Who Gets To Choose?

Taye Diggs, a famous black man, said he hoped his child with Idina Menzel, a famous white woman, would identify as biracial, not black. Plenty of people were outraged. Some people were outraged by the outrage. In the aftermath I revisited the question of who & what determines a person's ethnicity, and sought out Kendra Mitchell, a friend who is “technically multiracial, but chooses to call [her]self black,” for some help.


By Kendra Mitchell

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America. Why do people insist on knowing where I’m really from when the only real answer is, America?

My Native American forebears stood on these shores as my European ancestors arrived before they stole my African family here. I say African because any particular place is just a guess, a clue in a DNA test. We’ve long been bastardized, forced to plot and forge our own destiny.

Multi-racial. It’s what sociology calls people too mixed to parse their makeup into fractions. Black. That’s what I call myself. My grandmothers, my mother told me that’s all anyone would ever see. No one is going to stop and ask, “Excuse me, what would you like to be?” Not that I was opposed. To be part of that Black Queen Legacy is a mantle of honor, no matter how faint that heritage shows in me.

Where are you from, people ask. America. But before then? America. My family history, its myths are American, its legends homegrown. Part of that strange fruit this country bore, and forgets it’s sown.

This history, it’s not in our storybooks. This mystery, how can I be black while my skin is so light? It can’t be solved by saying I’m half white. That’s a different story, someone else’s to tell. Assumptions erase the pain, the struggle, the triumph, the joy--our stories, sometimes the only thing we own.

“What are you?” people wonder.

I am black. And I am proud. Because now black isn’t all they see; it’s not all I have to be. My clothes--too nice. My tongue--too refined. My music--too Broadway. My complexion, my almond shaped eyes--too exotic. My education--too formed. I am not the first generation to graduate from college or even the second. Or the third. I’m the fourth, both sides. Husbands and wives.

I am not the black you’re looking for.

If I get to choose, it’s not going to be clean or simple. A harvest never is. Not of this fruit America plucked and ate. This sin we are shaken by and can’t shake. If I’m assumed to be from somewhere else, there’s somewhere else for me to go back to. If I’m labeled mixed—that’s what the kind, progressive California woman thought, cooing over baby me--there’s a history skipped over.

I wonder, does mixing release the pain or allow us to paint over it?

But don’t mix me when I say I’m black. Don’t deny one of my parents her right to choose, her heritage. Don’t doubt me when I say American. Don’t uproot a tree long planted.

My family’s blood, it’s in the ground. The fertilizer of this nation. My family’s land, it’s in the parks. An effort of conservation. My family’s name--borrowed, taken, given, shared.

America, embrace your strange fruit. Here is the garden where it's grown. America, it is not just red, white, and blue, blue, white, and blond. If I disown you, you disown me--it doesn't right the wrong.

What do you mean to suggest I’m from somewhere else here in this nation of immigrants? A nation of immigrants? What do you mean where are you from? From the Motherland, that long forgotten dream? America, this is the place I’ve sprung from.

America the beautiful. America the free. America, that’s me.