From trials to triumphs: Tova Harris and Elijah McDonnaugh, two biracial individuals, share their journey growing up on segregated Long Island. (Video: Briana Smith) (Music: http://www.bensound.com)
“What are you?”
Three simple words that evoke a stream of emotions: ambiguity, anxiety and alienation.
This question – easily glides through the ears for some, but strikes a nerve for others.
Because in this race-driven society, one’s physical appearance matters.
“I’m human,” 28-year-old Tova Harris responds with a sarcastic smile when asked, “What are you?”
She is African American and Russian. When she was younger, it was arduous for Harris, a black, white and Jewish female living on segregated Long Island, to reveal her race.
“I’m black,” is 22-year-old Elijah McDonnaugh’s response.
“I’m completely aware that my mother is white and my father is black,” he said. “But, I think because of the specific context in which I live, I identify as black.”
McDonnaugh is Irish, Italian, Jamaican and Trinidadian.
He believes the “one-drop rule,” a term used in the 20th century down South to legally classify those who had black ancestry or “one-drop” of black blood as black, still exists as an “unspoken truth” in America.
“If you’re half black, you’re not white,” McDonnaugh said. “You’re more black than you are white; that’s how people treat you.”
On average, white individuals apply the one-drop rule more than minority groups, Dr. Sarah Gaither said, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.
“Whites with power are always going to try to find a way to maintain their status quo…” she added.
She also said when people continuously question one’s race, the person loses his or her sense of self.
“That question, ‘What are you?’ is really linked in sociology and psychology work right now as being a marker of constant negotiations of your identity and reassertions of your identity to people that might not be accepting you for the way that you are,” Dr. Gaither said.
Long Island Segregation
McDonnaugh grew up in Freeport, N.Y., a town that lies on the South Shore of Long Island. Nearly 40 miles east sits the town of South Setauket on the North Shore, also home to Harris.
These two may live on opposite ends in different counties, but, they agree Long Island holds a deep-rooted history of segregation that never left.
“It’s a very strange thing to drive across Long Island…” Harris said. “As you drive across one town to another, you’ll see a difference in color immediately as you drive.”
Long Island is one of the most segregated suburbs in the U.S., according to the “Separate and Unequal in Suburbia” study, which highlights the racial diversity in suburbs from 1980-2010.
One’s income level determines a group’s racial isolation, according to urban sociology theory. Higher income minorities are projected to live in less segregated areas. However, the chart below proves otherwise. Using data from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey, only Hispanics prove this theory. Lower income Hispanics (below $45,000) lived in suburban communities that were 43 percent Hispanic. Affluent Hispanics (about $75,000) were only 32 percent. However, for whites, blacks and Asians, income did not impact their isolation, it was mostly race-related.
“Long Island is one of the 3-5 most segregated suburban areas in the country, and as it becomes more diverse, pressure mounts for trying to deal with the inequalities associated with segregation,” Dr. John Logan said, one of the researchers and a Brown University sociology professor. “It turns out there’s been no progress and no change over time; Long Island is as segregated today as it was 30 years ago.”
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After WWII, the segregated housing patterns remained, restricting blacks and other minority groups from living in certain neighborhoods; the small school districts emulate this residential segregation, leading to education inequities.
“Long Island is segregated almost entirely because of racism…It’s mostly white people wanting to live with white people because of the fears they have if people of color move in…,” said Lawrence Levy, the executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “When the people moving out here, moving into Long Island, have the same great suburban dreams that my parents had when they moved out here in the 1950s.”
The chart below reports the level of segregation using the Index of Dissimilarity (D), the most used measure of neighborhood segregation. D ranges from 0-100, categorizing below 30 as “quite modest” and over 60 as “very high.” As seen in the chart, black segregation from whites in the suburbs was above 60 in 1980 and has slightly decreased over the years. Hispanic and Asian suburban segregation rose since 1980.
Chart: Briana Smith; Source: John R. Logan. 2014. “Separate and Unequal in Suburbia” Census Brief prepared for Project US2010.
Harris’ parents yearned for the American dream. After Harris was born, her parents moved from their city apartment in Downtown Flushing to a house with a backyard nestled in the suburbs of Long Island. They settled on South Setauket, an area they thought was very diverse according to the Census Bureau, only to discover it was mostly white. However, her parents decided to build a life in their new home.
Changing the Census
In 2000, the Census Bureau allowed individuals to self-identity as two or more races, finding that 2.1 percent of the American population is multiracial. However, Pew Research Center’s 2015 Multiracial in America study sampling 1,555 adults with two or more races, suggested the Census Bureau understated the number, concluding that 6.9 percent of the American population is multicultural and is growing three times faster than the remainder of the country. They acknowledged how the adults and their parents and grandparents described their race, which the Census Bureau does not include.
“It just gives people more opportunities to self-identify the way they want and not feel like they have to be constricted to one box,” Dr. Nikki Khanna said, the author of Biracial in America and an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont. “…That’s not to say that all biracial people are going to check boxes that apply to them. There are many people that will still check one.”
In fact, only 39 percent mixed-race adults consider themselves multiracial, while 61 percent do not, according to the Pew survey; the reasons to how multiracial individuals identify varies, including: physical traits, societal and family pressures, having a fluid identity, and those who have a black background experience similar discrimination as single-race blacks.
“Now that we have the option to check more than one race on these self-identification boxes, I’m still not sure that I would,” McDonnaugh said. “Maybe from a statistical perspective it’s more accurate, but from a perspective more grounded, real and historical…I don’t think it reflects who I am as a person; I identify as black.”
“It was really exciting overall for me because it meant that being biracial really did exist, not only in my family but across the nation,” Harris said. “So, being able to check that off was a step forward, not only for me personally in my life, but I guess for a country who had no type of identification for biracial people.”
Non-profit organizations like Project RACE, who helped push the Census Bureau to add a “two or more races” category and advocates for multiracial individuals, continues to campaign for more efficient methods to gather and count the numbers, different terminology, and acceptance towards the community.
“I don’t think that in my lifetime nor my children’s lifetime, that we’re going to do away with race,” Susan Graham said, the president of Project RACE and the mother of two biracial adults. “So, I have to fight for what I can fight for, which is for their recognition and their self-identification.”
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Growing up on Long Island
In Nassau County, 3.2 percent of the population identified as two or more races in 2015, compared to 1.7 percent in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
Chart: Briana Smith
In Suffolk County, 2.4 percent identified as two or more races in 2015, up from 1.6 percent in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
Chart: Briana Smith
Although the two or more race population is increasing, growing up in the 90s as biracial individuals in a segregated area was problematic for Harris and McDonnaugh. They faced multiple challenges as they tried to establish their identity while overcoming racism.
For Harris, it was difficult being the black, white and Jewish girl that carried a Hebrew name.
“I know that whenever I walked with my black father, white mother, biracial brother and old white Jewish grandmother, we definitely got a lot of stares…” as if they didn’t belong on Long Island, Harris said as she reminisced about her childhood.
Sometimes, people would ask her mother if Harris and her brother were adopted.
For McDonnaugh, it was difficult being the “light-skinned black boy” in a predominantly white or black school.
School Segregation and Discrimination
McDonnaugh went to private schools on Long Island: Grace Lutheran Church and School in Malverne, Long Island Lutheran Middle and High School in Brookville, and transferred to St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay to pursue his love for baseball. McDonnaugh went from a predominantly black student population in elementary school to a primarily white student population during his secondary education.
McDonnaugh recalled the first time he realized he was different in fourth grade, after classmates asked that daunting question: “What are you?”
“They were pretty curious about what I was,” McDonnaugh said, revealing all his classmates were black except one white student. “So, that was when I first noticed that I…still was an outlier because the white kid was white, and I was by far the most light-skinned person among the black community.”
As a sophomore at St. Dominic High School, a peer asked McDonnaugh if he had a third ligament because he is biracial, referring to the myth that black people are born with an extra leg muscle.
“I was like very confused and offended by this,” McDonnaugh said. “Because I wasn’t really that familiar with that stuff. I mean who is in this day and age. That was an experience that made me cognizant of my identity.”
Harris endured internalized racism in her mostly white schools. She distinctly retold an incident from sixth grade. Everyday, the one other black kid in her neighborhood stepped onto the school bus and was greeted by offensive names from peers who would shift down to the end of their seats, so he could not sit down. However, Harris never offered him a seat. Fear controlled her – the fear of being bullied and the fear of exposing that she, too, is black.
“I guess being black was still a secret in my head for me and by helping him out, I guess I felt like I was revealing that secret,” Harris said, as she explained that she was treated as white by her mother’s family. “I think there’s a pathological internalized racism. I think it’s found with any minority; you do feel this sense of embarrassment for being an other.”
The uncertainty and fear continued when she attended Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, where only three or four students in her graduating class of nearly 400 were black.
“I never really felt like I belonged either in a white or a black community,” Harris said. “I also felt most comfortable with the ‘others:’ people who didn’t identify with one particular race or ethnicity to begin with…”
She connected with her Asian and Indian classmates because to them, skin color was insignificant.
Biracial and multiracial youth are more likely to be victimized than those who identify with one race, according to the National Voices of Equality, Education, and Enlightenment, a non-profit organization that focuses on preventing bullying, violence and suicide among communities.
“A biracial person may not have a specific group behind them,” Dr. Erica Chito Childs said, an associate professor of Sociology at Hunter College. “People that get bullied tend to be seen as having a weakness or if you are isolated or don’t have a concrete group; so anything that makes you different can you leave you open unfortunately to being bullied.”
Biracial Identity Development
Research argues one’s race and ethnic identity have influence between ages 5 and 7, and racial minority children tend to acquire their identities earlier than white children, Dr. Gaither said.
Multiple factors determine how a biracial child shapes their identity, including: their physical appearance, parental involvement, social groups, and neighborhood and school racial make-up. Some research states biracial kids and adults are stereotyped as socially awkward because they are confused about who they are, making people think they wouldn’t be a good friend, Dr. Gaither said.
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“My research however would suggest that biracials have an advantage in that because they can perspective take more easily than other groups at least in some contexts,” she explained. “It should actually help them be able to interact more effectively in different types of diverse settings or diverse interactions.”
However, not every biracial person adapts to these different environments, leading to mental health problems such as low self-esteem.
“Research has shown that multiracial people tend to face higher rates of social exclusion than any other racial group,” Dr. Gaither said. “So, you’re never white enough, black enough, Asian enough, Latino enough, whatever the case may be…”
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Developing an identity and receiving validation is crucial for most people.
“…While we have freedom to identify in multiple ways in today’s society, there’s also push back in freedom of identification,” Dr. Chito Childs said. “I may be really clear about who I am and how I identify, but how do I maintain that if everyday I’m challenged, ‘No you’re not this’ or ‘You may think that, but you’re not enough of this or enough of that.’”
In addition, having no guidance and being trapped in the vicious cycle of segregation and racism on Long Island, it was challenging for Harris and McDonnaugh to form an identity.
“Being biracial, nobody really talked to me about who I was racially or that race really even existed or mattered in this day in age,” McDonnaugh said. “At the same time, so many of my experiences were being shaped by my race. I was looking for ways to understand what was happening to me, all the while, I feel like my gaze was being diverted in two different directions…”
Harris explained one’s biracial experience varies depending on the mother’s race.
“Your parental figure very much determines the lens you see the world through,” she said. “Having a white mom, you kind of see the world through a white lens, until the world kind of tells you otherwise.”
Also, their performance changes in different situations.
Nearly 1 in 5 multiracial Americans and about one-third of black mixed-race adults have changed their behavior or attire to alter how others see their race, according to the Pew study.
For example, Harris’ words, body language and interactions fluctuate depending on the racial group she is interacting with and McDonnaugh’s language changes. He will even refrain from disclosing his black culture related activities or interests that the public condemns.
“They do this for different reasons,” Dr. Khanna said. “They may just want to feel accepted by the group that they happen to be with in that moment.”
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“I don’t think it’s intentionally or to trick anyone, but because of their diverse upbringing, it’s almost like code switching — you switch back and forth between parts of yourself,” Dr. Chito Childs suggested. “You’re not becoming a different person, you’re just showing more of this piece of your identity.”
Next Stop: College
After tackling hardships in elementary, middle and high school and failing to discover their individuality, it was time to venture off and start over — college. However, it was the setting and the surrounding people that helped Harris and McDonnaugh understand their true identity.
Harris remained on Long Island and attended SUNY Old Westbury. McDonnaugh traveled to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to study at Vassar College, where he became the first black baseball player.
Although college was a life-changing experience, they know race will always affect people’s perceptions.
Overcoming Racial Stereotypes
“We’re 99.9 percent genetically identical regardless of our race…” Dr. Khanna said. “In fact, there are no genes that code for race. We created this thing we call race…”
She believes Americans still think race is biological, but in reality, it’s a social construct.
“Unfortunately, this issue of mixed-race Americans isn’t divorced from broader anxieties that some people hold about interracial relationships,” Dr. Khanna said. “Until we get passed that, I don’t know if we can get passed the negativity that some people have toward some people who self-identify as mixed-race.”
Harris tells other biracial and multiracial children struggling to find themselves to “stick it out.”
“Once you get out of high school and explore the world, and get out of the town that seems a bit small, there is diversity to be found,” Harris said.
“I think the most important thing for biracial kids, for a lot of people of color, is to embrace your identity and your heritage,” McDonnaugh said. “You are who you are, so you have to come to terms with that — you have to love yourself.”
Surviving the childhood adversity and the constant questioning of identity, produced two knowledgeable, strong and proud biracial individuals who can connect with different races and cultures.
What once was a sensitive subject for Harris and McDonnaugh, is now a topic of discussion.
“Biracial people are real,” McDonnaugh said. “We’re just like everybody else. Every biracial person’s story is different; give us a chance to speak.”
At the age of 25, more educated, experienced and aware of her identity, Harris decided to tell her story through blogging, but also, read others.
“I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly…A scar means, I survived,” was the quote that began her post, “Racial Relativism.”
“To me, a scar meant that we cannot erase prejudice or racism that we experience growing up, but we can take the lessons learned from those experiences and continue forward,” Harris said. “It’s an example of what we can overcome, but still carry with us.”
What are you?
“I kind of put it [race] on a backburner because for so many years it was such a significant way of how I kind of viewed my self-worth or sense of self that at this point, I’m tired,” Harris said. “There’s other things to identify one-self with.”
“I often times felt dishonest or confused or there was a betrayal of sorts in answering it because at times, I felt like different things,” McDonnaugh said. “It was kind of like an open wound on my psyche for awhile…”
Just like Harris conveyed in her blog, his wound is now a scar.
“I developed a sense of humor about it,” McDonnaugh said as he smiled. “I know who I am at this point, so it’s not so much of a problem.”
Top: Elijah McDonnaugh; Bottom: Tova Harris (Photo: Briana Smith)