“What even are you?”: Reflections of a biracial American

biracial

A mixed race couple with their twin sons, Washington, DC, 11 June 2008.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

By Defne Egbo

My parents are not of the same skin color. I spent most of my childhood in Turkey, immersed in that part of my heritage. I never felt uncertainty that both pieces of my mixed-race identity were valid or equal until I moved to America, the “melting pot”.

When I walked down the streets of Istanbul with Turkish relatives, I noticed a different reaction than when I walked with my Nigerian dad. I did not understand why until many years later.

I was raised in an environment where differences were celebrated and shared. I never felt insecure in this blended existence. Birthday parties were an opportunity to try diverse cuisine, listen to new music and practice both Turkish and Nigerian traditions.

My childhood photo albums are filled with every possible hue. I never questioned my chocolate-colored skin or curled head of hair.

When I was nine years old, I boarded a plane to Las Vegas, where my understanding of race would be challenged, critiqued and, eventually, altered.

In a conversation after Barack Obama’s re-election as U.S. president in 2012, my black peers suggested I had no say in the matter — my mother is white.

In a bid to relate to white students in my class, I offered a comment in a discussion about Justin Bieber. “You wouldn’t know,” one of them said with scorn. “Your people don’t listen to this music.”

I faced awkward situations and endless questions. “What even are you?” “You’re adopted, aren’t you?” “Why don’t you look like your parents?”

America prides itself on accepting everyone. But is that the case?

In theory, being mixed is simple.

A study published last year by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology concluded that photos of interracial couples evoked a feeling of unease among college-aged participants.

My elementary schoolmates wanted to see things in black and white, as if there was no gray middle ground, whereas biracial kids depend on nuances — such as mixed.

In theory, being mixed is simple: you are composed of half of each parent’s race. But the reality is anything but.

When I was only 12 years old, my dad warned me about racial profiling. Now I knew what it meant when a police car slowed down as it passed by me.

A Pew Research Center survey from 2015 showed that 61 percent of white-black biracial adults in American had been subjected to slurs or jokes, and 41 percent of the same group had been unfairly stopped by police.

Then in 2015, following the deadly attack by Islamic militants on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, I felt my Turkish identity under siege. People threw me cold stares and made harsh generalizations about the Middle East being the source of all terrorism. Islamophobia took center stage in nearly all conversations, even with people I felt close to.

I have Turkish and Nigerian blood — not one or the other!

It’s not always easy to be multiracial in the United States. Take standardized test forms. I remember the first time I filled out such a form in Fourth Grade. In selecting my race, I wasn’t given more than one option and felt wrong choosing one race over the other.

I left the question blank.

It’s not easy being called “too white” to hang out with the black kids and “too exotic” to ever fit with all-white friends.

Once during a lunch-line chat about my ethnicity, a schoolmate disparaged my Igbo heritage and added insult to injury by quipping: “Well you’re half Turkish so …” As if the two cultures could not coexist.

When relations between Washington and Ankara took a turn for the worse in late 2017 and the Turkish embassy in the U.S. capital suspended issuing visas to Americans, Middle Easterners and African-Americans alike assured me I wouldn’t be affected as the ban did not apply to half of my family.

But I have both Turkish and Nigerian blood — not one or the other!

I cannot help but wonder: When will the world better understand and accept mixed people?


Defne Egbo is in her second-to-last year of high school, studying in Rennes, France, with the School Year Abroad program. She plans to complete high school at The Thacher School in California. Her favorite classes are Politics, Art History and English. Outside of school she enjoys traveling, acting and playing basketball. In the future she plans to study International Relations, focusing on the Middle East in hopes of improving women’s rights in the region.

22 comments

  • Fiona McLaughlin

    I just read this– my love I am so proud of you and what you are doing. You are such an inspiring friend and I canNOT wait to see you later this month. You are going to do such great things in this world. <3

  • Hi Defne, c’est Jérémy (le papa des jumeaux 🙂 ) J’aurai aimé découvrir tes textes avant, ça aurait été une formidable occasion de discuter avec toi. Le sujet est très interressant mais pas facile à aborder .La question de la différence et des cultures différentes est un peu tabou parfois en France. J’espère te revoir avant ton départ pour en parler 😉

    • Bonjour, Jérémy! Je suis très contente d’avoir reçu ton commentaire. Merci d’avoir lu mon article, c’est gentil! C’est vrai que la réalité concernant la différence des cultures étrangères prend une place intéressante dans la société française. Cette année m’a beaucoup aidé dans le fait que je comprenne mieux les gens autour de moi, y compris moi-même et ma place dans la société américaine ainsi que la société française. J’espère également te revoir avant la fin mai pour qu’on puisse discuter plus là-dessus!

      Defne

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  • This is incredible. So proud of you for sharing your experience and putting words to complicated feelings. Love love love you, and I hope you’re having a great adventure!

    • Jordan, thank you! You have served as such an instrumental role model over this past couple of years and for that, I am deeply grateful. I hope you are doing well and enjoying college!

  • Defne –
    I was so happy to see this article while scrolling through News-Decoder! Not only happy to see a familiar name, but to also read such an engaging and fruitful essay.

    I am currently at University of Portland, in Oregon, where I often hear the school say they are “working on their diversity”. The prominent presence of a non diverse student body struck me, after being at Thacher. And, by saying diversity, I mean a community that represents a spectrum of ideas, experiences, ethnicities, religions, etc (not just race). Though, I’ve found that there are plenty of gems in this small school (it just took some searching). I’ve been working to bring awareness, asking questions in campus discussions, and challenging comfortable conversation topics. Your words shared in this essay will definitely be reproduced by me, in hopes to diversify and deepen student perspectives and influence a more diverse admission. One of the most productive, inevitable qualities of school institutions is impermanence; change is on the horizon!

    Love you lots, and I hope you are having a wonderful time abroad!
    Sydney

    • Hi, Sydney!
      I hope you are doing well. Thank you for your thoughtful words and the ceaseless support. I am happy to hear that you are using your role in your University’s society to create a positive and cultivating environment for everyone, as it is the power of words and action that will bring us the change we are looking for. I hope to do the same when I return to Thacher in the fall.

      sending you my warm wishes!
      Defne

  • Super inspiring! Come back soon!

  • Hi Defne! Interesting article. Enjoy your perspective and writing style.

  • Defne, I completely understand. I faced the same issues as a Native American and Hispanic woman. It wasn’t until college that I found a way to comfortably co-exist with both of my identities. But then again, I was at Stanford and in a very diverse place where conversations about race and identity were common dorm hallway occurrences.

    Now I have a beautiful 6-year old daughter who is Native American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and Japanese. She’s the epitome of love, but she is also a child that some of the parents at her new school in Ojai are curious about because they can’t quite figure out “what she is.” We recently moved here from New Mexico when I was offered a job at Thacher. My little trooper bravely uprooted from the only home she’s ever known and moved to a brand new area. She’s outgoing and friendly. She’s never had trouble making friends. But suddenly, this vibrant little girl was coming home asking why she is darker than me. Something had gotten to her. Then I found myself in a conversation with the mother of one of her classmates who was set on finding out about Sophia’s dad. Through a number of questions, she was finally able to determine his ethnic background (which I hadn’t realized had been the point). That’s when she loudly exclaimed in front of my daughter, “oh, so that’s why she’s so much darker than you!” I didn’t know what to say. I grew this baby in my belly. She’s of me. I don’t see us as different.

    I’ve had others ask her, “Where do you get your dark skin from?” What does a 6-year old say to something like that?

    I get being curious. And I know that mixed-race people are the recipients of this type of curiosity a lot because others want to be able to pull from the social constructs and social representations of different ethnic groups in order to have “known” information before engaging. I get it. It is one of the reasons I majored in Cultural Psychology. I was deeply trying to understand the reason for many of my experiences as a mixed-race individual. But here’s the thing, if you are curious about my ethnic background, just ask me. “What is your ethnic background?” is a question I am happy to answer. It is much nicer to me than “What are you?” or “Why is your daughter so much darker than you?” I speak for myself here, of course. Another person might not feel comfortable answering that question, particularly on a first meeting. And that’s a whole other topic, isn’t it? The mixed-race experience isn’t the same for everybody. In the end, perhaps it just comes down to having respect for each other.

    Thank you, Defne! Enjoy your year abroad. I look forward to meeting you when you return to campus!

    Sarah

    • Hi, Ms. Palacios-
      Your university experience reminds me a lot of the open community at Thacher. Elementary and middle school both posed problems in terms of my personal understanding of my mixed background and self-identity. Thacher definitely gave me the appropriate space to explore these concepts with a respectful and understanding group of people.

      I see a lot myself in your daughter’s current experiences. I distinctly remember pointing to a black woman using a face cream and telling my mum that if she used that cream we would finally be the same skin tone. Of course at that age, I realized we looked completely different but I didn’t think much of it until my peers approached me with specific, pointed questions. When I went home and shared these comments with my mum, she was at a loss for words. We were a loving family who cared for one another, across the boundaries of colour- skin tone wasn’t what united us or made us a family. Our differences were visually noticeable, but realizing that love transcended colour and social divisions finally gave me the piece I needed to feel comfortable with being biracial.

      Thank you for sharing your story. I believe that this form of candid communication will help in dissolving the barriers and stigmas surrounding questions of race and identity.

      I am looking forward to meeting you when I return to campus!

      Defne

  • You are amazing. Much love and support. Can you come back soon btw

  • so proud of you, love and miss you Defne!!!!

  • Wow! What a thoughtful and well written article. It is wonderful to see such wisdom from someone so young!

  • So proud Defne, what a great article!

  • Hi, Defne! I’m so happy to read your compelling article. As you know, many of us at Thacher use News-Decoder (we are a founding partner school, as is SYA), and I felt so gratified to see your work on the website. You pose such interesting and uncomfortable questions about racial identity, and I hope we can continue this discussion openly next year through UCT and Global Studies class. In the meantime, keep up your excellent work. I hope you are thriving in Rennes. No doubt you are having a positive effect on your classmates and teachers, as you have done here at Thacher. Enjoy the second half!

    • Hi, Mr. Jacobsen! Thank you for your kind words. I am looking forward to continuing the discussion around racial identity when I return to campus next year. It has been transformative to be living in Rennes and gain a new perspective on big questions, including this one. Thacher’s UCT and Global Studies class are extremely valuable in giving students the platform to engage in these sometimes difficult conversations.

      See you soon!

  • Yes, Defne! This is amazing and so thought-provoking!

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