Checking the 'right' box

Updated: Jul 21

Alexis Florence

Art by Jessica Xia

It’s that damn box. Every time I think I have a semblance of my identity–who I am as a person–one of those boxes shows up in my life and makes me rethink everything.


As a mixed-race child, there’s always a moment when you are asked to check the box with your race. The moment when you feel a slight pounding in your chest, all the other questions blur on the page, and you feel the number two pencil start to slide out of your, now sweaty, hands. I still remember sitting across from the window in my third grade classroom, when I was first confronted with the prompt, “What is your race?”


Even though most tests or forms nowadays allow you to check multiple boxes, that test I took about ten years ago said to choose one category. This was confusing to me as a child; hell, even when the survey comes with that caveat to “select all that apply”, it’s not that simple. But even as a child, I had already dealt with and would continue to deal with people trying to define my identity or culture in their terms.


But I’m getting ahead of myself–let me start off by telling you a little about me. I was born and raised in a small, rural (predominantly white) town in Ohio, to two eventually unhappy parents. My dad is Black and my mom is white. They split early on in my life, so growing up I really lived in two worlds. I had a grandma who made some bomb mac and cheese, cornbread, and greens for Thanksgiving, but I also had a grandma who made German dumplings for Christmas. I didn’t have a problem with it. Other people did.


Growing up in an area devoid of melanin, I was always the one. The one Black child in class. The one Black friend. And apparently the one representative of the Black community. It didn’t matter that my mom was white, or that the only real interactions I had with groups of Black people were when my dad dragged me to our Black, Baptist church. To everyone I came in contact with, I was the nappy-headed girl who did not pass the paper bag test: she’s Black.


As people got to know me, though, and actually saw my mother pick me up from school, they had questions. A lot of out-of-pocket, too personal questions that still get to me. “Why don’t you do more Black people things? You speak so well, how are you so articulate?” It was rough because no matter how much I pressed my hair and no matter what color my off-brand Ugg boots were, I was never gonna fit into their mold.


White folks were just part of my problem–the Black community, the ones I thought would truly accept me, still had questions of their own. “Why do you talk like some white girl? You may experience some racist things, but are you really Black, Black?”


In order to rectify this problem I became a secret agent of sorts, a double agent. My mission: fit in with whoever I was around. I needed to code-switch from the person white teachers expected at a school meeting, to the person my Black cousins wanted to see at a block party. Everyday, I surveyed those around me and conformed to whatever version I thought people wanted me to be.


I was good at it. So good that I forgot I was doing it. In the process, I forgot how I wanted to talk, what music I liked, and who I actually was. When I took a standardized test and the big race question came around, I checked whatever box I felt like that day. Sometimes I would pick Black, Black and white, other, or once, for the hell of it, I put white (talk about single handedly screwing up the College Board data collection process). I didn’t want to think about it. I refused an identity for a long time, preferring to just seamlessly change my personality depending on who I was around. It was just easier.


But I hit a turning point. Okay, not really a specific point, but more of a realization that I did not want to conform to other peoples’ ideas of me, what they expected from me based on my appearance. Especially coming to a so-called “elite” and predominately white institution, it’s difficult to not code-switch. Everyday I feel the urge to just conform to my environment. I feel the pressure to let a girl in class touch my hair because it looks “so groovy,” or to pretend I don’t sometimes listen to Carrie Underwood for fear of my Black card being revoked. It’s hard to rediscover myself and live in my own light, but it’s something I make the choice to try to do everyday. I consciously have to remove my hyperspeed analysis of who I talk to and how to code switch.


Really, I don’t know what I want the people reading this to walk away with, but if I had to summarize, I would say something like:


Dear professors, stop making direct eye contact with me when the issue of civil rights is brought up in class. I know you’re just wanting me to give an authentic account of my experience for the benefit of other, white, students, but that is not my only value in the classroom.


Dear students, be aware of the spaces you occupy and who is in them. If people of color don’t join your organization, it is not because they aren’t interested, but likely has to do with the culture you have created. When I use slang or hum Solange in RSO meetings, I am often greeted with confused, blank, and alienating stares. Students of color, like myself, have trouble just existing in certain spaces on campus because other students don’t even try to understand us.


And dear leaders of multicultural organizations, if there are any groups who should be true examples of acceptance, it should be you. These organizations give a sense of comfort to the students of color, so please keep the dialogue open about colorism, misogyny, and any other isolating behaviors within your organizations.


Like many people right now, I will be filling out the census this year (#BeCounted). In doing so, I will again be confronted with my old friend, the race box. And again confronted with the same feeling from third grade: what side do I pick? Do I even pick a side? Now I will answer this question with more clarity than I ever had.


What box or boxes will I pick? Well, it’s none of your business.

Exploring Race

A magazine run by and for students of color at the University of Chicago.