Some of my most deeply cherished memories come from growing up in a mixed-race, multicultural household. I always loved the traditional African music my mom would play in the early car rides to school, and how we’d joyfully dance and sing along as we trekked through morning traffic. I loved the colorful Ghanaian art, intricately designed cushions, and traditional Kente cloth displayed all throughout our home. Every year, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my Nana, my mom’s mom from Germany (and her suitcases full of German chocolate and Haribo Gummies!), and counted down the days until we returned the visit. Meeting my grandpa for the first time in 2009 on a family vacation to my mom’s hometown of Accra, Ghana absolutely changed my life. For the first time ever, I saw my mom fully immersed in her element, and part of me felt complete. My background and exposure to different cultures throughout my life have shaped me into the person I am today, which is something I take pride in and hold very close to my heart.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve always felt this way. In fact, it has taken years for me to fully embrace my ethnicity and to feel comfortable in my skin. To be confident in who I am. The thing is, my insecurities surrounding these issues didn’t come naturally. The way society viewed me played a big part in how I learned to view myself. As different. As “other.”
As a kid I never felt like I stood out, despite going to a school with predominantly white students and teachers. When it came to standardized tests, I spent way too much time frantically overthinking what race to bubble in, only to settle on marking myself as “other” so that I could move on to the section of questions that were actually meant to be difficult. It wasn’t until I was a little older that classmates, and even strangers, began to vocally point out my differences. “What are you?” became a frequently asked question, as though I were the main attraction of an unidentifiable species exhibit at the zoo. I wasn’t even sure how to explain that to someone, so I’d ramble some form of an answer that sounded acceptable, while worrying that the person inquiring would laugh at my face very obviously turning red with embarrassment. I remember one afternoon at school when my dad pulled up in the carpool line, someone asked me if I was adopted because he’s white and I didn’t look like him. Really?
As I got older, these questions and comments about my appearance came more frequently, and whether I knew it or not, I was becoming more and more ashamed of the very things that made me, well, me. I slowly became aware of features that didn’t bother me before but suddenly did, like my hair being a different texture than my friends, and how dark my skin would turn in the summer. I grew secretly envious of my white friends, wishing I had their blue eyes, freckles, and beautifully silky, straight hair. I started to straighten my hair every day, avoided the sun over summer vacation, and even went so far as to wear blue colored contacts to school.
I used to religiously watch two of my favorite childhood shows, “The Amanda Show” and “Lizzie McGuire” (I was totally obsessed with Amanda Bynes and Hilary Duff), and would wonder with resentment and frustration, “Why’d I get stuck looking like me, and not them?!” I didn’t look like any pop stars or movie stars. Looking back, this was a confusing time in my life, as I was a young girl trying to grow into myself while also not fully understanding or embracing my identity. I couldn’t have predicted the lasting impact this would have on my self worth, and the obstacles I’d face when learning to know, accept, and love myself as an adult.
I learned to make myself small, in the hopes that I’d blend in and lessen the chances of being put on the spot and having to answer uncomfortable questions from people who were quick to pinpoint and label anyone who isn’t “the norm.” By making myself small, I began to lose myself even more; my bubbly personality, my confidence. I became self-conscious and paranoid that anyone I came across was secretly scrutinizing my appearance...like I was constantly under a magnifying glass. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin anymore, in any way, shape, or form. Feeling lesser and inferior to everyone was something I struggled with a lot in college, and is still something I have to actively work on as a young adult.
My college years had their ups and downs but were ultimately controlled by severe depression which seemed to appear out of thin air. I was battling all kinds of inner demons and identity issues, had little to no sense of self, and felt inferior to absolutely everyone. I reached a point where I was tired of letting depression dictate my life and sought out help, which is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It only recently became clear to me (thanks to years of therapy) that my issues with inferiority stemmed from my childhood coping mechanism of making myself small for the comfort of others. I never learned to fully embrace and love myself, because I never took the time to understand and accept myself.
Throughout college, my safe haven was the photography lab, where I’d spend hours listening to music, creating, and feeling confident and at peace with myself. I didn’t know much about who I was, but I did know that something in me came alive when I was creating. After four years of photography classes, my professor had become my friend and mentor. She was one of the only people who I felt really saw me and believed in my potential. For that, she saved me in many ways.
As a senior art student I had one last photography project that would be part of the school’s Senior Thesis Art Exhibition. The concept was totally up to each student and I wanted mine to be something personal, but wasn’t sure exactly what it would be, until I was scrolling on Instagram one day and came across a video by Humans of New York of a biracial woman. She shared, “If you look different from everyone else, there’s no base point to compare yourself to.”
Everything she said resonated with me in a way that I didn’t know was possible. For the longest time I felt so alone and isolated in my experiences—and it never occurred to me that a whole group of “others” are out there in the world, battling similar insecurities and confusion. It may seem so obvious like, “Duh, of course those people exist!” But seeing it first-hand was extremely empowering and inspiring. I knew at that moment that my photography series would be about my journey with identity. I sought out, photographed, and interviewed mixed-race students, asking them about their personal experiences with identity struggles growing up.
My questions opened up conversations I never had before which allowed me to connect with people on new levels. Not only that, but I was given a sense of understanding and pride in my mixedness. It was an awakening I needed my whole life. The clarity and inner peace I needed. I had never been so vulnerable in my work, standing in front of hundreds of people, sharing personal details I’d only ever opened up about to my therapist, and it was both terrifying and exhilarating and, ultimately, rewarding: My photo series received the most positive feedback and recognition of the exhibit and is, to this day, one of my biggest and proudest accomplishments. This was the beginning of my inner growth, my healing process, and my self acceptance journey.
It’s been three years since my college graduation and I’ve come a long way. I’ve reached a place where I can confidently say that I’m proud of my ethnicity and I’m proud to identify as a biracial woman of color. I’m not afraid to stand out anymore. More recently, a significant chapter of my journey has been my involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement. Last summer I spent a lot of time reading about race and identity, digging deep into my past, and reflecting on how my perspective as a biracial woman could fit into necessary conversations about race. I could finally see with full clarity that not only had society labeled me as “other,” but I had also been socially conditioned to be ashamed of my Blackness, a part of me that I now strongly identify with. A part of me that I refuse to hide. Rachel Cargle, one of my favorite activists who I follow on Instagram, recently posted something that really resonates with me:
"The idea that yes, you might not be white but at least some remnants of whiteness are showing which makes it better than being black. Lighter skin, straighter hair, skinnier body, more European features, speaking 'good' English. These are all celebrated aspects - even in many communities of color - because of the distorted perception that approximation to whiteness is ultimately more desirable, more valuable."
This particularly speaks to me, as I have experiences that prove this to be true, like when I’d suddenly get lots of attention from my classmates on days that I’d straighten my hair for school. Society conditioned me, along with many other BIPOC, to believe that proximity to whiteness makes us more beautiful, more accepted. I’m so grateful that my eyes have been opened to this hard truth, that I’m now aware—and I’m grateful that in this generation more sources are becoming available for society to further our learning and understanding of race and identity.
It may be 2021, but people are finally starting to wake up. People of color are beginning to get the representation they deserve on TV. Mixed race young girls have celebrities like Zendaya and Zoë Kravitz to look up to, two of my personal icons who I love and wish I had seen on TV as a kid. People are still learning how to respectfully speak about identities that fall outside of our traditional understandings, and it’s more important now than ever to speak up, engage in conversations about race and culture, and inspire others to do the same. We shouldn’t be scrutinizing people who appear to be “different” but instead view them with an open-mind and opportunity to learn.
With more representation in the media and easy access to informative resources, I feel better about the future. I’m hopeful that biracial young girls won’t have to go through the same painful and confusing identity crisis that I did, but will instead grow up with a sense of pride and empowerment in their mixedness. I’m hopeful that people will learn to be more kind and gentle with one another, and think before they speak... because one never knows the real impact of their words.
I wish more than anything that I could go back in time to tell my younger self that although things were tough, they would get better. I would give my younger self the biggest, most comforting hug, while repeating how much I love her. I’d remind her that she is beautiful and can do whatever she sets her mind to. But hey, I can’t go back in time, so I’ll settle on repeating these words to myself now. The insecurities I’ve struggled with my whole life aren’t going to just disappear one day. Comparisons and negative self-talk still pop up here and there, but I’m learning to be more gentle with myself and it will only get easier with time. For now, I’m happy with where I am in my journey.
Thank you, Lauren!