I was 13 and begrudgingly present at a birthday party for toddlers, which I was obligated to attend because the hosts were “friends of the family.” I retreated to the couch in the baby-proof living room where I played with my toddling younger half-sister. In a nearby recliner sat a beer-bellied, middle-aged man munching a Klondike bar.
“Awww. You two look like you know each other so well!” he said.
“We’re sisters, actually,” I told him.
His eyebrows shot up. His gaze kept flickering between me and my blond-haired, blue-eyed sister. “Oh,” he said. Then, after a beat of involuntary silence, added: “But not, like…biologically, right?”
In these situations, I fantasize about being white-passing, about being absolved from the awkwardness of having to explain to adults and kids alike why I was the only Brown girl in my white family.
When my sister started kindergarten, all the kids were assigned to bring in a photo of their family for a class collage. The photo my mom chose featured her, my stepfather, my sister and me, all facing the camera. They were caught in a patch of bright sunlight, skin neon-white, blond hair almost transparent. Meanwhile, I lingered in a shaded spot, dark and backlit, almost the same color as the brownish-grayish rocks we were sitting on.
I wished they’d chosen a different picture. I looked like a blotch. I glared at where it lay innocently on the kitchen counter, desperately wishing that something fatal would happen to it before it was stashed in my sister’s sparkly, pink backpack and delivered safely to her classroom.
This sudden wave of resentment caught me off guard. Where was it coming from? I examined the photo again. It made one thing glaringly clear: I didn’t look like I belonged, making me feel like I didn’t. I could almost hear the kids and teachers silently wondering, Who’s that girl? Why is she there? I could almost feel their stares on my photographed image.
I imagined what it would look like without me: An ad-worthy, generic white family with societally standard smiles. That kind of picture would have fit in seamlessly in my sister’s classroom, located in a white, upper middle-class neighborhood.
Objectively, I knew that love and belonging had nothing to do with appearances. But as a child, I was ready to give anything for a family member who looked at least a little bit like me.
I’d pore over old family albums, combing for even a small hint of phenotypic similarity. I’d say things such as, “Doesn’t my nose look a bit like Babushka’s?” or, “Mom, I think we have the same face shape!” Mostly, this was wishful thinking and a testament to my insecurity.
Wherever I am, whenever I visit stores, cafes, museums, movie theatres or any other public establishments with my family, the inevitable question of, “Are you all together?” resurfaces. I anticipate it. When standing in line with a family member, I feel awkward and fundamentally out of place knowing that, to others, I must look like a stranger who’s standing too close. I feel the need to back up a bit, to put some physical distance between us to justify the intangible distance that already exists.
The rational, objective part of me wonders whether I’m making a big deal out of the simple, mundane act of standing in line with my family. But somewhere underneath, within me, is an ingrained social bias that makes standing in a white person’s space feel fundamentally wrong, even if I’m related to them.
However blatantly or subtly, our society teaches people of color that we don’t belong in white spaces, that we should driift back to the margins and step aside. Subconsciously, I lean away from my family in line without even realizing that I’m doing so.
Whenever I tried to express how being perceived as an outsider to my family in public made me feel to my mom, she’d answer with something along the lines of:
“Don’t be ridiculous. Who cares what strangers think? We know you’re one of us, so there’s no difference.”
In theory, appearance is superficial in regards to familial love. A sense of kinship is supposed to be based on experience, but my appearance determined my experience. In a society such as ours, in which multiracial families have still yet to be normalized, the two are intertwined and inextricable from one another.
In high school, my family took a road trip to Utah. We stopped at one of the tiny convenience stores that sprouted in intermittent clusters like mushrooms along the freeway’s edges. As I was waiting in the bathroom line with my family, a white lady in front of us turned, gave me an up-and-down sweep with her eyes, and asked,
“Do you speak English?”
She didn’t realize we were together, as per usual. This was the difference that my mom claimed was nonexistent or inconsequential. The difference between my white family and me was that they wouldn’t be asked this question.
I would like to believe my mom when she says, “It doesn’t matter what strangers think.” I would like to believe that our familial relationship is far too meaningful to be concerned with something as superficial as appearances.
However, situations like this are a stinging reminder of how deterministic skin color is in our society. Though we walk side by side, my white family and I walk through different worlds.
The distinction between how the world perceives them and how it perceives me is too large to be bridged. To my family, it doesn’t matter how the rest of the world sees me. But to me, as a person of color who regularly experiences xenophobia, systemic racism and hostile nationalism all while standing next to my unaffected white family members, it matters. It matters a lot.
Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]