Beige Girl Problems by Gyasi Byng
Beige Girl Problems
There are some benefits to being racially ambiguous. One of which is hearing a ridiculous amount of racist jokes. Why is this beneficial? In a glorious and horrifying way, racism and prejudice are ties that bind. Racial stereotypes unite as they simultaneously divide. Creating an “other” or “them” means that one must create a “we” or an “us.” Being beige means my quiver of racially charged humor never runs empty, and I am continuously liked and included. I know racist jokes about Mexicans, Indians, Greeks, Brazilians, Jews, Koreans, and Italians. I also know a fair share of black and Helen Keller jokes. This is a strange and unforeseen side effect of being beige; apparently I look like someone keen for a Keller joke.
(Did you know that Helen Keller had a tree house? Neither did she.)
Another benefit of being racially ambiguous is being able to tell racist jokes with impunity. When I tell a Mexican or Jewish joke people assume that I’m Mexican or Jewish. With the punch line of a tasteless joke my audience begins to place my raceless eyes and nose on the faces of imaginary Maria Soledads and Rebecca Goldmans. Unfortunately, I cannot tell black jokes. This is the disadvantage of being racially ambiguous; you are mistaken for every race but the one you actually belong to.
The few times in my life that I have been bold enough to tell a black joke I’ve been met with awkward silence and stares. The silence comes because no one wants to admit that the joke was funny. The stares occur because people are adding the sum of my parts, and they do not equal black.
(What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night and see your TV floating? Say, “Negro, put that down.”)
Once the racial math has been done, and the equation does not compute to black, the awkward silence is broken by the question, “So, what race are you?” My answer for the longest time was “black.” In elementary school I was black. In middle and high school I was black. Sometime in college, though, I became mixed race. Even now I’m still mixed race. The change was a symptom of extreme fatigue. After the question, “So what race are you?” and the reply, “Black,” there was the follow up statement, “But you don’t look black,” or the equally discomfiting, “But you don’t act black.”
(What do Spongebob and an Asian have in common? They’re both yellow and neither one can drive.)
Perhaps because I save my watermelon seed spittin’ chicken bone marrow suckin’ grape drink drinkin’ antics for the privacy of my own home, I’m not a real black person. The fact that I only eat chicken and waffles in front of my black or black adjacent friends doesn’t do anything to boost my image as a black girl. Furthermore, it would seem that the absence of a La-, Sha-, Ta-, or Da- from the beginning of my name prohibits me from telling black jokes. And I would really like that privilege. I would like to be recognized as black.
(There’s a black guy and a Mexican in a car. Who’s driving? The cop.)
There is something incredibly frustrating about having to come out as black. Something within me is annoyed and ashamed every time I have to tell someone I’m black. I am annoyed because by telling me I do not look or act black, this person has excluded me from a history and community with which they often don’t identify. I am ashamed because they remind me of the fact that I can pass as white and access privileges that my father, sister, and brother cannot. These are the reasons why I became mixed race. The combination of shame and annoyance typically calls for an account of my entire lineage, which is as tangled and knotted as my un-permed, natural hair.
(Why do black people have big noses? Because that’s how God holds them up when he spray paints them.)
My race and ethnicity were born in the sea. Both of my parents emigrated from the Caribbean, an area that is racially and culturally mixed due to its imperial heritage. My mother also passes for white even though she is black. She’s a white Jamaican, or what Jamaicans call a “red woman.” She is black, Portuguese, Jewish, and German. If you ever call my mother white, she’ll gut you like a fish. Even though she has lived in the United States for over thirty years, her patois is as dense and unforgiving as the ocean.
My father is a black Trinidadian, and he has good hair. Somewhere in his ancestral line there is an Indian, a Dane, and a Brit. He teases my mother for being “pale faced,” yet my brother looks Mexican, my sister looks Dominican, and I have to come out of the black closet.
Once I whip out the key to my ancestry and throw open the doors of my black closet I’m often met with “Oh, so not really black then.” In college I learned that the only way I could stay black was to become mixed race. Friends and classmates found my racial identity less offensive and less disturbing if I acknowledged it to be plural rather than singular. Claiming to be mixed race gave me the ability to save the identity I grew up with, to save the racial identity I loved.
(What is the one single word that begins with ‘n’ that you never want to call a black person? Neighbor.)
Yes, I know that I am mixed race, but I am black. True, I’m aware of the fact that I am Portuguese, Jewish, German, Indian, English, and Danish, but I’m black. No, I’ve never had a weave, relaxer, or press and curl, but I am black. One of the happiest moments of my life was when an old white woman in Target told me I was the prettiest little colored baby she had ever seen. Whether she meant “colored” as in “black” or “colored” as in “not white” didn’t matter to me at that moment. Her salty old fashioned political incorrectness had given me my race.
(What is the most confusing holiday in a black neighborhood? Father’s Day.)
Though I am accepting of the terms “mixed race” and “multiethnic” and know that my heritage as Jamaican and Trinidadian means that situating my racial identity in one category is limited and short sighted, I can’t imagine that there is anything more offensive than telling a black person that he or she is mixed race. Whether the speaker is black or white, when I am called “mixed race,” when I am told that I’m “not really black,” I know that this person is actually telling me that my identity makes them uncomfortable. My ability to move unquestioned from racial category to racial category is an affront to those who fought to maintain their history at the expense of one nation under God. Racial ambiguity, or the ability to be invisible, spits in the face of those who didn’t have the choice. I unconsciously mock every minority who lost the white genetic lottery, and marched, screamed, and raged only to be crippled, gagged, and pacified with promises of “someday” underscored with the phrase “anywhere but here.” Calling me mixed race allows everyone to remain situated, comfortable, and complacent in the racial binaries that we all know and love. Though still, I am painfully aware that being beige disrupts “us” and makes me “them.” Beige complicates racially charged humor, revealing it to be a twisted inheritance of marginalization.
(Have you heard of the new mixed race rapper? His stage name is 50 Per Cent.)
(What happens when you mix a Black with a Pakistani? He robs his own corner store.)
(Never trust mixed race people: they always have a dark side.)
(Mixed race people make the best criminals. They have speed and intelligence.)
Hearing jokes about mixed race people, I understand that for every action there is an equal and a grotesque reaction. Where mixed race people complicate the binary, racial humor re-situates and affirms it. The center holds, race continues to be destiny, and color codes define how one should think and feel when mixed race people become a species unto themselves. They are separate but equal in the world of race-based humor.
As I think on these things, my mind ultimately drifts to the sad little mixed race girl, the tragic mulatta who can be neither white nor black. Though this current time period, this “post-race” era in which we all now operate, holds her up as a symbol of racial harmony and progress, she is a poltergeist. She knocks on doors, throws glasses against the wall, and dashes family photos to the floor. The mulatta is tragic because she can be neither here nor there and because she operates in a space somewhat like a bridge, or better still, the sea. The sea is anonymous, ahistorical, and amorphous. You can’t hold the tragic mulatta in your hand, yet she encompasses everything. And, like the sea, her power begs to be remembered and recognized for what it represents: the trouble of race and the power of assimilation. As I consider her, I wonder if the phrase, “Oh, so not really black,” is offered as a lifeline, a buoy to pull myself to shore, to pull myself free from the wreckage of a ship that was never meant to sink.
If that is the case, I’ll take my chances with the sea.
© Gyasi S. Byng
Gyasi S. Byng is a writer and graduate student living in South Florida. Recently, she completed her thesis on mixed race identity and material artifacts. Her creative and critical work can also be seen in Black Magnolias Literary Journal, The Penwood Review, Coastlines, and sxsalon.
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