You Can’t Determine My Racial or Ethnic Identity For Me

Some mixed kids have difficult childhoods. For me, it was fairly easy. Growing up, my racial and ethnic identity never came into play between friends or family – it was rarely even brought up. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to realize that the dynamics of my mixed Mexican American and White racial and ethnic background were of confusion to most people. Worse, it seemed that many people identified me by only one or other. They were choosing my identity for me.

The first time this occurred was my very first week of college in northern Louisiana. My boyfriend at the time and I were walking around the mall my first weekend in town when he ran into a friend. This friend was African-American (as was my boyfriend). My ex-boyfriend introduced us, the guy shook my hand, and as if absolutely forgetting that I was standing in front of him, he turned to my ex-boyfriend and said, “You dating a white girl, bro?”

My ex looked at me confused and said, “She’s mixed,” but it was settled. I was now White for the next three years that I attended that university. Many people in the African-American community and the White community in Louisiana labeled me as “White” by way of words and actions. How I saw myself and how Louisiana saw me was not the same. Granted, Louisiana’s Hispanic population was by far lower than Texas, where I came from, but I was shocked and appalled.

I fought back against this label. I didn’t want to be just White, because I was mixed. Furthermore, I hated how suddenly the other half of my identity and heritage was wiped away by others. I didn’t know how to battle what was happening, so I pulled away from hanging out with locals and rather found a blessing in friends who were international students and had a better understanding of race and ethnic dynamics.

For graduate school, I went to a college in Oklahoma and it was as if suddenly, I became mixed again. Like Texas, Oklahoma has a mixture of cultures and persons of different races and ethnicities and during my three years in Oklahoma City, I had many mixed friends. Most people asked me about my mixed race identity without assuming that I was just one race.

And yet, there were still instances of my racial and ethnic identity coming into question. In graduate school, I became increasingly interested in Latino writers and the Hispanic culture. I think my time in Louisiana had influenced me more than I thought. I realized that though I was exploring my Mexican American background, I was also trying to prove that I too was Mexican American as much as I was White. In a twisted way, I think I thought that if I was both “Mexican” and “White” enough, people would truly see me as mixed. This was wrong.

One day at the bank that I worked at, we had a woman from another branch come in to help us out. As me and the other bank tellers were chatting during a slow period, it got brought up that I couldn’t speak Spanish.

This woman, whom I had just met that day, was full Mexican American. When she learned that I was half Mexican American but couldn’t speak Spanish she said, “You’re not Mexican. You have to speak Spanish to be Mexican.” As you can imagine, I became angry, though I didn’t outwardly express my anger.

Here was another person who was determining my racial background! So now I had to speak a language so that half of my identity existed? What was left in that missing space of my Mexican American identity? An empty space?

This language argument has popped up since I left Oklahoma multiple times. I’ve had people tell me the same thing – claiming that if I did not speak a language that part of my racial and ethnic identity was no longer there.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a new way in which people determine my racial and ethnic identity – by ignoring it and assuming I am either one or the other. I’ve had family members and family friends speak ill of Mexican Americans right in front of me. They have forgotten that I too am half Mexican American, making me think, they don’t see me as even half Mexican American, but only White. On the other hand, I’ve had people “confide” in me about their disdain for mixed race dating or their parents dislike of mixed race dating and I can’t help but think, “HELLO! Talking to a mixed race girl!”

On numerous occasions, I’ve had people say, “I just think of you as White.” When I ask why, they say, “Because you act White.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? How can a person act a skin color? And if that’s the case, HOW CAN I ACT MIXED? Please, let a girl know.

For the large part, I’ve realized that people are mostly ignorant about race and ethnicity and that’s okay. However, when I try to educated them about how I see myself – as mixed – equally white and Mexican American, they balk. What a novel idea that is to them – that I, ME, am able to choose my own racial and ethnic identity. I’ve even had people argue against me on how they see my racial and ethnic identity, as if it is for them to choose or decide. Now that’s a novel idea!

News break: My racial and ethnic background is not for YOU to decide. It never has been and it never will be.

For that matter, you cannot determine any mixed person’s identity. You are not allowed to, so, please stop. You are not only hurting me and other mixed persons when you do that, whether by action or word, but you are hurting our society by remaining ignorant.

Just this last year, I reported on a piece about actor Taye Diggs and his mixed race son. In an interview, Diggs brought up how people were saying that just because his son was half black that made him full black. I was happy to report Diggs responding with: “when you [call biracial kids black], you risk disrespecting that one half of who they are.”

I’ve felt disrespected too many times.

Because here’s the thing, I’m extremely proud of being mixed. It’s brought me insight into multiple cultures growing up. It gave me a whole new perspective on race relations and empathy and understanding of others. It allowed me to get along with people from all different walks of life. The duality of my racial and ethnic background has made me who I am and for that I am grateful.

Being mixed is a gift. But no matter how many blogs like this that I write or how many people I try to educate or even argue with, I know there are still more close-minded individuals out there – those ones who can’t stand not understanding something, someone, like me – someone whose portrait is not just one color, but two.

See, I’ve realized that for those people, it’s not that they can’t see that I’m mixed or they don’t hear me say that I am mixed, it’s that they don’t want to believe that they are wrong. Because to be wrong means to accept that what they think they know about this world is different and that scares them.

What I didn’t realize until just now is that perhaps the experience of others trying to determine my racial and ethnic identity is part of the identity of being mixed. If that’s the case, then I’ll continue to take a stand for my identity because I am tired of other people trying to determine who I am — and, well, I guess that’s what makes me mixed.

This woman shares her experience with how others have determined her racial and ethnic identity for her and why that is not okay.

Alex Temblador
Alex Temblador is the founder and editor-in-chief of She’s a full-time freelancer with dreams of being a full-time novelist and blogger.
Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador is the founder and editor-in-chief of She's a full-time freelancer with dreams of being a full-time novelist and blogger.