From an early age, I knew that I was unaccounted for and unrepresented. When I started school, my mom filled out a form stating my “primary” and “secondary” race. At that moment, I knew that my mixedness was simultaneously quantified and misunderstood.
As a Black, white mixed-race woman, I, like so many other mixed folks, grew up answering the infamous and inevitable question: “What are you?” I hated that question, and I hated checking myself into two boxes that ignored my multiplicity and my dynamicism.
But my friends and peers asked the question nonetheless.
Record-keeping within the institution of schooling primed my friends’ questioning of my identity and my questioning of my own. When we took state tests, I never knew if my score was grouped into “African American” or “Caucasian.” When I looked in my textbooks, I was never recognized or given history. When I hung out with friends, I was mocked for celebrating my Blackness because of my mixedness. Being mixed meant that I had to choose my race upon a racial binary, and school served as a means for me to make that decision.
Rooted in the era of legal slavery in the United States and stemming from ideals of a “one-drop rule” (or the idea that having any Black ancestors makes one Black), this racial categorization of people erased the whiteness of folks in order to preserve slavery. Though the Anglicized features (lighter skin, straighter hair and thinner hair texture, lighter eye color) and likely relatedness to slave masters placed mixed slaves physically closer to slave masters and their immediate, legitimized families, these mixed-race slaves still lived as slaves. Maintaining the Blackness of these folks reproduced their labor and sustained the strength of racist systems while also introducing another violence: colorism.
Colorism plays a part in the daily interactions of Black, white mixed-race folks, in some ways acting as a personal benefactor, and in others acting as a symbolic and institutional oppressor. My whiteness and comparatively more Anglo features made teachers view me as smarter than my darker-skinned peers and made classmates think I was more approachable. This always came with the underlying caveat that I was smart, nice and pretty “for a Black girl.” On an individual level, Black, white folks are seen as “ambiguous,” as some obscured and erased identity that, therefore, can be appreciated in a way that Blackness cannot. That covert promotion of white features — that erasure of someone’s full identity — is an act of anti-Blackness in which the education system is complicit.
Education policy seems to purposefully neglect the existence of mixed-race students for this same purpose of anti-Blackness. Even the seminal legislation of Proposition 209 (California’s banning of affirmative action admission requirements in public institutions) muddies racial identification through its appropriation of equality. In this “equality,” and through its ignorance of histories like slavery, Prop. 209 continues to put white students ahead while it hinders students of color. Even more adversely, Prop. 209 inherently reproduces racism and colorism in ways that harm individual identification and funnel people into reproduced slavery.
When I tell the university that I am both Black and white, I am never half and half. In personal interactions, I am light-skinned and have that social privilege. Still, for education and for greater institutions, my Blackness overshadows any other identity that I own. The totalization of my Blackness to greater systems and the personal confusion of having an unheard narrative in my formative education seems to be utilized as a means to reproduce underpaid and unpaid labor, to funnel Black and Black mixed bodies into a modern-day slavery seen within and as the prison system.
UC Berkeley, as a higher-education institution, is a part of this greater system of calculation, erasure and totalization of race. Even though — and especially because — UC Berkeley is an elite university, students can acknowledge the school’s connection to and perpetuation of racist systems. We talk about a school-to-prison pipeline and we learn about racist motives of neoliberalism. But the campus seems to not act against its anti-Blackness or its colorism.
We know that the institution fails to serve Black communities on campus. What we like to ignore is the fact that this is an iteration of the reproduction of slavery and the school-to-prison pipeline. Just as 5-year-old me felt checking myself into boxes, Black, white students seem to be seen as something unworthy to the institution. Thus, we are siloed out of this institution and into others that reproduce past and current systems of oppression and labor. To legitimize our oppression, Black, white identities are never given a form of written history, whether in curriculum or in policy.
Because of this, our job is to challenge this system. UC Berkeley must support students of color, and mixed-race recognition is going to change what that support looks like.