kinda gross/braggadocios, but I was actually a part of one of the popular groups of kids (I say "one of" because, like any big school, we had layers). AND, because I'm fairly outgoing and was raised by non-mainstream people, I was friendly with kids across the high school social strata.

In short, I liked, and was liked in, high school. (slightly embarrassed shuffling of feet goes with this statement)

I went to public school in St. Paul, Minn. The Twin Cities were racially integrated and home of one of the most famous mixed people: Prince. Being biracial didn't automatically make you weird or awkward. In fact, there was a mixed girl at our rival school who was so popular, she was known and liked at my school. I admit, I envied her because she figured out her hair before I did.

At my school, the pot head group had a mixed member; the jocks included two mixed guys; the smart, popular kids included biracial kids. You get the idea. We were everywhere, without stigma.

However, Minnesota is also famed for its Scandinavian population. This had an impact on my personality because it meant I was not considered good looking by most of my classmates. The standard of beauty that was in national magazines and on TV - blond, blue eyes, White - was also the standard of beauty locally. Kids who looked like me were not generally in demand. I think if I had been raised in the south, were being light skinned was valued, I might be a totally different person today.

Looking back, I feel lucky. Being a teen is angsty enough without being considered uncool based on race. And, watching oneself age is hard enough without the chip of lifelong beauty on one's shoulder.

I know this isn't the case for everyone. I know many people who were the "only" at their school - only Indian person, only mixed person, etc. They were treated as outsiders and forced to forge a new path in their classmates' minds or spend years socially isolated. I wish everyone could have Twin Cities experience. I wish America really did accept people for their character, not their color.

Today I am Latina

Based on outside feedback, this week I'm Latina. Based on genetics, I am not. Confused? You're not alone.

In the past I've talked about group think and the random shifts in how I am perceived, racially. Some days, I'm Black. On those days, I get acknowledging nods from black people on the street. Black people that I interact with, who are strangers, talk to me like we're old friends.

The "Black days" are comfortable because, in large part, that's what I am. But it doesn't matter what I think I am because, when I first meet someone, they interact with me based on what THEY think I am. And for quite a while, everyone agreed I was Black, inside and out.

Lately, I've had to work harder to establish myself as Black. No big struggles, just notable.

This week, I learned why. Apparently, I'm shifting to being Latina. Three proof points:

First, I met a man at the gym. He's from Italy. Cool, I love Italy. He said, "But you're Spanish, right?" Me, "No." Him, "But your name is Serena (it isn't) and you have some Spanish in your face."

Aside from boggling my name and making it sound like I have paella stuck to my cheeks, what does this mean? Thanks to being a mix of European, Native American and African stock, almost any one of my features might be Spanish but they could also be anything else. I chalked it up to my new friend being from Italy and kept moving.

Second, I was talking to my favorite clerk at the grocery store. He asked me what I do for living and I told him I write children's books. "Wow," he says. "Are they bilingual?" Me, "Uh, no, why?" Him, "Oh, they aren't in English and Spanish?" Me, (nervous laughter) "No, I don't speak Spanish." Him, (nervous laughter) "Oh...Ok...Well, it's cool that you're a writer."

This man has been talking to me for two years. I've never spoken Spanish to him and I have a Midwestern accent. I live in a neighborhood that is 80% White and about 20% Asian. I can understand him not thinking I'm the only local Black person, but why go Hispanic? There's no obvious answer. So I chalk it up to group think and the phase of the moon.

Except, THIRD, Yahoo! fed up this M&M ad in Spanish for me. I haven't done anything on Yahoo! to indicate an ability to speak Spanish. So, despite behavior to the contrary, right now, even my technology thinks I'm Latina. It's not bad, but it is weird.

No lesson learned. Just the life of a mixed chick in the U.S. Off to enjoy another day of surprising people with my secret blackness.

Exotic = You Don't Belong

I've been avoiding Trayvon Martin related news, blogs and Facebook posts. The story breaks my heart wide open. Letting in other people's pain is almost more than I can take. Today, I thought five days of silence was enough. That I could handle a little input. That it might help me grow.

Instead, I'm crushed. Laid flat. Scared.

I know that it is unlikely that I will be followed and shot dead for looking threatening in America. I'm too old, too thin, too female and too racially ambiguous.

However, I have been turned into an outsider. And, when you're an outsider, you don't belong. And people who don't belong - from illegal aliens to Trayvon - don't get the same protections as the people who are inside, determining who is in and who gets left out.

This scab was picked today as I read a post from Questlove. His quick thought on being exotic rings true: "All the time I'm in scenarios in which primitive, exotic-looking me (6'2", 300 pounds, uncivilized afro for starters) finds himself in places that people that look like me aren't normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct?

We all have to be somewhere on Earth. We all deserve to be where ever we want to be on this Earth. I believe that Quest is putting his tongue squarely in his cheek when he describes himself as exotic. I hope that anyone who reads that sees that too. I mean, what's so exotic about 6'2"? My White brother is that tall and, trust me, he has never been called exotic. 300 pounds exotic? In our ever-fattening nation, that's become almost average. That leaves the uncivilized afro. If you agree that Quest is exotic looking, but are willing to agree that his height and weight aren't all that remarkable, than you are agreeing that Black hair that refuses to meet a certain standard of length and shape is bizarre, outlier, worth investigating, doesn't belong.

Questlove is a famous "exotic," so he gets recognized and people want his rare star to be closer to them. He gets pulled off the shelf where we stash papayas and pygmies and brought behind the velvet rope.

Trayvon Martin was too exotic for George Zimmerman's world. He didn't belong. He needed to be watched, followed, confronted, killed. He couldn't be "somewhere on Earth" as far as George was concerned.

If you're an insider (in America, this means White but, insub groups it can mean "looking like everyone else in this community," be they White, Black or Latino), how willing are you to try being an outside for an hour? A day? A lifetime? Can you handle feeling, at best, like you don't belong and at worst, despised and feared and in danger?

Still unsure if this story applies to you? Try this: go to a predominantly Black neighborhood and walk down the street in broad daylight. Feeling comfy? Ok, good. Now, pick a moderately crowded hair salon or barber (I say moderately crowded because it's a sign of skills but you won't have to wait ALL day). Go in and ask for a hair cut. If you can stick it out, you will leave with a sharp hairdo and a strong sense of what it is like to be the only person in the room who looks like you.

Maybe you'll get stared at. Don't worry, a hard look hasn't killed any of us so far. Maybe you'll be laughed at. Get over it and get your cut. Pay attention. Are you afraid? Does the sound of the razor or scissor near your ear send you off on a nightmare fantasy of having your throat slit. Are you lonely? Do you watch the door, hoping another person who looks like you, even if it's Joe Serial Killer, will come in the door? Savor this rare moment and don't worry. It isn't hard to find "your place" again in America. It just might feel a little different when you get back there.

Being Mixed Sucks

I say that being mixed is no big deal. I should say, I wish it was no big deal because, in reality, it can be a blessing, a pain, an agony, a tearing of the mind and/or soul.

I'm reading "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to just about anywhere else. It focuses on three people, none of whom are significantly mixed, but also tells the story of a mixed family that crushed me. Here's what happened:

A family of mixed people is driving out of the South to California. The people in the car include a grandfather, grandmother, mother and her three children. All of them are very fair skinned with wavy hair except the youngest grandson. He's brown.

There are almost no hotels along the way that take "Colored" people. The grandfather - the only one who drives - is getting tired. He can't drive any more. They stop at a hotel and, according to the story, he self identified as Black and tried to get them a room. No, he is told. No darkies allowed.

They go to the next hotel. This time, he doesn't identify. He just asks if they have a room. Sure, they say, here's your room key. Bring your family in.

Great, except for that pesky brown grandson. They cover him in blankets and carry him in "like a bag of groceries." According to his sister, who told the story, the boy was emotionally scarred by that one event and troubled from that day forward.

Here's what I think: that family often tried to pass or wished out loud that they could pass but couldn't because of this little boy. I think they weren't quiet about it being his "fault" that their lives were harder than needed. I know how that generation was. They were not worried about hurting their kids' feelings. Unlike today's parenting mantra, not everyone was a winner. So it wasn't that one moment during their migration or the cursed South that wrecked this boy. It was his family, who made him feel like a bag of groceries.

Families aren't much different today. Sure, very few people try to pass. Being light skinned or ambiguous is becoming enough to get broadly accepted. So, there's no need to hide the brown son. But how we treat the brown son hasn't changed enough. I have a close acquaintance who has two biracial sons. One is light-skinned with wavy hair. He was allowed to grow it long and now wears it in "cool" corn rows. The other son is brown skinned, has full lips and tight, curly hair. He doesn't look mixed. He looks Black. And, according to his mother, he is the less good looking one.

She said this to me and I know that, across America, other parents are saying or thinking the same thing about their children. That doesn't mean they don't love them. My acquaintance loves both of her sons and also is very vocal about the fact that the brown one is smarter and will probably end up being taller. And thankfully he wasn't around at the time. But the way she said it, like it was fact, makes me believe that it is common talk around their house. So, here he is, going through the most awkward age - 13 with braces, yikes! - and his family has "agreed" that he's not good looking. His 17-year-old, light-skinned brother with his straight teeth (he already had his braces) and long, soft hair is the handsome one.

And this is when being mixed sucks. When everyone says "mixed babies are so cute," they aren't talking about the ones who come out looking White, Asian or Black. They are talking about the ones who have the perfect blend of two groups' characteristics. If you don't have that, you're not as cute. And so, before you're fully formed, it's already been decided. You are less than your siblings. You are less than other mixed people. You don't fit in with a group that is already small and usually without community. And, if you're a color that continues to be discriminated against, you're less than people who you may, actually, be greater than. You're stuffed under the blanket for the rest of your life.

Heartbreak in 2013.

Self Identifying as Biracial with American-colored Glasses

If you're mixed, sometimes other people might not know what you are, racially. They wonder. And the wondering drives them so crazy that the first words they ever speak to you might be, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" or "Are you mulatto?" The rudeness of the question is proof that their brains are going crazy with curiosity. Humans like to categorize.

Many mixed people try to cut back on the craziness by self identifying as soon as reasonably possible. That isn't always soon enough to prevent the intrusive questions but we do what we can.

However, some biracial people won't self identify for days, weeks, months or ever. A friend recently told me about the teacher of a class she was taking. The class was in the African-American studies program. My friends says the teacher looked Jewish. Some of the Black students were upset that a Jewish woman was teaching them about the Black experience. Half way through the semester, the teacher casually mentioned that she is biracial - Black and White. "Why didn't she say so sooner?" my friend asked. "It was irresponsible."

I wasn't there, so I can't speak to the need for the teacher to have explained her race. Ordinarily, it would be considered odd for a teacher to walk into a class and declare his or her race, creed or sexual preference. In many cases, I know the students would love that. In America, we've got race on the brain. There are times when we don't just want others to identify themselves. We need it.

However, we're a lot less likely to get it from at least one group of biracial folks: foreigners. In other countries, race is not as big a deal as it is here. People care more about religion, economics, heritage, etc. Race is the next level down. A sub-category or a rarity.

For example if you're mixed and from Canada, it might be more important to identify as French-Canadian. The bond of language, location and culture is stronger than color. If you're from Ireland, up until recently, it was much more important to self identify by religion. Being Protestant or Catholic made all the difference in how you were treated and what communities you could be a part of. Think about Bosnia. A few years back, the background of your White parent could have meant life or death. The existence of a Black parent might have meant nothing.

Looking at the global picture without our American-colored glasses helps explain why some biracial folks aren't thinking they need to self identify. At least not from a color perspective.

Losing that color-centric perspective will be part of our journey toward truly being "post-racial." But humans like to categorize. So, if we aren't deciding "you're not like me" based on color, it may be something else - money, weight, politics. For now, I'll keep self identifying when it fits naturally into the conversation, but I'm not buying (or encouraging) a Holocaust-style armband that declares me a "Mixed Chick." You may be curious but life is full of disappointments. You'll get over it. And maybe you'll even learn something along the way.

Cheerios Commercial Shows the New Normal

Kudos to Cheerios. They have a commercial with a mixed family. Unlike a few folks across the U.S., they don't make a big deal out of it. They did a nice job of making sure that we hear the little girl call the White woman mom before pouring a box of Cheerios on her Black dad's chest.

The first time I saw it, I wondered if I understood the situation correctly. Surprising, considering my household looked almost exactly like the one in the commercial for a few years. The second time, I was like, "Cool. And during prime time!"

Mixed couples are not an anomaly. Children of interracial couples are more common than children of gay families. Strangely, on TV, there are a couple shows that have gay parents but, as far as I know, none that have a black parent and a white parent. Nice to see this version of the new normal.

Mixed Kid Problems

Mixed kids’ problems are first-world problems. They aren’t things like “no access to fresh water” or “school is 20 miles away and the bus broke down.” I’m just saying, as a group, we may have our gripes but, in the grand scheme, it could be worse. That said, here's a few, starting from the top:

  1. One or both of your parents has no idea what to do with your hair. Everyone knows it’s not right, but no one knows how to fix it.
  2. Hats - thanks to our hair, hats are often not our friend. Curls are great, except when they've been mashed down. And, if you're a girl with short curly hair, you will be called a boy when wearing a hat. Trust me, I know.
  3. You don’t look like you belong to your father. Out in public, people ask, “Are you ok?” and “Is that strange man (a.k.a. your dad) bothering you?” 
  4.  You don’t look like you belong to your mom. After seeing her, the other kids tease you about being adopted or wonder “Is that your babysitter?”
  5. Wrinkles…maybe? Most brown-skinned people have thicker skin that wrinkles less. Mixed kids, no matter what their complexion, aren’t guaranteed that anti-wrinkle power.
  6. Mixed = Caramel complexion, light eyes or wavy hair (or all of the above). Except we’re not all made that way. Mass disappointment (see bullet 8).
  7. Lingering looks that lead to the question, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” and “But where are your parents from?”
  8. Mass exposure to racism. Being racially ambiguous means you’re more likely to hear it all.
  9. Disappointing your blind dates. I blame Halle Berry, Lolo Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for setting the bar too high!  

If these are the biggest problems you face in life, count yourself lucky. Surviving being mixed doesn't have to be hard. Simply hope you aren’t tender-headed while your parents work out their beautician skills. Fight the right battles and try to let everything else roll off your back. Avoid society’s beauty stereotypes and figure out what’s good about you. And, when preparing for a blind date, tell them you’re mixed, you know... like Malcolm Gladwell.