What it Means to be Mixed Race During the Fight for Black Lives

by Shannon Luders-Manuel

When I talk about my family culture, I’m mixed. When I talk about racism, I’m black. When Trayvon Martin was shot for wearing a hoodie, I was black. When Eric Garner was choked to death for selling cigarettes on the street, I was black. When Sandra Bland was arrested for failing to turn on her blinker, I was black. When churchgoers were shot for being black, I was black.

I was raised by the white side of my family, in mostly white areas. I had white friends most of my life, not because of any type of preference, but because that’s who was around. I grew up Eastern European folk dancing in the Santa Cruz Mountains with my family. I had plum pudding at Christmas, and my first celebrity crush was Neil Patrick Harris. During both childhood and adulthood, I’ve had others try to define me the way they wanted to, which varied depending on who was doing the defining. My father said mixed isn’t whole. A black woman told me I wasn’t black. A white best friend said she didn’t see me as black. The grandmother of another white friend asked why she was hanging around with a black girl. As I’ve gotten older, the labeling hasn’t stopped, but my self-identity has gotten stronger. Most of the time I see myself as mixed, but when I see black men and women brutalized or killed for breathing while black, I’m black, and proudly, viscerally so.

At the same time, being mixed race during the heightened media coverage of police brutality grants me a unique vantage point, for better or for worse. This isn’t true just on a national level, but on a very personal one as well. The racists who are coming out of the woodwork are not just friends and strangers, but sometimes family. I’ve seen a relative post vehemently about black-on-black and black-on-white crime in the midst of a “misguided obsession with taking down the Confederate flag.” I’ve scrolled through my newsfeed to see a friend of a friend have the Confederate flag displayed proudly as her profile picture. In these moments, it’s as if lines are drawn and there’s only one clear side. There is no feeling that these relatives and strangers aren’t including me in their discrimination. Only a feeling that those making the racist statements, or performing the racist actions, have picked sides for me, and my allegiance is clear in that moment, for those moments.

I feel heavier with each new instance of police brutality or homicide, as if outside forces are pushing me farther into an abyss. It’s an abyss that has always been there, of course, for all of us, but has only become more apparent with increased news coverage. I don’t feel that my light skin does or should afford me any privilege. I don’t think that I should be given a pass because I dress preppy. I don’t think my “good hair” should make me any less of a target. When Eric Garner was pushed to the ground, I saw my father. When Trayvon was shot to death, I saw my brother. When the officer told Sandra Bland he would “light her up,” I saw my cousin.

I can’t deny, though, that I do have some white privilege. I know, for instance, that black men like my “good hair” and light skin. I know in most circumstances I am not seen as a threat against the status quo. I know there are some who see me as white, or as a “good black,” and that they treat me accordingly whether I want them to or not. But when I pause at my front door because a stranger may turn the corner and shoot me for walking down the street while black, my “good hair,” light skin, and preppy attire don’t make me feel safe. Instead, what makes me feel safe is the knowledge that I’m surrounded by other black friends and family, and mixed-race friends, who are just as viscerally upset by recent injustices as I am. What makes me feel safe is seeing pictures of the President of the United States confronted by Confederate flags for daring to be President while black. In those moments, his light skin doesn’t afford him privilege. His presidency doesn’t erase discrimination. We are in the trenches together, making history and taking names.

Photo: Shutterstock

Shannon Luders-Manuel is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was a featured writer for the 2014 Mixed Remixed Festival for her in-progress memoir about her father. You can follow Shannon on Twitter at @shannon_luders.

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