Mixed-Race In America
A Personal Look at The Psychology and History of Racism
My entire life — all I’ve wanted to do was help others. My career has given me titles such as caretaker and counselor; volunteerism has provided the opportunity for charity in a host of ways. My skill-set is providing comfort and confidence; my tools — empathy and communication. I have saved two lives; been responsible for many others — and counseled too many to count. I am flawed as well — and just like everyone else there are somethings I won’t admit to you as I likely don’t admit them to myself.
An unflagging bridge-person — too often I come across as contrarian; too often due to my intellectual vanity. Still, I like to think this is mostly part of my innate and reinforced desire for impartiality. Romanian, Black, and Korean, I grew up in South Central LA in the late 80s — the backdrop of the crack-epidemic, gang-wars, the LA Riots, and OJ Simpson case were just a few of the over-arching, commonly known conflicts fueled by racial tension. They imbued within me a deep and personal admiration for nuance’s ability to heal. Through both nature and nurture, environment and heritability — this characteristic of seeking resolution is how I like to think of myself; who I am when I’m at my best.
At my worst, I am reactionary and harsh; voices of a deep internal conflict.From the overall color-caste bigotry in our society — to the marginalization and derision by the race and culture I love and strongly identify with: Black. The era of information and mass-communication has promulgated the return of Tragic Mulatto: a piercingly painful observational stereotype. One that carries enough empathy to recognize basic and integral truths of bias for commonality yet lacks the sympathetic definition it needs for inclusiveness — permitting a few vitriolic Black culture critics to casually toss out the term not realizing the crippling derision it wields. For those of us, children of Diaspora, we are born into an absurd world of definitions and division. One that requires definitive genetic traits to qualify for inclusion in a fight against what is the exact same paradigm of thought.
Identity Crisis and Being Mixed-Race
Listen, Linda. If you have a black parent, you’re black. Full stop. Thems the rules. I didn’t make them; I was just born in them. This is an indisputable fact… You have a white parent? Still black. You converted to Judaism? Fantastic! I just DM’ed Lenny Kravitz and he told me you’re still black. You believe in going to parties on time? You might be a lame … but you’re still black.
— Shamira Ibrahim
The developmental anxieties and depression that accompany Identity Crisis are largely seen by Psychologists as hewn to adolescence. Conventional wisdom holds that our circumstances of environment and heritability are more or less fixed points that predicate our actions. This system and the results of our interactions with the environment is the data necessary for judgements, decisions, and learning. The more we experience — the more information we need to compile and incorporate into our database of perception. A process some psychologists refer to as heuristics.
No matter what your experience, knowledge, or temperament may be — we will always come to ask ourselves these two questions when presented with a new situation:
Who am I — and how do I fit in?
These are the first and forever-repeating questions of personal development; the ones that shade-in and color — yet never completely fill-in the perennial and philosophical question of consciousness: Why? These hierarchical building blocks of identity, depend on foundational notions of self and predictable outcomes of interaction with environment. For mixed-people with unresolved racial identities, the primary question of ‘Who am I’ turns into a hall-of-mirrors, taking into account how they may be seen given the ethnicity and ideology of the prevailing demographic. Possessing a multi-racial background and appearance; to maintain an identity in our modern environment is like keeping plates spinning in the air.
If we want to be socially involved we have two choices: be an ombudsman and bridge-person that tries to resolve conflict — or choose one background as our defining characteristic; thus ensuring we are identified by race first and foremost. Occasionally, these are the people needed in their time — like Malcolm X or Wallace Fard — but most often it results in the Stacey Dashes and Rachel Dolezals of the world. The ingenuous opportunists who end-up as another plate for us bridge-people to spin.
Castigating those of us as Tragic Mulattos speaks to the core of our inner-conflict but doesn’t address the source. It is the curse we envy that is ineffable and outrageous for non mixed-people to fathom: Racism.
A world where biases move for all in continuous and contiguous paths — is a place that makes sense. Societal promises for rewarded behaviors are fulfilled — negative actions duly punished; cause and effect. The duplicity of racism in an ostensibly egalitarian society operates with its own tacit but fixed rule-set. For us ambiguously brown but not black; exotic but not foreign — threats, rewards, and where to derive them are all unpredictable qualitative and quantitative variables. And undermine the operant conditioning of sanity itself.
Perhaps this helps to underline why racism and the myth of race itself still persist: the promise of guaranteed outcomes.
Black and Korean
Susan Radcliffe-Vasile was my mother. On January 6th, 2015 — she died at 60 in Los Angeles. Her story is an odyssey of incredible chance, staggering trauma, triumph, but a tragic end. Born somewhere south of Pyongyang during the Korean War — she was the daughter of a Black serviceman and Korean peasant. The serviceman deserted the Army to raise Mom and my Uncle in a Korean village north of the current DMZ. Upon trying to flee out of Korea, both my biological grandfather and grandmother were captured — possibly killed — by Korean patrols; but my half-aunt, who is unknown to me, managed to deliver them to an orphanage — one which was segregated and would accept the Black and Korean biracial children. Race-mixture is an inevitable outcome of war with a cruel history all its own.
Currently, I’m researching this but it is as painful as it is laborious. And with every new detail of tragedy I uncover, the purpose seems more and more elusive. Not many pictures have survived of Mom. She lived her life as she believed existential framing dictated: holding the sands of time yet letting it pour through open fingers. For so long I was angry at her, still am at times, for exposing me to such self-destructive alcoholism at an early age. But the pain of discrimination that woman endured by white and black people — as a person growing up in the baby-boomer era who looked definitively both Black and Asian makes me realize she possessed a strength few have; the sad truth is it was less a lack of character and more her knees just finally buckling. And if I decide to write about her origin at greater length, I would be a fool to think I wouldn’t have crumbled long before she did.
Ban Ki: Mom’s Original Name
At the bottom right of that tattered collage — some of the only pictures I have of Mom — is her adoptive father and my Grandfather Thomas (Tom) Radcliffe. Tom Radcliffe and his wife Julia, my adoptive grandparents, had served during WWII in the segregated regiments. Both have roots in the south, Tom in Virginia and Julia in Alabama. They were complex people with an elusive history. Suffice to say, it isn’t worth the pain to write about.
Through Ancestry.com I was able to trace my adoptive Grandparents back to their enslaved ancestors in a manner with disconcerting ease. While the Census info is handwritten, it is not only clearly legible, the site has uploaded the text ranging from turn-of-the-century census data, municipal records, to the first recorded location of Freed Blacks and their profession. Poring over the census data, all digitized yet shown in its original manifestation — as a History lover — I was enrapt. Access to intensive cataloguing of livelihoods seemed to be a mere luxury of this era of information.
Not until I stumbled upon my Great-Great-Grandfather, did the full weight of Jim Crow voter suppression hit me right in the chest. Fixated on names, I failed to notice each family household had the caste-colorism language of Mulatto and Quadroon. Even more disheartening was the distinction of the ability to read or not — thereby the census-taker an arbiter of suffrage-rights as well. Anchoring me even further into this age of inhumane discrimination was the occupation of my adoptive great-great-grandfather:
He was a Drayman.
One of my first visualizations of this era was as an eleven year old reading Twain’s Life on The Mississippi. I felt the same darkening of jubilant imagination capsizing into the common horrors of 19th century America when I remembered the quote:
Presently a film of dark smoke appears above one of those remote ‘points;’ instantly a negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, ‘S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin’!’
All of this information — reliving the torment of past from a familial and historic vantage — its purpose seems futile when faced with reconciliation with ideas like this; I still don’t know the identity of my biological African-American matrilineal lineage; nor the Korean for that matter. But the painful origins of the idea that we must choose, or can choose the race we identify with has its awful roots in post-Reconstruction era, Jim-Crow enforced caste-racism. And suggests that whoever my Biological Grandfather may have been, a Black soldier who went to the Korean War and did the unimaginable — find and nurture life — I’ve likely read his surname already in these census searches.
Romania, Armenia, Macedonia, and Beyond
As a toddler, my parents gave me a teddy bear. It was the first inanimate object I can remember cherishing. Falling in love with it upon first sight, I am told that I immediately named him Alexander the Great. Amused but understandably perplexed — my parents asked me why I would choose that name. To which I replied: He’s Macedonian like me. Looking back, I laud my parents accepting as precocious something for which I would now seek an exorcism.
My “white” ancestry is every bit a part of me as any other. To say it is merely white would speak to the neglect of historicity we tolerate as Americans. There are stories of great moral character and perseverance in every generation. My Grandfather, Craciun, I’ve already written about here in his harrowing escape from Nazi conscription and the Battle of Stalingrad.
Chris Rock Is The King of Comedy
Black people don’t hate Jews — Black people hate white people. We don’t got time to dice white people up into little groups; I hate everybody; I don’t care if you just got here — “Hey, I’m Romanian” — you Romanian-ass cracker! — Chris Rock (and just to be clear — this is hilarious)
My Dad, Grandfather, Grandmother, and Great-Grandmother all left Romania as Ceausescu turned the corner from benevolent authoritarian to megalomaniac despot. Theirs’ is also an incredible story of chance I endeavor to document. My Grandmother’s roots are Armenian — her family having fled into the Balkans to escape the genocidal horrors of the Ottoman Empire. The systematic murder of almost two million Armenians — both sides of my family suffered the cruel indifference brought on by callous neglect of our global heritage of humanity.
Waylaid in Lebanon for six months, they escaped a litany of near-death brushes. Deserving an entire essay of its own — suffice to say my Dad considers the neighbor who’d get drunk on high-octane Moroccan moonshine before firing Rocket-Propelled Grenades at their shared backyard hill, a humorous place-holder when he tells the story. After an interim to fully exorcise themselves of the assumed demons of Communism, so heavily surveilled for in the US — they arrived and settled in New York.
Dad served in the Navy and was naturalized. He elected to stay in the Coast Guard another four years giving him enough of a GI Bill to attend UCLA. A polyglot; he has a great knack for language but is incredibly embarrassing to be Facebook friends with. Nor will I feed his ego more than necessary in this preliminary piece.
From New York, they left for Los Angeles — and in 1978 — under the pre-regulations-era bog of carbon monoxide that burned the sun’s corona a ghoulish yet mesmerizing green as it set over the Pacific Ocean’s horizon; Susan Radcliffe sat perched upon a rock in Griffith Park, playing a wooden flute that she had carved herself. Dad ran up looking like Saturday Night Fever era John Travolta dressed like Olivia Newton-John — and asked my Mom, probably in a thick Romanian/Balkan accent:
“Is that fog, or is that smog?”
Mom laughed and said:
“You’re a weirdo.”
The Myth of Race
Either Bowlcuts are Mandatory For All Asian-Looking Children Or My Hairline Started Receding When I Was 3.
The anti-miscegenation laws overturned 50 years ago in Loving v Virginia — are representative of the lengths humanity will go to in justifying cruelty.The language is of the Gilded-Age; the pseudo-scientific, perversely-obsessed with pedigree argot of Jim Crow legalese. This dark corridor of human-aesthetics as determination of potential: Phrenology, Metoposcopy, Physiognomy , and other debunked human-classification pseudosciences — -are all examples of humanity rationalizing the cruel indifference in their exploitation or execution of others.
The cognitive dissonance in using the highest dimension of our intelligence: pattern recognition — in conjunction with our primal emotions of fear and greed is the tragic result of tribalism. Our industry and technology outpacing the resources it requires — endangering the environment from which it was born and needs to exist exemplifies when brilliant innovation and primal instinct come together in what has ended every empire in the course of history: Hubris
Considering the roots of modern racial tension — the civil war comes into focus. Only 1% of white Southerners enslaved the 4 million Black people in the South. White farmers, such as the Yeomen, fought to keep Slavery and Plantations out, like in Bleeding Kansas, not out of sympathy for the Africans enslaved but for the individual protection of their farming lands from being overrun by Mega-Plantations; yet this argument was silenced by the deafening condemnation of moral outrage of abolitionist, radical republicans — the same ones who levied tariffs against the South as to keep the textile factories in the north with ample supply of cheap and easily accessible cotton. While merely a hit to profits for the Plantations; this broke the back of the southern white farmer — -galvanizing them into war.
Contrast that to our modern political situation. Indeed, many were influenced by Trump’s xenophobia, racism, and sexism; but many others, I would wager the vast majority, were responding to fear articulated as patriotism. Democrats admonished when I believe they should have reached out with a message of commonality, addressing universal concerns all people have and what has always guided the decision of the American voter when alone in that booth. Michael Moore cited flippancy in an over-surveilled age. I believe it to be the same, simple things all humans basically want: Prosperity and Safety.
(Courtesy of 23andMe)
Why are people afraid of change? Because change championed by those we don’t recognize means obsolescence, replacement, and targeted by those we perceive as against us.
At the heart of cruelty lies insecurity and inadequacy — the instigators of Mob Mentality — the engine of Populism. How does tribalism persist in an age of mass-communication?
Because granularity and nuance are sacrificed for the larger tribe. That is why the human outpaces humanity at every turn — why we conform to rigidity when in a group — and why communication fails when we speak in terms of cultural identity rather than person to person.
People often say race is a cultural construct, as if that lessened the significance of its barrier. The linguistics and mannerisms of culture are just as strenuous to overcome. In search of common ground, we cannot enforce communication restrictions when striving for a newer bond; one that must be malleable and adaptive with the humility necessary to the heal wounds that are inevitable — the key to controlling for pride and hubris.
Race is a myth but it’s a powerful one. We need to start speaking about it earnestly. In language harsh, critical, conciliatory, and most importantly, humorous. We are all somewhere in this together; while the vast majority are decent people — we are listening only to the most radical. Acceptance of all voices, the idea that beliefs are on a spectrum not switch, and the hardest to digest — a few people are out there simply to cause pain. Still, we know the anger and ugliness of words are far more tolerable than the actions. In search of understanding; the language necessary to build the compassion which avoids injury — even death — is well-worth the volumes of insults incurred.
Tradewinds of human tragedy and fortune carved the paths of our ancestors’ itinerant emigration. Research and discussion will expose us to the pain of conquest and burden of forced toil — but more than that it will show the beauty and historicity of global trade and integration. Case and proof of the strength in diversity: biologically, culturally, economically— it is one both durable yet malleable. For those of us with mixed heritages it’s programmed in our DNA to examine American antipathy through the lens of healing.
On a final note; my mother and father, incredibly, had one common ancestor. Somewhere between my unknown biological Grandparents and perhaps my Grandmother’s Armenian roots — I discovered they miraculously share one relative.
And it’s with you.