Who do you think you see?

August 11, 2017

This is the question that has often been asked about me at different parties and social functions across my entire life: “Guess what race she is? I bet you will never guess!” As if my “secret racial identity” is some sort of fun party game.

It’s not that I am racially ambiguous in appearance (although in Spain people thought I was Spanish, and in Southern California people assumed I was Jewish, Persian, or part Mexican; elsewhere I’ve been asked whether I’m Italian—none of which is my actual background). This constant guessing game to which I am subjected arises because my appearance does not meet the average person’s expectations for what a biracial or half-black person should look like.

I do not hide this identity, at least not intentionally. However, I physically appear white despite the fact that I am a fourth-generation descendent of a slave. I have a black father and a white mother but my skin tone, hair style and texture, and features seem to mask my black identity, creating an unintentional secret of sorts. I am wearing one perceived identity the world sees, but internally I am living a different one. It is this identity conflict—and coexistence—that has pushed me to be more accepting of others. 

Often, when I find myself in a new social environment, I have to choose when (or whether) to disclose my true racial identity. We all hold identities that are not immediately obvious to the world. When is it worth it to disclose one’s secret identity? When do you decide to simply ignore that identity? And how does that identity denial in those instances affect your sense of self and affect that secret? Is something you know to be true and something you have told people over and over again still even considered a secret anyway?

These questions—and this constant act of choosing whether to expose my racial identity—have pushed me to study biracial identity, identity flexibility, racial categorizations, and what social expectations we bring to the table every time we meet someone new. We have these default perceptions of categorizing people in either/or fashions. But what about people who have multiple identities that coexist in the same social sphere, such as someone who is biracial, bicultural, or bisexual?

And what about people who look like one identity but actually have another identity inside that wants to be present and visible to the world? My experience is clearly not unique, since there are many like me who have an identity inside that is yearning to come out. But the constant proof I have to carry (literally; I keep a family photo in my wallet) about my identity I have learned to use now as fuel for my research and for the students I mentor. I know now my “secret identity” can break down stereotypes and change those expectations of what it means to be biracial and what biracial can look like. We should not think as fixed as we do about social categories, since we all belong to multiple identities and groups.

I feel that if I do not reveal my true racial identity, I would be doing a disservice to others like me who may not feel as confident in revealing that secret self. My identity is not in fact a secret. I am now a professor studying this identity for a living. I am biracial and black and white, and this is my known secret. 

Gaither is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience and the principal investigator of the Duke Identity and Diversity Lab.