I used to be Italian and Jewish, the product of what was called a “mixed marriage” in the mid-twentieth century. Although that made me different in a bad way from other kids, the good news was all religious holidays were mine to exploit. Good Friday and Yom Kippur, Ash Wednesday and Rosh Hashanah, all of them freed me from school. I could be religious at will.
At twenty-one, I turned into Nothing. A cousin told me I was adopted, and no information was available about where I came from. I became the question mark, the blank page, the space between these words. A bit of a nihilist at that point, I found living in uncertainties felt liberating.
When the State of Florida, where I was born, sent me the non-identifying information allowed by law, I turned into the daughter of a fifteen-year old girl who was Irish and Native American.
Few people know the whole story of their lineage; for adopted people, answers about ethnicity can zigzag wildly. Occasionally, a casual acquaintance has asked me, “What are you?” as if they’ve observed my perma-tan with suspicion. My answers to that question have changed depending on what I thought I knew at the time. But I was raised white, and I’ve passed as white all my life. Aside from a gang of Irish neighbor kids beating me up while yelling “dirty Jew” when I was eight years old, white privilege has protected me from racist violence all my life.
At thirty-four years old, I reunited with my blood family thanks to a private investigator. Except for one aunt, no one knew I’d even existed. But my family recognized me because I looked so much like my mother, who’d died the previous year.
I was a surprise, a long-lost sister for my six siblings. I also gained two aunts, an uncle, a dozen nieces and nephews, and eight first cousins on my mother’s side. No one knew who my father might have been. They did know, however, that my mother’s father was not the man named on her birth certificate – her real father was a Jewish man that my grandmother worked for. So then I turned into an Irish, Native, and Jewish woman.
My new relatives were very open about stories many families regard as secrets, and my siblings were puzzled my birth had been hidden. Everyone knew my grandmother had given up two babies before bearing my mother, and everyone knew about the anxiety disorders, addictions, hospitalizations, and incarcerations that plagued our family. At a funeral, one of my mother’s childhood friends revealed I was the third baby my mother had given up for adoption. That meant my mother had been pregnant at least three times by the age of fourteen.
I started thinking I might be a product of incest, maybe a big enough secret to hide. Elton, my mother’s stepfather, had been a violent man according to my aunts and my uncle. My grandmother had divorced him soon after I was born. If Elton was my father, that meant my aunts and my uncle were also my half-siblings.
I spun another paternal theory, too. My mother became pregnant with my sister Belinda just two months after I was born. Maybe, I thought, Belinda’s father was my father, too, and our mother and her husband hadn’t wanted to tell their six other children they’d given an older sister away. If that was what happened, then my half-sister Belinda was my sister on both sides.
Either of these theories worked for me. I loved my new-found family so much, the thought of being even more closely related to them was appealing, even if that meant my mother had suffered. The years went by, and I thought about these theories from time to time, but there didn’t seem to be any way to check them. My adopters were silent, and the laws of Florida, where I was born, still keep adoptees’ original birth certificates secret.
Then in the spring of 2015, my sister Belinda, my aunt Rose, and I all spat in our individual tubes and sent our DNA samples off to 23andMe. When we got the results back in June, they showed Rose was still only my aunt, and Belinda was still only my half-sister. Both of my paternity theories were shot down. I started imagining the happier possibility that my mother, at fourteen, had simply been caught up in a youthful passion.
My family believed we had American Indian blood, and Rose and Belinda’s results both showed a fractional percentage of Native ancestry. My results showed a slightly higher percentage. And, I learned I was 1.2% Sub-Saharan West African. Just a bit over one drop.
One Drop laws, a feature of the systematic American racism of the twentieth century, enforced a binary, either/or definition of race. In states with One Drop laws, people were officially defined as either white or black for purposes of census-taking, voting, employment, and all matters related to segregation. One drop of Sub-Saharan African blood, or one African ancestor, made a person subject to all the racist restrictions imposed against African-Americans. And because there was no room for a third or fourth or fifth designation in that white or black system, the One Drop laws resulted in a paper genocide attack on many Native American tribes.
These laws were in effect when I was born, when ideas about “racial purity” were still in vogue. Were my adopters, with their mixed Catholic and Jewish marriage, allowed by the state of Florida to adopt me only because I, too, was mixed – the bastard child of an Irish-Native-Jewish-African bastard? And now that I know the truth, am I a transracial person?
I hesitated to claim that identity. Cultural appropriation has felt icky to me since the New Age phenomenon took off in the 1970’s. And coincidentally, right before my DNA tests came back, a regional NAACP executive was outed as a white woman in a series of national news stories. The executive’s mother and father came forward to tell the world that their daughter, who’d been posing as African-American for about ten years, was a white woman. At the time, I thought the story a particularly wackadoodle example of cultural appropriation.
Then, soon after my DNA results came back, a scholar and college professor who’d represented herself as Cherokee in her life and her work, someone I’d met, spoken with, and had personally admired, was also outed in the media as white. Questions about her true ethnicity had circled around for years, and it seems she’d tried to develop proof of a Native identity, but hadn’t been able to find even that one precious drop of Indian blood.
People still ask me the “What are you?” question. Today, if I felt like answering, I’d say “Irish, Native American, Jewish, African.” Maybe I’ll start saying “Not quite white.” I like the rhyme.
I feel a sense of pride knowing that some of my ancestors survived American racism, at least for long enough to have children of their own. But I’ve felt uneasy about identifying as African or Native, and can’t help questioning where this uneasiness comes from. Maybe it’s from my belief that identity is so much about experience and emotion.
When people of color experience racism and express rage, anger, frustration, disgust, and fear, I may listen with respect and feel empathy or outrage on their behalf, but the primary emotions do not belong to me because I’m not a target of racism. I can’t pretend those primary emotions are mine, and if I did pretend, I’d be no better than the wannabe-African NAACP executive or the wannabe-Indian professor. I’ve passed as white for good reason – DNA analysis shows I’m 97% white.
But if I hang on to my identity as white, what does that mean? Am I intentionally passing at the expense of others? Am I complicit in silencing the mixed-race truth of the American population? After half a life spent separated by adoption from my family, my culture, and my history, and the other half navigating through a new and complex identity, sometimes I long to once again be Nothing, the space between these words.
Michele Leavitt, a poet and essayist, is also an adoptee, high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney. She’s written essays for venues including Guernica, Catapult, Sycamore Review, The Rumpus, and Grist, and she's the author of the Kindle Singles memoir Walk Away. More at www.michelejleavitt.com