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Sorry, Mom

December 5, 2016 Sharon Jackson

“Remember!  When they ask for your race or ethnicity, always put ‘Black or African American’!”  I remember sitting in my high school guidance counselor’s office, Mr. Hanlon, in 2002 when he told me that.  We were discussing the PSATs.  He continued to say, “If the test company isn’t willing to catch up with the time and offer a choice for biracial people, you might as well use it to get as much scholarship money as possible and to get good schools to recruit you”.  A few days later I sat in front of the PSAT and blankly stared at the race question.  This was the first time to my knowledge that I had to disown one of my parents.  I was panicked.  If I can’t even answer a question about who I am, how am I supposed to take the PSAT!?  After what felt like an hour of staring at my scantron, I finally filled in the “Black or African American” bubble, and in my head thought, “Sorry, Mom”.

Of course years before that I had to make that decision during the endless standardized testing in elementary school, but at that point in my life I was more concerned with whether my mom put Dunk-a-Roos and not Gushers in my lunchbox.  I was not concerned about who I was, and what that meant.

Eventually many tests, surveys, assessments, forms, and even the census began to catch up with the times.  “Check all that apply” or “Two or more races” began popping up.  It also helped that the last decade of my life has been spent in the inclusive environment of higher education.  I suddenly could race through forms with ease, with no fear of an existential crisis!  That was, until this September.

This summer I moved to Wisconsin for a wonderful job at an amazing institution.  My license was expiring so I headed to the DMV to get a new one in my new state.  Growing up on the East Coast, I came prepared with all my forms already filled out, all my identification and proof of residence, and a snack so I could set up camp and wait for my number to be called.  When I walked into the DMV, it was empty! You have to love small town living!

So I went up to the counter and proudly presented them with all my completed paperwork.  The woman at the counter began reviewing all my stuff, my old license, my electric bill, and my license application.  She then stopped, looked up at me and said, “I can’t accept this form”.  She handed me back my application, pointed at a question, and went on to say, “The system doesn’t allow you to pick multiple options on this question, you have to pick one”.  When I looked down it was, of course, the race question.

After all these years of being able to identify as biracial, I didn’t take the time to actually read the fine print of the question.  So I just stared at this poor lady that was probably excited that it was 30 minutes to closing time on a Friday.  I didn’t know how to answer a simple question.  I finally just said, “Are you serious?” Not in my usually sassy East Coast way that sometimes alarms folks in the Midwest, but in an utterly defeated, “Have we really not come this far yet?” way.

I took a moment, lowered my head, and took the advice of Mr. Hanlon.  Except this time, my reward was not more scholarship money or being recruited by Ivy Leagues.  It was a flimsy piece of plastic with a horrible picture of myself and a typo on my address; and the knowledge that I again had to say, “Sorry, Mom”.

Since then, I have been thinking a lot about being biracial, and more specifically, being the product of my parents’ love.  A love that was not always socially acceptable in the time when they tied the knot.  True, I have trouble filling out forms and finding hair products to tame the immense mane that grows out of my head, but less than 15 years before my parents got married The Beatles were singing “All You Need is Love” while a Virginia couple was fighting for their love to be recognized at the Supreme Court.  So this was not a part of history that my parents were so far removed from that there was a nice buffer for universal understanding and acceptance of interracial relationships.  It was, and still is, a hard battle which they persevere through with grace and love.

As I read Trevor Noah’s new book, Born A Crime, and the new movie, Loving, it is clear that multiracial people and relationships have made great strides and progress toward acceptance in just a few generations. But as the post-election climate has shown, there are still miles to go.  I am not totally sure what this further progress should or will look like.  It may be pushing for forms to be more inclusive, or challenging the fetishizing of multiracial relationships and offspring, or maybe it is just multiracial folks pushing to be more part of the conversation on race and intersectional identity.  Whatever it is, we have to keep pushing because I’m tired of disowning my mom.


Sharon Jackson is the Director of Student Activities and Orientation at Ripon College. When she's not working with students or discussing/presenting on social justice and diversity, she enjoys her role as an aunt and fur mom to the most stubborn dog in all the land.