On Racial Identity

Sometimes, when the jewel-toned sky is jaded from the dragging winter months, when the Earth is so frigid that you can feel it softly quiver, and when the pale shadow of twilight creeps out to blanket the world, the moon spreads its ivory beams apart to reveal Orion—the Hunter of the constellations. Setting the horizon ablaze with his arrows, Orion’s prowess is unchallenged by the masses of subordinate star-brigades that surround him. Orion is by far the brightest constellation of the Celestial Equator; the central ornament on the evening’s celestial mantel, and the undisputed warrior of the night.

     The ancient Greeks first consecrated Orion as a beast-hunter worthy of immortalization among the cosmos. Yet, discrepancies arose among this fable. One camp believed Orion to be an arrogant barbarian, consigned as a cautionary tale so that no others may meet his doom. The others interpreted his flair as more calculated, being afforded the chance to dash the stars for eternity. Both, however, were in awe of his command of the galaxy. Though undoubtedly powerful, the murky legend of Orion is one of perception—molded by the virtues of those who dare to dissect his deft dynamism. 

The first time that I was introduced to Orion was on Christmas Eve in second grade. Even though the brisk nighttime air nipped at my father and me, we departed from the noise of the rest of the party and stargazed as one. I so felt united to him, but also strangely alienated. Hearing the epic of Orion had required me to consider how others may consider my psyche. Would they scrutinize me as the ancient Greeks had to Orion? Could I deflect criticism as gloriously as he? Though this examination should not have deviated from the Friday-free-time discourse that is typical of this age, I examined the fundamental elements of identity, the only ones that I could fathom at this age—my family, my physical attributes, my customs—and realized that all aspects of my being are complicated by my complex racial makeup. 

 My appearance does not reveal itself to a singular ethnicity; my tempest of Dominican curls mismatch my fair Celtic skin, my onyx eyes versus contrasts my freckles, and the curvature of my nose contradicts my squarish jawline. The duality of these diametrically opposed racial identities created difficulties at this age that have perpetuated. The crux of my existence is juxtaposed within itself. Claiming an ethnic identity should be a sure matter—there should be no variables because you cannot change who you are, and heritage is virtually guaranteed. For most, it is an objective task, but I find myself existing in a purgatorial, murky gray area. At this young age, I began being asked a question that has framed my life thereafter; a question that puzzles new friends, a question that strangers feel entitled to, and a question somehow finds me at parties, leadership conferences, new soccer teams, and summer camp.

“What are you?”

Sometimes, the Question is silent. It is people asking me how long my layers-thick hair takes to get blow-dried straight, or sticking objects in it to see if they will stay in, or—heaven forbid—touching my hair without permission. It is standardized tests asking me if I am Afro-Carribean or Caucasian, but not offering an option to check off Hispanic. It is people insinuating that Latina adolescents inherently get an edge in the college admissions process without acknowledging the challenges that we face, even beyond college. It was teachers that used to ask if I needed the Spanish or Portuguese version of a permission slip in my elementary years. It is conversations about immigration policy that quietly taper off as the participants turn to me for my opinion. It is the eyebrow-scrunching that succeeds icebreakers that require my hometown, the hushed where are you really from?

More often, the Question is asked aloud, and I am ready to answer it, providing my precisely tangled racial composition. Not only is it fascinating to see what others interpret me to be, but it is necessary—when I look at myself in the mirror, I only see myself. I do not see the Portuguese, or Puerto-Rican, or Italian, or African, or the “weird mix,” or the “mutt” others do. For this reason, I enjoy answering the Question because it gives me the power to explicitly clear any disparities that arise. While I cannot control how others perceive me, I can certainly announce to the world the estimate of my racial composition. Clarifying misconceptions is a key component of gaining ownership of one’s identity. 

A lot of the time, mixed-race adolescents are beckoned to identify as biracial. How can one word encapsulate all of this? It leaves more interpretation to those who ask the Question—in their eyes, I have no control over how Hispanic or white they choose to see me as, or what I “really am,” when my heritage deserves more attention than that. I owe it to the rich backgrounds that I belong to not blend them into one identity that lacks the crux of both for an outsider's simplicity. Terms like “biracial” paradoxically exist in order to categorize. “Biracial” is dangerously vague and euphemistic in its erasure. Masquerading as an inclusive label, yet functioning as just another box to check off on the census or used to stifle meaningful conversations about culture, at a vulnerable age where both internal and external dialogues are crucial to self-acceptance. Mixed-race youth do not exist for the convenience of anybody’s comprehension. 

My hometown is filled with enough mom-and-pop bagel joints to end world hunger, but the nearest Western Beef is a nine-minute drive away. I live down a hill that is somehow even more private than the winding roads that hardly see any cars—a far cry from Mango Street. Yet, at a Sunday family dinner, my house smells like plantains, and bistec, and moro, and pernil, and sancocho. Road trips are overpowered by the vivacious symphony of merengue; trumpets, cowbells, accordions, congas, piano, and guitar that somehow seamlessly fuse into a calculated explosion of sound that makes me feel at home, even though its Spanish lyrics may as well be gibberish to me. I have nearly perfected my domino game, which is necessary to face my vicious cousins in Brooklyn. And on St. Patrick’s Day or when any one of my seemingly millions of Irish cousins stop by, my house instead smells like corn beef and cabbage, and soda bread, and tea—Irish breakfast, never English—and sugar cookies, and licorice candies that melt in your mouth. My step-dancing is only developed as far as a singular fourth-grade dance class, but I can still skip across a hardwood floor. 

How can a single term communicate all of that? 

My biggest problem with the Question is not that it requires me to justify myself to others; after a lifetime of doing so, I have developed a callous even to the most blatant ignorance. The Question also asks me to look deep inside each time it is asked—what am I? In an instant, I must rectify my character in front of an audience. Too often, racially ambiguous adolescents feel pressured to identify as only one of their ethnicities, despite how much they may cherish each of them. Even though I am committed to not shortchanging myself in doing so, there are times when sacrificing one for another seems most convenient. Sometimes, it is easier to attribute my spunky curls to some distant Irish relative—of whom I have so many that virtually any fib about them is believable—rather than acknowledge that my light complexion shields me from the discrimination my Latina foremothers rampantly faced. Then, of course, I am forced to question whether experiencing less prejudice somehow makes me less Latina. 

When this internal monologue is ceaseless, I call upon my memory of stargazing outside with my father. On that evening, the brisk air pervaded my electric-pink puffer jacket and matching fingerless gloves, so I snuggled against him. As we peered at the sky, stars slowly became visible, softy sliding into focus. The fog of my breath dissolved into the sapphire sky, cascading upwards until it was one with the night. It was then that my father first traced Orion with his brawny, brass-colored knuckles, and a hero appeared in its place—not only a nimble archer, but also an unapologetically individualistic being. 

Racial identities are as subjective as Orion’s myth. But, who are others to challenge how we feel about ourselves? And why question this if not to fit an impossible standard? Each part of one’s identity, especially ethnic identity, is crucial to the makeup of one’s substance—like a puzzle piece. I am Dominican, and Irish, and Ashkenazi Jewish, and I am equally displaced in each community. But without the nuances of each ethnicity, the puzzle is incomplete. For, Orion’s myth was subject to scrutiny—and will be for as long as we dare to gaze at the cosmos—but no opinions have ever dented Orion’s legacy as a warrior. Just as Orion championed the sky, we can champion our own identities.

Just another junior waiting for AP season to be over :)

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