Being Mixed Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry
By Perfecta Oxholm
Shortly after I went back to work after the birth of my first son, I read an article in the New York Times titled, “Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.”
Reflecting on what it means to me to be a mixed-race person, I keep coming back to a variation on that title, “Being Mixed Race Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Always feeling like I have to apologize or explain myself. As a kid, I was apologizing for my Mexican parts. In the small, predominantly white town where I grew up the word “Mexican” meant “illegal,” which meant criminal, which meant bad. My racial identity felt like something I needed to atone for.
I have felt sorry for the times my racial ambiguity has created discomfort in other people. For the awkward pauses that have followed my explaining that “Pita is short for Perfecta. I’m named after my father. He’s from Mexico.” I sometimes wonder if, in that pause, the person is flashing back through past conversations, trying to remember if I was there when they made those racist comments. Sometimes, I don’t have to wonder.
The last time I heard, “But I don’t think of you that way…,” my instinct was to apologize for not explaining who I was sooner — WHAT?! Every time I say, “No, I don’t speak Spanish,” I feel like I’m saying I’m sorry, again.
For me, being mixed race has meant feeling like I needed to continually justify, excuse, or explain myself. I felt like I didn’t quite fit anywhere, and while being the perpetual out-group member — alternately judged, belittled, or simply ignored — often made me feel rejected or apologetic, it also made me want to fight for others who I imagined felt the same way.
Fighting meant, and means, pushing back against social conditions or situations where I thought people were being treated unfairly. What’s interesting to me now is that while I was working to create a space for others to be themselves, until more recently my concern did not extend to myself.
These days, although as a mixed race person I still don’t quite seem to “fit,” I no longer need to justify my existence to the world. Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent and making space for myself is no longer just about me but about my children too. Perhaps it’s because we have more ways to think and talk about being mixed race than we did in the past.
I still feel pressure to be something I’m not — to identify myself as others expect me to identify, to be at times more or less of a different racial and ethnic part of myself. I haven’t found a clear way to hold all the internal and external pressures and not feel like I need to apologize, but I am starting to make space for myself.