American | African-American
I identify as mixed-race, spiritual & a ciis-hetero woman. The answer to where I am from remains a bit of a mystery to me. I have been able to gather more information with DNA testing, but the exact ancestral lineage of my parents is still partly unknown to me because I did not grow up with my biological father or his family and my maternal side is not exactly clear either. Based on the results of my DNA testing and some conversation with my maternal side, my mom’s people originated from Europe (namely: France, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Iberia, and parts of Northwestern Europe). While my father’s people originated from: Central and South Africa: (Cameroon, Congo, Bantu), West Africa (Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria), Polynesia, somewhere in East Asia and also The Americas. I feel vulnerable sharing all of my different lineages as for me it is an act of claiming them all and not prioritizing any one over the other but working to settle into all of them regardless of how society wants me to present myself or define myself. I speak only English fluently. It was the only language I grew up with in my house.
According to my mom, my parents met at a bar playing pool in Minnesota. They had mutual friends and quickly became friends and developed a romantic relationship and then had my sister and myself a few years later. I grew up in the U.S. in Minneapolis, MN. I look back fondly on MN, as I have since moved away from the state and now live on the West Coast. When I was a young child, my family moved quite a bit until I was 7 yrs. old, and then we settled in a neighborhood that was quite diverse. I had neighbors from different racial backgrounds as well as various parts of the globe living on my block and we all got along well with one another. It was a childhood of playing outdoors until my mom called us for dinner. We had a lot of independence.
In Minnesota, before we really started to see the impact of global warming, the seasons were so drastic from one to the next. Winter was extremely cold and lots of snow and Summer was extremely hot and humid. Spring and Fall were transitional seasons and the most comfortable temperature wise. Lots of time was spent with nature, both by myself and with friends and family.
It began to make sense that was mixed-race when I was about 27 years old, which was 8 years ago. Before that, I had a very vague and ineffable sense of my racial and ethnic identity that was largely formed by a Eurocentric, ethnocentric worldview. In the past, I understood my identity as: Not-White and Having-a-Black-Father who I did not grow up with and was taught to dislike due to events that happened in my parents’ relationship when I was young. My self-awareness and narrative in the last 7 years or so has become much more articulated. This growth of my ethnic consciousness and personal and cultural identification has been the most important part of my personal growth in my life so far. It has informed every aspect of my lived experience and my perspective of the world.
My understanding of myself as mixed began with a weekend long workshop hosted by Michelle Benzamin-Miki, for self-identified mixed-race people. That workshop was pivotal for me and from there I began to read the work of Maria P.P. Root. I got involved in community organizing and through my dissertation research began interviewing people living in the U.S. who identified as mixed-race. I was working to answer the question: ‘Do mixed-race people, regardless of mix, share a cultural identity?’ A shared experience of sorts that informs how we move in the world? Essentially, I wanted to contribute to building a lexicon of our mixed-race experience that could support an exploration about our collective identity that acknowledges a cultural home. I call the quality of being a Mixed-Race person: Multiraciality. We have to shift our thinking of what mixed means. African-American people are mixed. Our lineage is just that. It is our history and the history of America.
I have found mixed-race people as a cultural group, do have shared understanding from which we experience our position in the world, and that with mono-ethnic people (or people who identify as mon-ethnic) it can be difficult to change the focus of conversation around race and definitions in a broader sense because if we were to really get into it, we would have to teach history differently and we would have to look at racism and colonialism and really grieve together. Reparations would need to be made by those in positions of political power. There are many efforts to keep Whiteness, capitalism, and hegemonic structures in place and it becomes very complicated. But I am hopeful and optimistic.
I am not sure my parents were able to do combine their cultures in a sustainable way, which could have contributed to them separating when I was around 2 yrs. old. It was the early 80’s and anti-miscegenation laws were fairly new for American society. It was barley 15 years earlier that Loving vs. Virginia went to battle the Supreme court and won. it would take years for politicians and the public’s opinions of interracial marriage to turn around and become more accepted and even today it can still can be a struggle. I’m sure my parents dealt with this racism as a couple even though my mom does not like to talk about it. My mom’s father was against them being together and this contributed to them being more isolated from family supports. My mom’s siblings and mother were there for her and when my sister and I were born, this brought the family back together. Although, I do believe because of difficulties in my parent’s relationship, she eventually left him and was supported to do so. I have no idea what my father’s side thought of my mom. I believe he was not connected to his family during his relationship with my mother.
I can look at pictures of my father holding me as a baby or toddler and while I know those moments happened, I cannot sense them. I have no conscious, sensory memory of my father and that has been painful for me. When I was a freshman in high school, my mother told me she had found out that my biological father had passed away recently. Because I had no practice talking about him or thinking about him with her in expansive ways, I really couldn’t process the news and went to school that morning as if it were any other day. When I was eighteen I received $3000.00 from his life insurance and used that money to move to Chicago and start college.
I think my mom’s character led her to explore outside of what was expected of her as a young adult. She was a creative, independent person and curious about people. She tells me that she adored my father in the beginning of their relationship. That he loved to read word-books to my sister and I even as infants, was very smart, a hard worker, loved to BBQ, and that he was very handsome. They both enjoyed getting dressed up and going out dancing and they admired each other initially.
I have experienced challenges based around my mixed identity. I believe a large part of that was due to the silence around it in my childhood home. I was not given scaffolding for how to think or talk about Multiraciality and the topic of race in general was not really brought up. I believe the silence was a way for my mom to move on from the painful memories of her relationship with my biological father and build a new family culture with my White step-father who came into the picture when I was around 4 years old. I have also come to understand this silence around talking about race and racism as part of White culture’s maintenance of denial and avoidance and contributes to everyone’s collective amnesia of colonial history. I realize that my mom was operating from a place of what she thought was best at the time, with love, and also from a place of growing up White and the politics she internalized from this, so I want to acknowledge that here.
I am a culmination of my parents’ histories. My mother’s White, working-class, Minnesotan, young mother-hood experiences and my father’s dark skin, enforced diasporic, entrepreneurial, secretive experiences. It feels complicated to sum them up like this, but this is what comes to mind. I am also my own person with my own creativity and working to give that more shape over the years has allowed me to really stand in myself and love myself and have the confidence to advocate for raising racial and ethnic consciousness. It has taken me many years of what has felt like often a solo journey. I have had friends from all backgrounds and longed for a clear story of my lineage for so long. I felt like I never quite fit in with any one group until I began to have certain experiences with mixed-race people and became more aware of us as a people; our history. Dealing with other people’s discomfort around racial ambiguity and their discomfort with talking about race has been the number one challenge growing up. I internalized this discomfort from an early age and am now working every day to release that from myself and from my relationships.
I absolutely feel that my social environment plays a part in how I choose friends/partners. Who I surround myself with impacts my options as far as friends and partnerships. I currently live in the Bay area and my community is largely made up of people-of-color who I would say are liberal, progressive, subversive, creative, interested in community organizing, healing, education, and leadership. I didn’t always have this. It has taken me almost three decades to figure out what communities I feel most a part of and most seen by. I have been attracted to people from all different backgrounds and wouldn’t say I really have a type. Although, I would say that I feel a strong kinship with other self-identified mixed-race people and first or second-generation immigrants. I think there is a shared feeling of both choosing to and sometimes feeling forced to be in a continual state of self-discovery and self- preservation.
I do feel that being mixed-race has had an effect on my work/personal life. My work as a psychotherapist, learner, and educator is continually informed by my lived experiences. Any experience I have has a direct impact on my capacity to be present and attuned with people in the clinical hour and directs my research and teaching interests. I think the exploration of race and racism is one of the most important activities that we can do and there is a need to work together to elucidate ways we structure people and systems. We are all in need of healing from the trauma of racialization. This is personal for us all.
There have been professional moments when I've simultaneously been asked to speak for mixed-race people while wanting to create more space for thinking about us and race relations. That is a tension that is an ongoing project for me. I cannot speak as a representative of an entire peoples. We all have such unique experiences as individuals. There is a need for us to make room in the collective psyche when it comes to how we think about race and the culture of mixed-race people.
People tend to believe that we are confused, don’t have a cultural home, exotic, not whole, and that we represent post-racialization. In 2011 a research article was published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations basically saying that ‘multi-minority people’ have no cultural home. It is both this awareness of our presence and the pathologizing that creates space for us to hopefully begin to have new dialogue. I recognize this project, Mixedracefaces, as being part of that new dialogue and I am grateful for it.
Being mixed-race I really have come to understand that I feel most connected to myself when I claim my multiethnic identity. I am in a state of discovering what our culture is. I do know that to understand it from a mono-racial or mon-ethnic group norm perspective will only continue to pathologize it because it will always be what is not. I am researching what it is. In my interviews, themes that have emerged are that mixed-race people need to be able to identify differently overtime and across contexts, and also that to race oneself, is often a relational process. The fluidity of identity; whether it is race, gender, sexuality, etc., is healthy and real. It allows for much more creativity and openness than trying to hold on to a rigid idea of the self. The research has also pointed to mixed-race people having a unique relationship with ambiguity; with living the spaces between. This informs how we metabolize information and our capacity for learning, creativity, and intimacy. I would say that having shared language for experiences is what contributes to building a culture and normalizing those experiences. My hope is that by sharing a few of the results of my research here that they will contribute to that.
I am more familiar with the What Are You? question. My feelings about this question change depending on the context and who is asking. Sometimes it is fun to hear what they think and other times I feel strongly about responding by saying I am mixed and leaving it at that. If there is enough trust and space I enjoy exploring all my lineages with them and also learning about theirs as well. But it is never a moment of indifference for me when this question gets asked. Even when a fellow mixed-race person asks, there seems to always be a moment of quiet alarm, like how am I going to answer this? what will the person do with the information? and how will I feel when I tell them? Will they get it?
A positive experience for me was my drive for self-discovery and interest in identity and relational politics has supported me in a spiritual way. It has led me to grow a deep relationship with my voice and personal power and compassion for us as people. This practice of learning myself stems from all the unanswered questions and confusing experiences I had as a mixed-race child and my desire to better understand people and myself. I feel solidly like my own person and I think by matter of necessity was going through an individuation process at a very early age. I wonder if this is a cultural experience for mixed-race people.
The most pain has come from not having my families intact from an early age. My parents were not fully supported to be together and subsequently I grew up with a large part of my heritage unknown to me. I see this dissolve of my family in some part as a symptom of systemic racism and I do grieve not knowing my biological father. The amount of willpower required to build self-love when society does not always support your presence can be exhausting and feel isolating.
With projects such as this one., there is much more of a platform for mixed-race people to be in collaboration with each other. We have Loving Day on June 12th, an annual day of recognition and celebration in the U.S inspired by Ken Tanabe in 2004. Although it is not an officially recognized holiday by the U.S. government, it feels like a milestone. There are more and more research articles and dissertation thesis’ focused on mixed-race people and culture, increased education for mixed-race youth about their experiences, and a growing number of funded interracial family supports.
I am relieved that there is space to be curious about being mixed-race and we can claim our heritage. Dealing with the confusion that can accompany being mixed-race is for me not about an inherent part of being mixed-race, but a natural response to the way the collective understands race and the language we’ve historically used to think about racial identity. I feel super motivated to be a part of shifting that. It moves me completely.
If I had the opportunity to be reborn I would still want to be Leah Oliver. I have put a lot of work into myself so far. I cannot say that I would want my childhood without my biological father to be the same, but I am not sure who I would be if it had been different and because I appreciate who I have become, I would have to say that I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe, if I could make a wish it would be for the future. It would be to find more information about my father and the paternal side of my family and continue to be in collaboration with mixed-race people and allies.