How do I understand my racial identity?

Dear Alice,

I'm black and I have many white friends. It doesn't bother me at all until I get around a lot of other black people or around certain family members. Sure some joke around with me saying I'm an "Oreo." But it really gets to me. I'm tired of people saying "acting white" or "acting black" or "the man keeps putting the black man down." It doesn't take long for race to come up in a conversation with some people. And that's when I really feel out of my element. I know no race is perfect. But I feel like where blacks are now is nowhere near what Dr. King was fighting for. Maybe I'm too emotional about it, but everyday I still wake up black.

For instance, I love all types of music, including rock, classical and country music. And these are some reactions: 1. Why am I listening to that "white people music"? and 2. I feel out of place if I don't know one of the latest rap songs. It's little things like this that just make me want to wish there weren't any races. But races and different cultures are beautiful and so much can be learned. I'm happy and comfortable with myself, but not my race as a whole. And on some days, it really gets me down to a point where I just cry. Am I just chasing an insatiable dream?

Dear Reader, 

You’ve clearly thought a lot about your race and how you experience social situations based on perceived expectations. As you've noted, different races and cultures are beautiful and provide opportunities to understand more about yourself and the people around you. That being said, while race is a social construct, that doesn't mean it's not real. People of all races struggle to talk about and understand their own racial identities. Because of this, it’s not unusual that you're questioning what race means for you, especially if you’re grappling with certain parts that make you uncomfortable. As you learn more about your own race and culture, you may start to find other ways that you connect to the things you enjoy, even if it doesn't fit the stereotypes. 

Race is a concept created by humans and how people are defined has changed throughout history. When it comes to race, there are no identifiable biological markers to define specific races. However, the social impact of race has been used to give power to some or take power from others through racism. As a result, this impacts how people of different races interact with each other, whether it's a personal interaction or how people of a certain race are treated in broader systems (such as housing laws). In the United States (US), the majority of Black Americans feel that their Black racial identity is significant to how they view themselves, regardless of if they're African American, Black immigrants, or mixed-race. 

Racial identity has both external and internal aspects, which refer to how you or your race is perceived versus how you personally identify. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a summary of the Racial Identity Development Model, which is a framework with stages of development. Not every person will go through each “stage”, and the journey doesn’t have to be in the order presented or at the same pace as other. It can be common to experience confusion, cognitive dissonance, or even resistance as you’re learning more about yourself. In considering this model, what stage do you think you might be in? What are some ways you see yourself progressing forward in your identity development? How might you be able to discuss this model with others, and what do you think their reactions to it might be? 

When thinking about racial identity, it's helpful to think about the context within which race and racism exist. Racism can create barriers and encourage prejudice towards people, even if it isn't always obvious. For example, internalized racism might make people believe in false negative stereotypes, affect their self-esteem, or influence how significant they perceive race to be. In some cases, people that have friends in other racial groups might be more accepting of that group even while they're looked down on by their own group. People may have different mental representations of how they think specific racial groups should act—maybe out of prejudice or ignorance—even though every person is unique. 

You mention being called an “Oreo,” which to many is an offensive term to call someone who’s Black presenting but internalizes or enjoys many things that may commonly be associated with White racial groups. Using terms like these may speak to larger expectations about how Black people are supposed to behave in certain settings. Nonetheless, in an attempt to navigate these situations, many people may engage in what’s known as “code-switching”. This is when people momentarily change their language, mannerisms, or behavior depending on who they're surrounded by in order to avoid being treated inequitably or to fit in with the status quo. As you may have experienced, code-switching is used frequently by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color when they're in settings with mostly White folks. 

Though these wide range of interactions can range from positive to negative experiences, there’s no doubt that people and cultures influence each other. For example, you mentioned loving country and rock music but not being as familiar with rap. You may be interested to know that both country and rock music have been influenced by Black culture. In fact, the more you explore, you may see the roots of Black culture within fashion, food, art, literature, and technology, among others, even if something isn't stereotypically Black or White by today's standards. 

At the end of the day, you can't control the stereotypes people believe, how people behave, or others' actions. However, you do have control over deciding for yourself how to understand and live your racial identity. If you’re looking to speak to your family or friends about what you’re going through, it may be helpful to think through exactly what’s bothering you to figure out how to communicate that to them. Asking yourself why you feel out of place for enjoying the things you like might help pinpoint if that discomfort is from feeling like you don’t fit in with your peers or if it’s another reason. You may want to think about the following questions as well: 

  • How do you wish others would react to or respond to the things you enjoy? 
  • How have conversations about race gone in the past? 
  • What topics were brought up? What parts made you uncomfortable and why? 
  • What conversation strategies have worked for having a civil discussion? Have you and the people you talk to been able to see both sides of the discussion? 

If you're a student, you might also consider seeking out resources at your school. Many schools have departments or other academic spaces that focus on race and identity. Schools may also host events, fund student organizations, and even provide support groups to students looking for safe and supportive spaces to discuss these ideas. 

Learning about yourself and how you fit into the world isn't always straightforward. Hopefully, learning more about it will help ease some of the tensions you're experiencing. 

Here's to some sweeter dreams ahead, 

Last updated Dec 29, 2023
Originally published May 29, 2009