‘Michael, You’re Black’: Coming to Terms With My Mixed Identity
Acknowledging my history helped me lower my family’s smoke screens
“Michael, you’re Black.”
This statement of sheer fact made me turn away in frustration and embarrassment. For 10 minutes, a Black girl in my class and I had engaged in a conversation about my ethnicity — a topic I eagerly wanted to avoid. I managed to make it more than three years in my New York City public high school without talking about my ethnicity in any serious way. And unlike many Black and Brown children across the country, I hadn’t been confronted about my race before.
In that high school office room, where I had lunch with a small group of friends and while others watched, she quickly tore down my façade.
“No, I’m not Black. I’m Italian, German, Trinidadian.”
“But, your dad is from Trinidad?”
“And his dad is Black?”
“Then boy, you’re a n****r.”
While everyone laughed and pointed out how clearly Black my hair was, I sat at a loss for words, mentally frustrated. That word shook me to my core.
“I can’t be. I’m not.”
I owe this way of thinking in part to the precise deployment of layers upon layers of smoke screens — first from my family and then from myself, that obscured for so long exactly who the hell I am.
Here are some of those layers: My mother is White with Italian and German heritage. My father — an immigrant from Trinidad who moved to the U.S. in his teens — is mixed. His father is Afro-Caribbean, born in Trinidad with family roots in Barbados; his mother is mixed herself (seeing a pattern here?) with a Southeast Asian father and a Venezuelan-Italian mother; her maiden name is Muzini.
My parents divorced when I was young, so I spent most of my adolescence with my mother and Italian family in the Italian suburbs of Staten Island. I gained a passionate affinity for Luciano Pavarotti and Italian opera. If you had asked me to make something quick for dinner, it probably would — and still would — involve some sort of pasta: carbonara, puttanesca, cacio e pepe, or arrabbiata. Yet, I couldn’t tell you what roti was exactly or any traditional Trinidadian curries or callaloo or oxtail.
It would take many years after that moment in a North Shore Staten Island high school — including coming out — to realize that as I wish to live unapologetically gay, I should also live unapologetically Black.
I helped spread some of those smoke screens myself. For most of my life, with few exceptions, I would have my hair buzz cut regularly. Kids would tease me and call me bald, but I thought that was more tolerable than actually confronting curls that, while not tightly wound, weren’t as wavy and flowing as Tyler’s — my blonde, unbearably straight yet “twinky” track-star crush throughout middle and high school. It was easier to keep it short; that way, there could be no complications. No confrontations.
Then, there was politics. I was raised Christian and conservative and remained so for a long time. With that brought the “great othering.” For example, the liberal “demagogues” Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were “rabble-rousers” who profited off the Black community. And I grew up with this classic: Black people were worse off because they were lazy and preferred to collect handouts from the government.
While my mother never explicitly endorsed these ideas — she tended to avoid politics — my dad was adamant. He’s a bold man. If you’re a bit confused about how my father, a Black man, would believe such a thing, allow me to elaborate.
The Black immigrant experience is vastly distinct from the Black American experience. While my father grew up with all the trappings of post-British colonialism, he grew up in a country where the majority of people looked like him, where the leaders of the country looked like him, and where the overwhelming cultural surroundings promoted his heritage, his sense of national belonging, and his economic and social well-being.
Coming from a country that promotes the individual, how could he understand the pain of being looked down on by someone who looks completely different from you? How could he understand a school system that teaches the history of people who don’t look like you and distorts your own cultural history — or ignores it altogether? As a mixed-race son born and raised in the States, I could not avoid this history. Instead, I chose to adopt it as my own.
My high school style mimicked the small cadre of “honors” kids in high school, who coincidentally were almost all White in a majority Black and Brown school. That meant an endless sea of Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts, jeans, hoodies, sweaters, and sweatpants. The rush to the malls and the pungent smack across the face every time you walked into the dingy surfing shacks called Hollister stores were things I actively sought out. Unconsciously — or perhaps consciously — I cloaked myself to avoid identifying who I was.
Many of the Black kids wore saggy pants, a supposed sign of disrespect and criminality — only now do I see how big of a “fuck you” to the establishment it was, whether those kids knew it or not. Not to mention the untold numbers of Black men who wore suits and were still cracked across the skull by a police baton and thrown into police vans.
For years, when people asked what I was, I never said Black and White; I pivoted to a pointless distraction of nationalities to escape it. It was, in a way, my mind telling my soul, “You don’t want this. You don’t want that history to be your history, that pain to be your pain, those struggles to be your struggles.” The world will choose what to make of you, but you have a choice of what to make of yourself. You decide to be unashamed of who and what you are or to allow society to dictate that for you. It would take many years after that moment in a North Shore Staten Island high school — including coming out — to realize that as I wish to live unapologetically gay, I should also live unapologetically Black.
As James Baldwin once remarked in a debate about whether the American dream was achieved at the expense of the American Negro, “in the case of an American Negro, born in that glittering republic … the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white. And since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.” This feeling of disassociation from ethnicity may only last a short time, as Baldwin describes, or it may continue into your early twenties as it did for me. Others may spend their entire lives in that state of disassociation, running from the confrontation that may stalk their dreams and make habitat their innermost nightmares.
But the system that produces these cultural rifts — that reinforces false concepts of superior and inferior — must be fought. And hopefully, on that glorious day, children and adults alike can reconcile with the strangers within themselves and live free and proud.
Years after high school, my immediate family has become much more progressive. When I’m talking to my folks, the tone leans more educational than confrontational. And while the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and a multitude of other victims of systematic police violence continue, I am grateful that I could hold conversations with people able to vocalize the experience I had long dwelled on but never fully unpacked and examined.
Once you see a picture a certain way, you can never unsee it. Now that I see how the avoidance of race played a pivotal role in many aspects of my childhood and adolescence, I can no longer walk into the future ignorant of the obstacles I’ll face, from politics to conversations with friends. But armed with knowledge, the past can be confronted — and hopefully, one day, reconciled.