By Kerry Ingram
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Kendall Free has struggled with her identify for her entire life.
A biracial student at John Hopkins University, Free was one of the few mixed-race people in her town in Arizona. She had to deal with questions about her hair and the stares she received when hanging out with her white father.
The scrutiny became so bad, that Free felt like she needed to go out in public with her mom to avoid the attention.
“My mom is black and my dad is white,” Free said. “When I was young, I always felt self-conscious walking around with them. I felt like people were looking at me.
“I felt like there was a real lack of culture where I grew up,” Free added. “My hometown, Tuscon, is in a relatively liberal area, but there’s still a lot of social and physical conservatives. I had maybe one or two black friends growing up. I wasn’t able to express my blackness until high school, and I knew that come time for college, I wanted to go as far away as possible.”
Free and other people from biracial families face unique challenges in a country whose creation lies on racial tension and divide, a problem that is still far from being nonexistent. The U.S. has made progress towards unity in its history, but with events like the Baltimore riots and Charlottesville occurring within the last few years, the division between racial lines seems all the more clear.
Questions arise about which race to identify with and the challenges are particularly poignant during national recognitions like Black History Month. The month focuses on black culture and the historical figures that fought against the oppressions placed on them by whites in America, but poses a serious question: what happens when one’s identity not only belongs to those who were historically oppressed, but to the group of historic oppressors as well?
Free chose JHU as a way to feel closer to the half of her identity that she felt she often had to filter in her home state. Growing up in a mainly-white community, Free always felt a sense of awkwardness and shame surrounding the fact that she was one of the few black people around. Although she often had her mother to lean on for support, it wasn’t until she moved to Baltimore that she learned to fully embrace her black culture.
Free wasn’t wrong to think that Baltimore would be a better place than Arizona to connect with her African American roots. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 63.6 percent of Baltimore’s population is black, a big difference from Arizona, where only 4.9 percent of the state’s population in black.
Free now serves as the research, history and education chair of the Black Student Union (BSU) at her university. In February, she served as the BSU chair of planning for Black History Month.
“[Blacks in America] have been through very rough times, yet there’s so much excellence that has been a result of all our difficulties,” Free said. “Black History Month is meant to celebrate that and represents being outstanding during times of disparity.”
Despite Free’s direct involvement with Black History Month, she still holds feelings of slight disconnect towards the month’s culture.
“I think when it comes to the full ‘black experience’ I can’t relate,” Free said. “I think more so coming to college has made me feel excluded … because my parents aren’t African immigrants. I’m around many people who have a lot of national pride for their country. I don’t have that.”
Faith Brown, another biracial student on the university’s BSU board, shared how she also felt a bit of detachment from the black community, although on the basis of privilege.
“I have privilege, but it’s because of what other people perceive me as, rather than what I personally feel,” Brown said. “For example, me having lighter skin or ‘better hair’ is seen as prettier. I don’t get connected to certain labels that someone else, like a dark-skinned black male, would receive due to their race. There’s a distance and difference between our experiences.”
Kim Scott, who attends school at Frostburg University, felt less disparity in her upbringing.
“Growing up mixed, I felt like I got a good mixture of growing up black and white,” Scott said. “We hung out with both sides of my family, so I never really noticed race growing up since I was already immersed in diversity.”
Scott noted that her “mixed appearance” ties into her self-identification – she has never felt the need to pick a side.
Although Scott proudly identifies herself as a mixed-race individual, some scholars believe such a thing to be impossible.
“The notion of being ‘mixed-race’ or ‘biracial’ is a fallacy,” said Rainer Spencer, the vice provost for academic programs at the University of Nevada and a and a leading scholar of critical mixed-race theory. “If one really believes in race as a biological category, then race-mixing should be impossible. Pure races must stay pure in order to remain races.”
Spencer, who has authored three books on the topic of racial studies since 1999, said race is something constructed as a base to tie self-worth to.
“[Afro-Americans] are so continually defined by race that they cannot imagine letting it go and simply being humans of European and sub-Saharan African descent,” Spencer said. “Because belief in a flat earth and belief in earth as the center of the solar system were eventually accepted as universally false, there is hope that biological race will one day meet the same fate.”
Spencer’s hope for an ending of multi-race claims doesn’t seem to be happening in the near future, however.
According to a 2015 Pew Research study, the multiracial population in America is growing three times as fast as the rate of the overall population, currently making up 6.9 percent of the U.S. population. The study also showed that although racial tensions still exist, the idea of racial identities seems to matter less among younger people.
Matt Smith, a 22-year-old from Maryland who identifies as white, agrees.
“Any experience I’ve had with anyone, whether they be white, black, mixed, Asian, or whatever is the same,” Smith said. “I always hold the same mindset that people are predominately good until they prove otherwise.”
Smith said that as a white male, the idea of black culture and Black History Month has never been something that has directly , he said he believes in the importance of its existence and celebration by all people. To him, the racial identity problem lies in the country’s “bad habit’ of needing division.
“Half of the problem with this country is that there are sides,” Smith said. “Truthfully, it’s like people look at it like a ladder and they just want to be the top rung. Where there is a top, there has to be a bottom, so they fill a spot in with who or whatever, and it shouldn’t be like that, for anyone of any color.”
Jacoy Simmons, a Maryland native who identifies as black, said Black History Month is a way to bring people together, rather than a barrier to continue the racial divide.
“To me, Black History Month is more than [just being] about ‘black’ history,” Simmons said. “What’s important about it is that we recognize that African Americans as a whole were oppressed, overcame [that oppression], and made that history, in order to inspire so many other people…that they too, in spite of opposition, can make a difference in other people’s lives while also making a name for themselves.”
To Simmons, Black History Month is something to be celebrated by people of all backgrounds and cultures. He believes that mixed race people, although not often a large part of the Black History Month narrative, hold the best point of view in regards to race, since “picking a side” isn’t always necessary.
“Honestly biracial people are the ones who have the best perspective on really any major racial issue,” Simmons said. “They’re kind of the forgotten stepchild, so I definitely feel like they’re left out of the narrative a huge deal. When it comes to Black History Month, I would be disgusted if I heard anyone say that someone biracial shouldn’t have a place. That is still their heritage, their family, their ancestors. And instead of being the stepchild, they should be the golden child for they are the walking representation of two cultures, not judging based off differences, but seeing each other for who they are and becoming one. To me, that’s such a beautiful thing. I almost wish everyone was biracial. Then how could anyone truly be racist?”
Although Free, Brown, and Scott all spoke on how they’ve grown to have a closer connection with their black culture, all three women agreed that the biracial narrative is one that could be added to the celebrations of Black History Month. For Free, that’s something she looks to add in the upcoming years at JHU.
“I think there’s definitely room for a celebration of biracial identities,” Free said. “I think people would be open to it, at least on my campus. Black History Month may end in February, but the drive for recognition and change does not. The celebration of one’s self, no matter whether that self be of one race or many, is the best celebration life can ever offer you.”