My family’s dinners have always looked more like a global summit than the sort of gathering you might see in a magazine ad or in a commercial. Like most young people, my views on culture and race and my self-identity were shaped largely by the folks who sat at that table and the conversations that we had when we came together.
Sunday dinner at la casa Gomez-Lacayo-Greco-Marshall is often served with a history lesson, complete with rich firsthand accounts from those who lived it. You’ll hear Black Harlem natives discuss their friendships with the likes of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, or recalling the moment they watched Billie Holliday perform for the very last time. A high school photo of Papi’s childhood friend Sonia Sotomayor sits alongside family photos, a reminder for me to look to her for inspiration. In the summertime, we enjoy fresh chicharrón delivered straight from the backyard shed to table. Juan Luis Guerra, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis and Gloria Estefan play on the turntables at any given time, but Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is a staple at holiday gatherings, thanks to my Italian aunt and her brood. We resembled NBC’s This Is Us before the series was ever dreamed up on a storyboard.
I’m no diluted version of anything. I’m not some amorphous blob, I just happen to be a couple of nationalities.
I have always proudly identified as Black and Puerto Rican. (Key word: “and.”) While I could understand the notion of being multiracial or multicultural and found the Afro-Latina label to be fitting as well, there was this one term I’d heard over the years that always made me feel a little crazy: Racially ambiguous. I mean, what is that?
To be “ambiguous,” according to its Merriam-Webster definition, is to be “capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways.” It’s second interpretation, “doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness,” still makes me want to punch a wall. The idea of racial ambiguity feels like a sanitization of all of the rich layers of the folks surrounding that dinner table, the folks who made me.
The argument of race being a genetic reality, as opposed to a social construct, is debated among scientists, scholars and laypeople, of course. My identity, however, is mine I’m no diluted version of the two diverse cultures that my parents represent. I’m not some amorphous blob, something unrecognizable or lacking distinction.
Alas, identity often exists in the eye of the beholder. During my childhood, the sight of my non-Black father and my undeniably Black mother caused others to stare, whisper, shake their heads in seeming disgust, roll their eyes and even gasp in shock— even in New York City. People would stop to ask my mom if she was my nanny and looking for extra work. Those looks and comments became little snapshots in my mind, shaping my views on race, ethnicity and equality for much of my life. Each encounter left some scars.
However, my relationship to diverse cultures has been largely celebratory. I grew up in Queens. My Catholic elementary school was a destination for Haitians, South Americans, Hindu and Filipino children in our neighborhood, and it was rare that people were teased or mistreated based on their heritage. Instead of ballet or piano classes, most of my closest friends ended up in Yeshiva, Chinese, or Hindi lessons on Saturday mornings.
But most importantly, it should be noted that racial ambiguity is not in any way a notion of anti-Blackness.
My beautifully diverse family wasn’t naive about how the world outside our protective bubble would, at times, privilege me my complexion and the texture of my hair. It was important for me to understand this, but the execution wasn’t always easy to swallow. An older family member was convinced that I would become an “uppity light skinned girl,” and cautioned me that she better never catch me flipping my hair. Her fears wouldn’t come into fruition, as I came to understand the problematic ways that color informs our lives and not to perpetuate the pathologies that have hurt so many of our people as a result.
When I left the Sesame Street-like diversity of my neighborhood to attend New York University, I struggled to find a way to define myself amidst the future gentrifiers that made up my class. That is, until I realized something I wish I’d known my whole life: I define myself.
I want the world to see that I’m 100% Black. I want the world to see that I’m 100% Latinx. I may be ambiguous in the eyes of others, but I am entirely clear on who I am. For that reason, the term no longer bothers me the way it once did.
It’s important to note that owning the other pieces of one’s identity shouldn’t be read as an anti-Black way of distancing oneself from their African ancestry (unless, of course, it’s done in a way that does exactly that.) When you hear Logic rapping, “I’m just as white as that Mona Lisa/I’m just as Black as my cousin Keisha” or see Drake sharing Bar Mitzvah footage in his music videos, it’s a testament to them living their multilayered truths out loud and taking their place in the complex tapestry of what it means to be a child of the African Diaspora.
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