Coming Out and Coming Into My Own

As if I needed to tell you, I am light, bright and clearly half White. My father was German, Dutch and Irish and my mother was Black and Japanese. One might assume from this racial makeup and my looks I’d self-identify as anything other than Black.

My parents were married in 1960, and because of the racial climate throughout the states, they chose to remain in New York City to raise my brothers and me.

In my very liberal Upper West Side neighborhood, apartments stacked one on top of the other housed many “fill in the blank” parents raising kids whose racial mixtures were varied, and like mine, not always so discernible.

Nobody batted an eyelash seeing all this “otherness” … not even the monoracial kids who played with us. Sure there were instances of parents who wouldn’t let their kids play with us because one of our mixtures was Black, Asian or something else that could possibly resemble the people their parents warned them about. However, these were few and far between.

Despite all these beautifully blended families of fill-in-the-blank mixtures, there was no unifying term that aptly described us. Some of us referred to ourselves as Heinz 57s, but most of us went by the way we were raised. Oftentimes the way we were raised was dictated by which parent’s race was the more marginalized.

"Despite all these beautifully blended families of fill-in-the-blank mixtures, there was no unifying term that described us. #mixedrace #multiracial

My father’s father was a Nazi sympathizer who prevented my (then teenaged) father from saving the life of a drowning Black boy. You can probably guess what his reaction was when my father announced he was marrying my mother.

I never met my dad’s father and from where I sit, I didn’t miss out on anything.

My parents’ main concern was how the world outside our bubble would see and treat us. And without an all-inclusive term to describe us, my parents chose to raise us as Black. Being raised as and identifying as White would have been disingenuous.

For a brief period when I was between two and five, my parents separated. In that time my mom had a boyfriend who was a member of the Black Panther Party. Although my parents had been raising us to identify as Black, he instilled in my brothers and me a sense of Blackness that wasn’t possible for my White father to do.

As a result nobody thought it was strange that this glow-in-the-dark four-year-old girl gave people the Black Power Salute. Well, some of my teachers thought it was bit bizarre, and others—fellow members of the “other” club—were amused. Some would salute me in return.

Nobody thought it was strange that this glow-in-the-dark 4-year-old girl gave people the #BlackPowerSolute #mixedrace #multiracial

In my mid-20s, I left my comfortable bubble and moved to Washington, D.C. I quickly discovered something very shocking. Apparently most monoracial people use looks as the ultimate signifier when assigning race to another person.

It was both horrifying and embarrassing at the same time. When my roommate, who was the spitting image of Cicely Tyson, declared, “Girl, you ain’t really Black!” I was stunned! I was also angry that someone I perceived to be one of my own would reject me without listening to why I self-identified the way I did.

My parents weren’t there to help me fend off this onslaught of … what exactly was it? Falsehoods? Reality? Something in between?

Despite this reality check, for 20 more years I would continue trying to fit my square self into the round hole I’d built for myself. When I married a Black man and into his Black family, I will say that I felt immediate acceptance and validation.

Paul’s family, like mine, represented every shade of Black I had become accustomed to seeing. His mother was lighter in complexion than I am and identified as Black. His father was as dark as my Cicely Tyson doppelgänger, and so Paul and his sisters range from my complexion to dark brown.

All of them have always seen me as their sister as well as their “sistah.”

Outside the expanded bubble, which now included Paul and his family, the only thing that changed was that I developed a tougher exterior. I was still ready to defend my Blackness, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to others.

Until…

One day in 2014 I met a woman online named Bryony. She is White, her husband is Caribbean Black (a designation we don’t use in the U.S.) and together they’re raising three Biracial sons outside of London.

Biracial? What? I was by this point aware of the term but I still questioned how an interracial couple couldn’t see that their kids would be perceived as Black and not Biracial, and moreover, the danger they could be in as a result of not being prepared for this likelihood.

They both assured me they’d cross that bridge if and when they got there.

One thing led to another and we decided to write a book about the topic. Initially it was just the two of us writing it but then it morphed into the anthology we have today. Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide is a collection of essays written by either multiracial people or parents of mixed race children.

Of the 24 essays (including Bryony’s and mine), I was the only holdout to adopting the Biracial / multiracial / mixed race “label,” as it were.

It’s been a journey for me but over the summer of 2015, I “came out” as Biracial. This is reflected in the second edition of our book, which was published in January 2016.

This transition has been made immeasurably easier because:

The multiracial community has welcomed me with open arms (which I can’t say is always the case with Black or White people)
Call us what you want, we are trending
We’re no longer the anomaly—we’re in the news everywhere. People—like me—who grew up self-identifying as one or the other are now doing as I am: claiming their multiracial status.

It’s exciting and strange all at once but I am loving it, so much so that I am no longer “just” a book author on the topic.

In December, I established Coquí Press, a publishing company focusing on gender / race / LGBTQ advocacy, and released a second edition of Being Biracial, simultaneously setting the wheels in motion for an academic companion guide to be published in Summer 2016. My goal with Coquí Press is to publish books that speak to those who are marginalized and for those whose views run counter to the mainstream.

And in March I launched a site with standup comic and host of the Multiracial Family Man podcast, Alex Barnett, called Multiracial Media. It’s a platform for artistic expression for those in the multiracial community.

I am excited to be on this journey and along with Bryony, I am proud to be a panelist for this year’s Mixed Remixed Festival. Is the Mixed thing Just for Girls?: Mixed-Race Identity & Gender Politics couldn’t be a more apt panel for me because:

I have lived this very journey of “Coming Out” over the last two years and it is as intrinsically linked to my gender as it is to my identity
As an example, my brothers have never strongly identified with any one or all of our ethnicities
I am a feminist
The title of the panel suggests “the Mixed thing” might (in the eyes of some) just be a passing fad. I know that’s not the case.

Sarah Ratliff is a freelance writer and published book author. Additionally, she is the CEO of Coquí Content Marketing, LLC and Coquí Press—a small press book publisher. Although comfortable with a variety of topics, her passion is gender / race / LGBTQIA advocacy. In September 2015 Sarah co-authored and published Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide, which is a collection of essays written by either multiracial people or parents of mixed race kids from all over the world. In March 2016 Sarah co-founded Multiracial Media—a platform that showcases the artistic expression of those in the multiracial community. She and her husband, Paul, live on an organic farm on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.