This is not the 2013 version of the Tragic Mulatto.
I am not the archetype for such a story. I have experienced devastating loss and heartbreak, but tragic wouldn’t be an accurate word to describe even the most difficult times in my life. Furthermore, I wish my story was as easy as being black and white, but it isn’t. It never has been and never will be. I’m mixed, and I’ve been mixed for 32 years, but I’ve only gotten used to how that sounds for like the last three or so years.
But let’s not start there. I want to go further back and discuss what it means to be a mixed race boy who liked girls and wanted girls to like him.
The very first time I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw. It was my mother’s mirror — a full length standard piece of glass that stood next to her dresser in her bedroom. I looked at it and smiled and was, in a word, disappointed. But it wasn’t based on what I saw. It was what I didn’t see, which was a resemblance to anyone I knew. I didn’t have the hair, I didn’t have the eyes, and I damn sure didn’t have the teeth of anyone I saw on “Saved By The Bell.” Nor did I look like any of the boys who all the girls gushed about in school. I looked different, and in elementary school, that’s just a euphemism for ugly.
In my 7th grade Earth science class at Martin Luther King Jr. middle school, we were told to sit in groups of four for a project we had to complete by the end of the period. I don’t remember two of my group members, but I remember Latoya Brown. She was as popular as a middle school student could be. Even at 12 going on 13, she seemed like the type who just wasn’t into guys her age. She was pretty enough to warrant it too. This was when Salt-N-Pepa were all over the radio, their song “Whatta Man” with En Vogue was big and the video was changing every young man’s life.
Latoya came to King everyday looking like she could be in that video.
Anyway, the reason I remember Latoya is because she was the first girl who I vividly remember saying I wasn’t ugly. You should have heard her say it. It wasn’t said in a sweet, affectionate or even flirtatious way. We were talking about other people, like 7th graders are supposed to do, and there was this other kid at our school who was at least as ugly as me, and I said that. Latoya said, “Who’s ugly?”
“I am,” I said.
Exasperated, flummoxed, Latoya said, “Oh, Jozen, you’re not ugly.”
After that, my self-esteem issues didn’t magically disappear, and no, nothing ever transpired between Latoya and I, but I remember that exchange so vividly because it was the first time I realized most of what I think of myself is in my own head.
Our heads can be messy places, and mine is no different. I don’t know what kind of place my head was in when I chose to go to a historically black college like Howard University. I knew from the minute I started applying people would ask me questions, but the crazy part was, I had no idea how I was going to answer them. That was until my mother told me my biological father Harry graduated from the same school. She sprung this on me while I was filling out the application.
Prior to that, I hadn’t spoken to Harry in a year, and prior to that time I hadn’t seen him since I was six. But I had to talk to him, because I knew Howard felt right to me, and Harry, well I did sort of look like him, so I just knew he could help me at least come up with a good answer to my question. After all, he went there during the 1960′s. Things had changed but not that much.
Getting a hold of Harry remains one of the difficult things I’ve had to do in my life. We had to call all sorts of distant family just to realize he was only available via pay phone at specific times during the week. When I finally talked to him, I kept my focus, careful not to talk about us. I even called him Harry to let him know I really wasn’t in the mood to discuss abandoned-father stuff.
“How did you handle all the questions when you were at Howard?”
He said, “Well, the short answer is I told them my mom was black and my dick is black. So if you want tell them your father’s black and your…”
(I kid you not this is what he said.)
“Harry, come on,” I said.
“But honestly,” he continued. “I was so cool, not many people asked me that. I was just myself and you have to be yourself. Yeah people are going to ask you but who cares? I got the women. I used to sit in the lobby of the girl dorms and some sister would come up to me and say, ‘What kind of nigga are you?’ and I’d tell them to take me upstairs so I can show them.”
It was clear Harry did not want to give me the fatherly advice I sought from him. I just wanted a simple answer to those people who saw something different when I stepped foot on that campus and Harry couldn’t give me a stock line to use.
In the end, I used him anyway. When I picked up my transcripts from my high school counselor at Monterey High, she said, “Jozen, I have to ask you, why Howard?”
“Oh, my biological father went there,” I said.
I had to figure out how to be mixed on my own, which is not as easy as it sounds. Not only did I have to find a way to embrace all that I was, I also had to be okay with not being what I thought I was to others, especially to girls.
I joked with a girl I was really digging my freshman year at Howard that we could never work. How crazy would she look going to Howard and coming home with a guy who looked like me? It was a joke. I swear. We both laughed, but it turned serious when she said it was funny because it was true. She said she liked me, but her dad would definitely think something was wrong with her if I was introduced as her boyfriend.
I never became her boyfriend.
One girl didn’t believe my father went to Howard because my mother wasn’t black. If Howard had a special ed program I didn’t know about, she was in it.
And everyone from New York at Howard said I was one of the first Puerto Ricans they ever met who couldn’t speak Spanish.
Oh, I had one woman who was worried about sleeping with me after I said I was Japanese. Another tell me, “You’re cool, my ex was half Black and half Filipino too.”
I’m one of those people who had to grow into my looks. I don’t know if the confidence I had in my senior year of high school and throughout college was ever authentic. I always felt like it was something I had to reinforce in my head. It didn’t matter how pretty the girl was on my arm.
But at some point, definitely after college, I stopped needing to tell myself that I looked good. For one, my personality became better-honed, and I got to rely on my charm and wit to get a girl’s attention. The other thing was, I just know I’m not ugly. I have my days where yes, I look like crap, and there is no denying I always look my best two days after a haircut, and my worst after two weeks, but all in all, I’m okay with what I see and have been for some time.
I just still couldn’t figure it out what I saw and I admittedly obsess over it. I still don’t feel like I’m anybody’s type in a cosmetic sense, which means, no girl is picturing me in her head before she sees me. I get snap judgements, right there, live. It’s like a human Tinder app, in which I make eye contact with a girl and I can literally tell if she likes what she sees if she turns her eyes one way or another.
Some nights I go out and I feel like every girl is swiping right.
Other nights I go out and I feel like every girl is swiping left.
That’s not the same as feeling like you’re on or not. The way this weighs on me is different than the way a bad hair day weighs on the next man.
For years, I would never order a drink on the first date and if I went out to drink with my friends, I always wore a hat. I get what they call the Asian glow, an allergic reaction to alcohol that turns my face beet red and my eyes bloodshot. It’s genetic, I will never not turn red, the result of missing a particular enzyme that allows most of us to break down alcohol quickly. After one drink, I always look like I have had three. And it was something I was so self conscious about, I would avoid drinking in front of a woman at all cost, even if that meant she would be drinking by herself. That also didn’t make me look good, but I’d rather look rude than red. The only reason I have somewhat loosened up is because an Asian friend of mine told me how Pepcid AC can reduce the redness, so now I pop one right alongside a breath mint about an hour before every new date.
Then there are the girls who won’t date me because I’m light skinned. That’s perfectly fine, I completely get it, but I have been left to wonder if they mean light skinned or not black enough. I wonder if Michelle ever had the same feelings about Barack.
Whenever I have conversations about these things with friends of mine, some have asked, “Don’t you ever get tired of caring about what people think?”
I do, it’s absolutely exhausting, but it’s never not fascinating. To wit, two quick anecdotes on dating as a mixed race man in 2013.
I had a girl look me dead in my face and tell me, she doesn’t find Hispanic men attractive. Then we had sex.
I’m not sure what she meant by either of those things.
Then there was another girl who spent the night and I walked to the subway station the next morning. As we crossed the street, I walked several steps ahead of her. She followed, as I expected her to, but then she said, “You said your Mom is Puerto Rican right?”
“Yeah,” I said, because even though I barely knew this girl, one of the first things she asked me, like most people do, is what my background is.
“I could tell she didn’t raise you Puerto Rican,” she said.
I stopped walking. “What’s that mean?”
“Oh, it’s just the Puerto Ricans I’ve dated wouldn’t have walked ahead of me the way you just did.”
This was not a woman who could say such a thing because she herself was Puerto Rican. She was a white woman who just happened to date a lot of Puerto Ricans. But not ones like me.
These days, I am very proud to say I’m mixed. It’s not a cop out. It’s a fact. I don’t really get offended when people ask me what I am. I’ve come to think of it as a necessary evil. They want to put me in a box, but I’d rather them verify what box to put me in than make their own assumptions. What gets me more upset than being asked what I am is being spoken to in Spanish, like I know that language. And the absolute worst is when someone asks me if I work anywhere, which happens to me every other week I go to a grocery store.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still getting used to being me, I don’t think that ever goes away no matter who or what we are. But when a girl likes me, I’m still naturally inclined to believe I’m not her type, even if I am in ways that have nothing to do with race or looks, and even if it’s true that I’m like no one she’s ever dated, I’ve learned to be okay with that. I wanted girls who liked black guys to like me. I’ve wanted girls who liked Asian guys to like me. I’ve wanted girls who like Latino guys to like me. But what is this? Seventh grade? Not all girls are going to feel like Latoya Brown felt about me, and even the girls who think I’m hot, does it matter how or why?
I’ve come along way on this whole mixed race thing. Who I am or how I look now sits well with me. The same kid who thought he was ugly when he looked in the mirror, grew up to realize he wasn’t ugly at all. I’m just different.