Slipping through the cracks

Cal in Color

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At my community college, perched on a squeaky plastic chair in a professor’s office, I gushed about how excited I was to be transferring to UC Berkeley.

“Oh, so that means you’re doing the Bridges program, right?” my professor asked. I stared back blankly.

It turned out that Bridges was hosting a weekend-long immersion program for prospective transfer students who are BIPOC, which included fully funded travel to campus and a stay at a local hotel. My professor was surprised that I hadn’t received the email offer like all of her other UC Berkeley admits of color had. “You must have slipped between the cracks,” she said.

As a multiracial person, I’m used to slipping between cracks. As the product of a Ukrainian mother and an Afghan father, I identify as half-white and half….Afghan.

My identity feels slippery. I would always take way too long to answer the race question when filling out documents. I used to be a little bit jealous of people who could instantly check off a box on autopilot, who never had to worry about their “unconventional” identity not being reflected on these kinds of questionnaires.

Documents such as the census attempt to make me believe that I’m white, which seems ridiculous every time I look at myself in a mirror. Not to mention those forms that still mistakenly lump Afghans into the Middle Eastern category. Occasionally present is the “one or more races” option, which, while being the most applicable, can also be reductive.

When I was 10, I immigrated to the United States with my mom, who always checked the “white” box on my behalf. In Ukraine, this question did not exist on any documents because it was already assumed that everyone was white. Though my mom didn’t intend to be reductive, labeling me as solely white when I clearly wasn’t was a form of subconscious erasure, especially given that I grew up in a place that missed no chance to remind me of exactly how not white I was.

Be it at school or the playground or dance class, I was likely the first and only nonwhite person that all the other kids had ever interacted with. They’d ask me where I was from and were reluctant to believe me when I answered, “I’m from here.”

Whenever I complained about looking different than everybody else, my mom always told me that I was lucky to look so “unique” and “exotic.” I, however, didn’t feel lucky. I felt exhausted. I used to fantasize about being white-passing; about being able to ride the metro every day without all the not-so-subtle side-eyeing from strangers whose stares prodded me like a physical touch, a flock of straining hands.

In Berkeley, the string of explanations has gotten longer and more tangled: When asked where I’m from, I usually say something to the effect of, “San Diego, but, originally, Ukraine; but also, I’m Afghan.”

In return, I am usually given a slightly bewildered look and peppered with questions: “Wow, how did that happen?” “Where were you born?” “Do you speak Farsi?” “Is there a Ukraine language?” It’s a great conversation starter, but can sometimes verge on interrogative. I feel obligated to dole out elaborate explanations, lush with sidenotes and disclaimers.

As much as I enjoy the opportunity of sharing the confusing, wonderful tangle of my background with whoever is curious, multiracial people are expected to constantly explain our existences. When whiteness is considered the default, mixed-race identities are subconsciously perceived as existences that need to be accounted for or justified

Even within the community of BIPOC, it’s hard for me to feel like I belong due to the pressure to align oneself with a certain racial or ethnic category — honestly, I often feel like a fraud. I’m too Afghan to be Ukrainian and too Ukrainian to be Afghan.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple or guaranteed way to resolve the problem of fitting in as a multiracial person. Fortunately, there is the choice to not see it as a problem.

When I moved to the United States and was able to meet more multiracial and multicultural people, I developed a sense of pride in how my identity refuses to conform to rigid racial classifications, and how arbitrary these constructed classifications are. It taught me to view complexity not as an impediment, but as a learning opportunity.

This kind of growth isn’t something that happened overnight — it was cumulative, the result of many conversations and spaces that slowly unravel the white supremacist perspective through which I saw myself. Unlearning oppression is not an event. Rather, it is an ongoing process; the kind that does not have a finish line.

I have yet to meet anyone with the same ethnic identity as me. I can, however, find belonging in the knowledge that there is an entire community of multiracial and mixed BIPOC who are navigating the nuances and complexities of our identities alongside me.

Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to find clarity in the form of an identity that perfectly encompasses who I am. Mine never fit; it was too amorphous, too pliable. I realize that this amorphousness is what fits me. I don’t have to be defined.

Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]