box, with these questions, has been.
Now, for many people this
the same weight as, “What is your name?” But for multiracial people
it can be a bit more of a challenge.
See, when I was younger,
growing up as a mixed race person, I often struggled with these boxes -- and
where I fit in. I often felt caught between them because I wasn’t
quite white enough and I wasn't quite black enough. And so, these boxes would often
remind me that my race isn't so simple.
Now, the good news is,
even though it took me awhile to get here, I
have come to realize that I am so much more than just these boxes. But
aren't we all? So, I’m here
to share with you how my experiences as a mixed-race woman has taught me a way to
help all of us get past this box; and for some, even fix our our
subconscious racism, so that we can better engage with people who are
different from us.
So, to give you some context
I am a biracial woman who was adopted as a baby into an all-white family.
And I -- we happened to grow up in a rural town in Pennsylvania that was
all-white. So, needless to say, I was definitely, like, the “black girl” in my
grade. And when I went on to college and moved on to bigger areas like Pittsburgh,
and then later New York, I learned some new things about myself, and
some new terms like -- I’m
not just mixed; I’m ethnically ambiguous, which simply means other people
didn't know what boxes to use for me either. So, at least I wasn’t the only
one who was confused, right?
I’ve literally have had conversations go like this:
Liz, Where are you from?”
"Oh, I grew up in Pennsylvania."
but, like, where are you from originally?”
"I was born in West Virginia, but I
primarily grew up here in PA."
And your parents -- where are they from?”
"My dad’s from North
Carolina and my mom’s from upstate New York."
but like, like you, like, what are you?"
times people are so desperate to know my race, I can practically see
their brains struggling trying to figure out which box to put me into.
It’s almost like they’re trying to shove a round peg into a square hole,
but it doesn’t completely fit.
And at first I felt like
this unknown, gypsy-like status further alienated me, but then I learned to
have some fun with it. And so I started asking people to just guess what
they thought I was. It became a game of, like , "Which box will I go in
to today, Bob?"1
And I've heard
absolutely everything -- from
Dominican to Brazilian, Italian, Greek, Syrian, black and white mixed, Puerto-Rican and Israeli mixed.
One guy on a
plane actually insisted that I must be a Sephardic Jew because I looked just like
his friend who is a Sephardic Jew. So, you know, that must be it.
And as much as this question would bother me
at times, I've come to realize that the question, “What are you?” -- or better
yet, “Who are you?", needs to
be asked. You see, something almost magical would happen when people
would ask me. You know, I'd start to share with them about my
background, my family, you know, where I grew up. And
while my story is somewhat unique, the
magic is we were now engaged in a conversation. So, you know, that race
box that they were once so desperately trying to fit me into just sort
of magically disappears. And
all that’s left is the round peg: Me.
we're engaged in conversation based on my intelligence, my character, my
personality -- which is how it should be. You
see, because ethnically ambiguous people can't easily be categorized, we at least get the privilege of having a
conversation to share that we are more than just our race. But everybody
deserves to have that conversation, to share that you are more than just
your race or your gender or your age, or, whatever.
I'm going to continue to speak
primarily to the issue of race, though, because I believe it's an
especially important topic to address, and I know there's a lot of
tension around it currently, and I want to help fix it.
have to approach this conversation differently. We need to stop saying things like, “I
don’t see color” -- because, quite frankly, that’s a bunch of crap --
like, you know, I mean unless you have a vision impairment or something.
want you to see my color,
and my curls, and then still proceed to like me anyway. You know, ladies,
know how we like our chocolate, right? Right?
Well my husband is the color of
chocolate. And, he loves the movie
Grease as much as he loves
The Godfather; and he's
intelligent, compassionate, creative.2
is literally the color of milk, and if you can get -- once you get past
the fact that she’s a blonde, white woman, you’ll find out that she’s incredibly
well-read on many diverse world cultures. And when I was in college she
would literally call me to discuss the current events
affecting the African-American community almost weekly.
But you wouldn’t know
this about them unless you had a conversation with them.
See, it's not that the labels
or the boxes, I've learned, are in and of themselves the problem
don’t define us. They’re just a part of our definition. And
admittedly, I have spent much of my life blaming the
boxes and these categories too, but we must stop trying to convince
ourselves that categorizing is the issue; because the truth is we're
going to categorize because that's how our brains process information.
And we use it in our
environment for everything -- you know, animal [versus] plant, hot
swipe left/swipe right -- we categorize.
boxes are not actually the problem; it’s the fact that we stop at the
boxes -- that’s the problem.
is important, because the face of our country is changing, and we have
got to learn how to better engage with people who look different from us; because there are going to be more people of color in
our country, in our work places, and even within our families. Based on the
recent statistics, odds are increasing that you are going to have a grandchild,
niece, or a nephew who's a minority or mixed race.
see, the recent
Pew Research Group studies found recently that millennials (or anyone
born after 1980) have recently surpassed baby boomers as the
largest living generation -- and we are also 43% Non-White. So it
makes sense, then, that when they also noted, as of two years ago
, that almost half of
all newborns are also Non-White. So, not
only are we becoming more diverse, but we're becoming more mixed too,
because, they've noted, as of last
year, that now 1 in 7 marriages are interracial.
even with these increases though, I still believe that there's far too
many of us that, when we
encounter somebody who's different from us, we are
so quick to note the differences, make assumptions, check a box, and
keep moving. Hispanic man (check). Arab woman (check). And if we’re
not forced to engage with people who are different from us, most of us
don’t bother to go out of our way.
Now, I know
what you’re thinking: “Liz, I’m not racist." "I mean, I -- I celebrate and respect
diversity from other cultures. I have several Indian friends. And, I’m at a TEDx
event." Indeed, but these implicit racial biases have been found in even
the minds of those of us who consider ourselves to be the most
See, scientists have beg[un] to discover
actually what happens in our brains
when we -- when we encounter race. In fact, we can read someone’s
race in milliseconds.
neuroimaging they've identified what
happens...the reasons [that] our brains...are activated when we
encounter different faces, actually.
So, there's two regions of the brain that are activated: the
face area and the
fusiform face area is actually responsible for helping us to read people as
familiar. It also helps us to pick up their finer facial features,
like maybe freckles, and it also helps us to properly discern and
distinguish that individual's feelings, so that we can read the
difference between “surprised versus shocked” or
“angry versus scared”. The amygdala, on the other hand, is the part of our brain
where you'll find learned conditioning for fear, anxiety, and the
studies have shown that when participants look at faces that are of the
same race as their own, their -- the fusiform face area is heavily activated more so than the amygdala. And when people
faces of races that are different from themselves, you guessed it, the opposite is
true -- where the amygdala goes off like crazy and the fusiform face
area is weakly
activated. This happens so prevalently that scientists call it the
this might have served
a purpose, you know, in -- in tribal times where "another race" meant a
different tribe, and, you know, you had to proceed with caution as you
pioneer through new lands. But we are not in tribal times
anymore, people. And we’re in the largest
melting pot in the world. We should be
able to overcome...these implicit racial biases. And there are some modern consequences if we are not intentional about
for example, the amygdala. If it's activated, or overactive, the effects can be serious.
I mean, think about it: Studies have shown that just by looking at
somebody from a different race -- can cause you to feel anxious. No
other indicators -- not their behavior, not their words -- just the fact
that they look different can cause you to feel fear. Now, couple that
with the decreased ability to properly read and discern that person's
feelings. How easily we may confuse, you know, their feelings of
confusion for being angry. Imagine how, in those split-second
situations, we could be wrong. Imagine if there's two people of
different races, and one of them is in a position of power, and the
other isn't. Imagine if one of them has a weapon and the other is
neuroscience can explain how subconscious our behavior can be, but I
want to be clear. I am not offering an excuse for racism,
because we still have a conscious choice to be racist or not.
And if we're choosing to not be racist, then we must also
choose to be intentional about correcting this subconscious thought
so, I've learned some things through my experiences as a mixed-race
woman, and that science has confirmed, are some helpful solutions that
can help all of us get past these biases and get past this box.
we have to stop blaming the box,
and these labels, because the reality is we are all different and it is okay
to acknowledge those differences. It's not that we shouldn’t label people.
It’s that we shouldn’t limit people.
Secondly, we must be intentional in overcoming these --
this subconscious thought process.
You know, specifically, we can become allies with people from
different ethnic groups. You know, you might find somebody who looks different from you but
maybe shares common interests, like you have the same favorite sports team.
It's an easy way to start a conversation, as well. Or you could coach or mentor a young person from a
different ethnic group, too.
See, studies have shown that by becoming allies with somebody from a different
ethnic group -- has actually [been] shown to decrease these racial
biases. In one
study, where white participants who at first tested with [these] implicit race biases against African-Americans
-- when they just simply read a hypothetical story where a
black person was a hero that saved their own life, they had an
immediate and significant decrease in their implicit race biases. Now,
if that can happen from just reading a hypothetical story, imagine what would happen
with consistent, positive interactions in real life?
Which is why we also need to hold
the media and [news outlets] accountable.
Like, look, it’s no secret that the news perpetuates negative stereotypes
about minorities. And, quite frankly, all this does is continue to feed
our subconscious anxiety. I think that's...a reason why a [large]
majority of us are hesitant about engaging with people from different
But this is a critical component because even with all
of the positive interactions we have with each other, there's no way
that we can keep up with the
constant barrage of negativity from the media.
in small ways, like with this poster at a pool talking about the rules.
Notice all the -- the children misbehaving happen to be brown.
Or in big ways, like how in Oliver Stone’s movie
World Trade Center, they changed the identity of this guy,
African-American U.S. Marine Lieutenant
Jason Thomas, who crawled into the
9/11 and saved two New York police
The actor they chose to portray him? This guy [William Mapother]. Huge missed opportunity to
portray a person of color positively and as a hero.
So, it is -- considering how important stories are, whether we
read them, watch them, or hear them, it is that much more important that
we are intentional about correcting this.
a personal note, you can just simply turn the news off to spare yourself
from the exposure to the negativity.
could also, when you encounter somebody who looks different from you,
be intentional about engaging in conversation with them.
Ask yourself, “What do I know about
this person? Not the group I think belong to, but this person in front of
me specifically?” "Yes, [he's] an Asian man, but what else do I know
about them?" "Yes, [she's] an Hispanic woman but what else do I know
about her?" "What are her hobbies?" You know, "What does she do for a
living?" Where [does she] go to school?" That's a great place to start.
Don’t ask, “What are you?” Ask, “Who are
finally, I want
you to remember me and people like me. Remember how you have to have a
conversation with us to even know what boxes we're associated with. How
amazing would it be if we gave everybody the privilege of a conversation?
To share that we're more than just our race. Because you'll find that
your first box may not be correct, or even the whole story.
Imagine if we treated everybody the way
that people treat me -- where, when there's not one box that I fit into, I get my
own unique category. But everybody should get their own unique category, not just
us "ethnically ambiguous" ones.
So now, when people ask me who I am:
I'm a Christian.
Competitive, Janet Jackson Fanatical, Masterful Lip-Syncing, Fun-Loving,
Entrepreneur and Blogger.