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TheRootDC
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Posted at 11:57 AM ET, 11/17/2011

Multiracial: Are you black, white or what?

I passed a man I’d never met while walking to the metro the other day. “Buenos dias,” he said. “Como estas?”

I rolled my eyes. But I understood: I’m multiracial -- half black, a quarter Mexican and a quarter white. And, like many multiracial Americans, people always question me about my background. In college, a stranger approached at a bus stop and blurted out “What’s going on here? Are you black? Are you white? What?”

Talk to the hand.

I know I don’t owe anyone an explanation but I usually stutter something about being black and white (adding in the Mexican part really throws people off).

In college, I remember coming back to my dorm one day to find a note on my neighbor’s white board “Hey, you seem cool. We should hang out some time.” The note was signed by one of the black students on my floor and clearly directed to the black student who lived next door (and not her white roommate).

I checked my white board. Nada. I know what you’re thinking : “The chick next door seemed cool. You didn’t. End of story.” True, I hadn’t quite mastered the art of the blowout or the eyebrow wax and I wouldn’t turn 21 until my senior year -- not exactly things that make college students want to be your new best friend.

But as far as I could tell, the only difference between me and my floor mate was that she was black and I wasn’t. At least not as far as the note-writer could tell.

It was somewhat confirmed when I heard a year later that said student had thought about reaching out to me, but “wasn’t sure if I was black or not.” I’ve heard that a lot too.

It’s become a joke between me and my friends and appropriately evokes a line from one of my favorite movies, Dogma. After the film’s heroine, Bethany, discovers some important information about her family’s history, Jay (of Jay and Silent Bob fame) delivers this drug-induced one-liner “So, that would make Bethany...part black?”

And sometimes, not black at all.

A few weeks ago, I ordered a hazelnut soy latte at Starbucks. As has become a standard, if somewhat annoying, practice at the coffee chain, the barista asked for my name.

“Beth-an-y” I replied, thankful that I didn’t have to explain the quirky (read: wrong) spelling.

As I moved to the drink counter, I waited for my drink to be called, perking up when I heard “Hazelnut Soy Latte for Becky!” Uh. I looked around to see if Becky would claim her drink. Then I realized: I am Becky. But how?


The Starbucks coffee cup mislabeled for Bethonie Butler as "Becky." (Bethonie Butler - The Washington Post)
It’s possible, even likely, that the barista at Starbucks was as sleepy as I was and genuinely thought I said Becky. But the idea that I -- in all of my ethnic ambiguity -- could be named Becky was jarring enough that as soon as I got to my desk, I snapped a close-up of the cup, emblazoned with “Becky” in Sharpie and posted the photo to my Facebook profile.

The caption read: “No, Starbucks. Just no.’ But several of my friends knew where I was headed. One wrote “I remember when someone asked me: “How’s your white friend, Becky?”

Another chimed in: Just two weeks ago someone did say to me “Bethonie’s black? Really?”

Becky is the quintessential white girl name (just ask Sir Mix-A-Lot). I’ve never met a black Becky, though surely there are some. But since my Starbucks incident, I’ve wondered if my scoffing at the idea I’d be named Becky is any different from the time a friend told me I wasn’t black because I hadn’t yet seen “The Five Heartbeats.”

Or the numerous times I’ve explained my racial background, only to be met with some variation of, “Really? I thought you were [insert race/ethnicity here].”

I’ll always have to deal with people making assumptions about me (most of us do). So maybe I should finally quit with the explanations and let people think what they want. Or better yet, the next time someone asks what I am, I’ll simply say: I’m Becky.

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By  |  11:57 AM ET, 11/17/2011

Categories:  The Root DC Live

 
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