My Biracial Life: A Memoir
It’s 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night at the barren 24-hour Melrose Diner in South Philly. I’m there alone. The hostess is hawkeyed at the cash register, as if I’m going to steal her silverware. She eventually moseys up to my booth. “Do you have a tan, or is that your natural skin color?” she asks. Natural, I tell her. “What are you?” I give her three guesses. “Hawaiian?” Nope. “Samoan?” Getting colder. At this point, a nearby server who’s been eavesdropping on the conversation decides to join in. “Puerto Rican,” he says. Wrong. “Dominican.” Wrong again. Then, five minutes after I’ve told them my ethnicity, a third member of the waitstaff comes up to me. “Hey, I like your skin color — what are you?”
Welcome to my world.
A couple of months later, a stranger approaches me in Bella Vista along 10th Street and asks, “Hey man, where are you from?” It’s nighttime, on a street that isn’t particularly well lit, and I’m dressed up for a dinner party. I sure as hell can’t tell where he’s from. He looks like your garden-variety millennial, scruffy and poorly garbed for winter (beanie, hoodie, jeans). But you know who also wears beanies and hoodies this time of year? Psychopaths, perverts and drug dealers. He might have made me anxious, save for the fact that these questions get asked of me all the time. “I live right around the corner,” I say, playing dumb. His eyes scan me again, from head to torso, before his half-smile shrinks into a wry frown. “Oh, I just figured you were foreign,” he says.
I’m hard to stereotype. But people still try. Recently, I’ve gotten Mexican, Pakistani, Italian, Brazilian. Countless cabdrivers have looked into the rearview mirror and spoken to me in another language, only to be disappointed that I can’t reciprocate. What prompts these encounters is obvious: My racial identity is eternally ambiguous.
But the difference in the two scenarios above is striking. At the Melrose, I was a Rubik’s Cube of potential races and ethnicities, but on the street, I was assumed to be foreign. In the former, I was wearing a baseball cap and sweats, while in the latter, I was click-clacking down the sidewalk in Moretti shoes with a hairdo apropos of Eraserhead. Perhaps I had a touch of European charisma that night, but to borrow a phrase from Shawshank, “I mean, seriously, how often do you look at a man’s shoes?”
If not the shoes, it had to be the hair. My almond-colored skin topped with my lightly coiffed hair — short and straight on the sides, wavy and curly on top — is baffling to wannabe typecasters. Even a man with lighter skin than mine who’s equipped with a head of tightly coiled curls is clearly recognized as black. I have the inverse predicament. The last time I walked into a black barbershop, I got the same question about my skin color from a barber perplexed by the oddity atop my head, which looks like a cross between Bruno Mars’s pompadour and The Kramer from Seinfeld. I’ve dubbed that look the “interracial flattop.” My barber called me “Ostrich Head.” It wasn’t the first nickname I’ve gotten. Last summer, a bartender interrupted my conversation with a woman to inquire about — you guessed it — my complexion, only to ignore my answer and refer to me as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” for the rest of the night.
What I really am is a quadroon: the son of a mulatto father and a white mother — the daughter of first-generation Polish immigrants. There is no stereotype for a half-Pole person of color that I’m aware of. For most of my life, I’ve simply self-identified as black, capitulating to the “one-drop rule,” which, despite its past adoption as a tool of white supremacy and eugenics believers, remains a pervasive determinant of race in America. Almost any mix of non-white blood categorizes you under another race. But the racial eye test doesn’t always coincide, because to the outside world, I’m never a black man on first blush.
Over the years, I’ve blamed most of that ambiguity on my hair. Remember that dapper little black boy who was pictured touching President Obama’s head a few years back? For a five-year-old, the texture of our first biracial president’s hair was an African-American litmus test. Where Obama passed, I would have failed. I’ve auditioned just about every hairdo in my life — from cornrows to uptown fades to the Afro — to close the gap between my perceived race and my actual ancestry. My hair became the crux of my racial identity, neither black nor white nor anything plainly recognizable to anyone. And I hated it.
MY HEAD HAS SPENT 25 years trying to decide which genes it inherited. In my parents’ wedding photos, Dad has an Afro about two feet in diameter. Mom rocked a straight-arrow normcore bob for most of my life. They were married in Bethlehem in 1974, a couple of Midwestern artists who soon moved to a loft on Bond Street in New York. All of their stories from disco-era NYC are suspiciously bland. I was born in 1990, five years after my brother. We lived within wafting distance of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, which was the world’s largest dump and one of two man-made constructions visible from outer space. (The other is the Great Wall of China.) Our neighborhood was eccentric: There was the widow Mrs. Green, who was cohabitating with a dozen dogs; the guy who walked his iguanas on leashes; the drug-dealing Albanians near my brother’s school. There was nothing exotic about us.
I’ve heard more than one friend say, “Mixed-race babies are the most beautiful.” Those friends would have tempered their praise had they seen the young me. A few years out of the womb, I looked like James Brown with a fresh perm, or maybe a darker-skinned version of Spanky. In lots of my toddler pics, I’m wearing hats — beanies, caps, even boxes and buckets. Hiding my hair was a hobby. It may have been coincidental, but I was aware of my skin color from an early age. Adults would jokingly ask my mom and dad if I’d been named after Malcolm X, and were surprised when my dad answered yes.
Despite the black-power homage, my parents were laissez-faire when it came to racial instruction for their mixed-race son. My dad loosely taught me to not think about race in my judgments of other people. What an opportunity to be uniquely equipped to do so: to be raised in two cultures; to understand the plights of both sides of the race spectrum; to connect with children of all colors, as Dr. King dreamed — I listened to a lot of that. Indeed, I went to a Montessori preschool with kids of all shades. There was a little black girl named Virginia who had kinky locks wrapped with hair ties of pink marble-sized beads. I remember wondering why her hair was different from my own. Hers was more like my father’s.
And where did his hair come from? Paul Burnley, my paternal grandfather, was just a name that popped up in my mother’s stories. The moral was always that he had no morals. For example: On my parents’ wedding day, Paul sent them two pink bath towels with the price tags still attached — $4 apiece. Ghastly tales about Paul were legion. He was the archetypal out-of-wedlock deadbeat dad. My paternal grandmother was white. In fact, basically all of the relatives I knew were white, mostly from my mom’s side. Paul was an enigma, and by and large, the rest of the black part of my family was, too. I didn’t question eating kielbasa and pierogies on Christmas, but my being Polish wasn’t the reason people asked What are you? It was my color that would define me, and that belonged to Paul, a mystery.
RACIAL STEREOTYPING is an ugly offshoot of a biological instinct. We evolved to sort information quickly and accurately — to know which berries are the poisonous ones or which animal belongs to the dangerous bunch. But racial stereotyping is a fairly modern invention — a social construct, not a biological one. For the past half century, it’s been scientific consensus that there’s less genetic variation between races than within each race — meaning there’s no inherent basis for predicting race based on genetic or physical traits. (Only one’s specific ethnicity or ancestry can suggest these markers.) Still, skin color is ingrained in our worldview, passed down through textbooks, pop culture and relatives. Children aren’t born observing race, but around age three, most kids will show preferences based on skin color.
By the time I entered middle school, we’d moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, so that my brother and I could attend better schools. Our new home was a converted barn from Colonial times, creaky but with character. Instead of a tiny hedged-in yard on Staten Island, we now had an acre with dogwoods, wisteria and groundhogs. There was no neighborhood. It was the suburbs. People drove everywhere. I could count the minority kids in my grade on my fingers.
After the bell rang one day in seventh grade, a classmate leaned in toward me. As he did, he was slurping up drool. He was always drooling because of his heavy lisp. This time he spoke clearly, in a phony ’hood accent. He gave me a hand dap, looked at me with his turquoise eyes, and said, “You’re not like other niggers.” It finally happened. I’d been hardened for this moment. And I punked out. I didn’t slug the saliva out of his mouth. My instantaneous rage gave way to a perverse feeling of validation. Here it was, in the cruelest form — recognition that I was black. Except he was also saying I wasn’t black, right?
I began viewing the world through a hyper-racial lens, the opposite of what my dad taught me. To have people constantly speculating about your background, and getting teased for it, as a teenager — an age when everyone is insecure and wondering Who the fuck am I? — was formative and depersonalizing. W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of double-consciousness — seeing your own identity in part through other people’s eyes — occurred in a peculiar fashion. I wasn’t black or white or really anything in my schoolmates’ eyes; I was just a huge question mark. I didn’t feel inferior so much as empty. My social identity felt like Play-Doh.
Going forward in middle school, I felt like a racial outcast, a misunderstood loner, something like Dennis Rodman at summer camp. Later, I threw a basketball at my nemesis’s forehead. The rest of seventh grade was flush with detentions. When the slightest racial barbs were directed at me, I was determined not to be a punk again. I got into arguments and fights; I stewed with malice. If I hurt another kid, I cried afterward.
I became angry at my parents for making me this way. I envied my brother’s Basquiat-esque dreadlocks, wondering why he got the good hair genes. I read Richard Wright and picked up Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I quit playing sports besides basketball. I also listened to Sublime, and my two best friends looked prototypically Aryan. But I rejected white culture whenever I could make a statement. The hatred of my hair — which was a shock of unkempt shaggy waves at this point — reached a boiling point.
Then an odd thing happened. My hair started streaming into sinuous curls. Going into eighth grade, I thought the blackification of my hair had begun, that I’d been liberated from racial purgatory. At least now I could be marginalized accurately! My dad gifted me an heirloom Afro pick from the ’70s, with metal prongs and a peace sign in the black handle. Each day in front of the mirror, I’d check the status of my budding ’fro, even knotting my hair into mini dreadlocks to discourage the straightness from returning. I expected those nascent curls to grow tighter and tighter, but eventually they stopped — well shy of Napoleon Dynamite status. Gosh! Freakin’ idiot! I entered high school with a half-baked Afro.
Around the same time, I began obsessing over my dad’s family more and more, tracing my roots back beyond Paul. The Burnley family history was so little-known that the entire thing fit on six pages of unbound loose-leaf. I discovered that the oldest distinguishable relative on my father’s side, my great-great-grandfather, was an itinerant slave named Smith Burnley who lived in the mid-1800s throughout Mississippi and Arkansas. Family lore told of Smith having long mahogany hair that reached straight down to his shoulders. Rumors were passed down through the generations that Smith was part Native American and part black.
Four generations later, I was struggling to express an identity that was murky from the start.
CONSIDERING HOW MUCH I hated my biracial experience as a kid, it’s remarkable to me that being mixed-race is currently so in vogue. Sure, there used to be Halle Berry, but now there’s Drake and Rihanna and the offspring of Kimye all identifying as biracial. I’ve lost count of the undefinably-ethnic-and-beautiful TV anchors. And it’s not just perception: There are more of us out there. From 2000 to 2010, Philadelphia saw a 28 percent increase in citizens identifying as mixed-race. On a national level, too, interracial marriage rates have shot up to nearly one in six among newlyweds, less than 50 years after anti-miscegenation bans became obsolete.
Even a decade ago, though, being biracial could swing both ways. You put up with plenty of shit, but it wasn’t without its perks. I figured that out once I shaved my head.
I wore that crown of floppy curls on my first day of high school. I’d played on a regional AAU basketball team in eighth grade, which landed me an opportunity to play for a private high school called St. Luke’s. It was country-club Fairfield County. Among the student body were the kids of NBC’s Brian Williams, ESPN’s Mike Lupica and the CEO of Fox Broadcasting. One of Bill Murray’s kids was my assistant coach. The black male student body was basically comprised of the basketball team and, well … yeah. Classmates quickly dubbed my hair a “Jewfro.” The upperclassmen nicknamed me “Ricky Fox” after the scraggily haired Lakers swingman who divorced Vanessa Williams.
I thought that buzzing my head might reduce my anxiety over my skin color and hair. Maybe I could pull a reverse Samson, ditching my secret power of defying stereotypes along with my hair. Not long after I sheared my locks, I was convinced there was a change in perceptions. I started fitting the bill as a model minority student for the school’s administration. It’s true that I was well liked by the students and staff, I got good grades, I was an athlete — but now I looked more the part, without ambiguous hair.
Suddenly I was being asked to participate in clubs and on multicultural panels; my photo ended up in most of the school brochures. I assume teachers didn’t tell the other kids on my basketball team they should run for Congress someday, or even be president. I saw generations of white guilt seeping through their smiles. I felt doubly uncomfortable now, especially if this was some veiled form of affirmative action — because in another context (or with another hairstyle), I wasn’t even black. Meanwhile, as administrators pointed out that I was black, teammates chided me for not being black. Losing my hair muddled things more than ever.
Pretty soon, I wanted to escape my race altogether. I started smoking lots of weed, turned down leadership roles in school, and eventually quit the basketball team. When it came time to take the SATs, the box for race/ethnicity was a conundrum — those were never the same thing for me, and I was questioning my racial identity more than ever. Ancestrally, I was still black; racially, I was “other.” Despite my reservations, I checked black, and, ironically, ended up at Brown University.
For a couple of years, my mother had been bragging about a mixed politician from the South Side of Chicago, where she’d grown up. During my first semester, I canvassed for Obama in New Hampshire, then eagerly watched the election results from my freshman dorm with three neighbors. We ran to the main green once Obama won California, only to find the school had gone tribal: naked upperclassmen in droves, drum-led conga lines, champagne bottles everywhere. My racial identity took a 90-degree turn after November 4, 2008.
IT’S A TIRED TRUISM at this point to say that we are not in a post-racial America. That once-optimistic buzz-phrase has become a pariah over the past few years, with racial tensions flaring in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. But Obama’s ascendance never foretold an America devoid of racial boundaries and discrimination. In fact, he compromised the premise of a post-racial landscape by self-identifying as a single race — black — perpetuating the old paradigm of the one-drop rule.
And yet I projected my narrative onto his own, seeing the President (the President!)
also grapple with issues of being biracial. Regardless of his self-declaration as black, Obama was certainly criticized like a mixed-race president — for code-switching in tongues, for being “too black” in some instances, for not being “black enough” in others. In Dreams From My Father, he writes about deliberately self-declaring as black, rather than biracial, as a young man — despite being reared by his white mother and white grandparents — because that was the way the world perceived him. If he was growing up today, I wondered, would he do the same? I guess he’d get a lot of those What are you? questions, too. The thought catalyzed a change in my own identity. Politically, Obama was pigeonholed into saying he was black before biracial. But I realized that I could make a choice he couldn’t, and pick neither black nor white. I used the President as my foil.
Certainly, since 2008, getting asked that What are you? question has been more prevalent in my life. But it feels less irritating. I’ve embraced the fact that my ambiguity informs my identity. I’ve stopped denying the fact that I’m mostly white, while accepting that my identity will never be wholly black. I’m bucking the one-drop rule. I simply can’t be contained in a singular race, because that’s not how the world sees me. Race is a social designation, after all. When people ask me about my hair, the next question is typically about my racial makeup. I now tell them I’m mixed.
I get along with my ever-changing hair these days. I kept it buzzed for years. When I finally grew it out again, those Afro curls never came back. But it’s wavier than ever, and unruly in a way that happens to be the style now. Sometimes, I like to think it’s helping, in its small way, to erase an antiquated paradigm. And then I think about Smith Burnley.
A few years ago, I shipped off a saliva sample to the 23andMe lab in California. When the tests returned, I had zero percent Native American ancestry. As best as I can figure, my great-great-grandfather was once a slave to the Chickasaw tribe of Mississippi, a group known to keep captives from warfare, and likely adopted their hairstyle.
It turned out that my oldest known black ancestor sent mixed signals with his hair as well. Same shit, different day.
Originally published as “My Wild, Chaotic, Complex, Crazy, Ambiguous (Biracial) Hair” in the February 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.