In the last two weeks I have gotten four COVID tests. At three of those tests, I was asked a series of demographic questions, one of which being: “What is your racial/ethnic background?” For many, this is a check the box and move on question, but for me I am often left awkwardly choosing between selecting one of my two racial identities “Asian Indian” or “White Caucasian.” Neither of them alone feels right. I am the definition of the in-between. I am both.
One of the most vexing parts of the multiracial experience is being asked, "What are you?" There's never an easy answer. Even when the question is posed out of demographic interest rather than leering curiosity, you're typically forced to pick a single race from a list or to check a box marked "other."
“Other” is a great word to describe how I often feel in racially charged discussions, or circumstances in which I need to identify myself. But “mixed race” is literally the fastest growing racial group in the United States. Why can it sometimes feel so off?
I am the daughter of an Indian immigrant, and a Jewish woman from New York, whose family members survived the Holocaust. Growing up I did not have a racial, ethnic or religious community that I fully identified with. In the month of November my family would celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of light, and then Hanukkah, in a sense, a Jewish celebration of light. My parents quickly realized that if we did not have a Christmas tree, and celebrate Christmas to some extent, my sister and I would feel left out. So we did that too. I never fully realized how amazing it was that my parents infused their backgrounds into my sister and I, while always preaching a theme of tolerance for others.
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Southern California. My parents moved there to send my sister and I to great public schools. I played on expensive club soccer teams and spent my summers traveling to Switzerland to visit with my Indian/Swiss relatives. Yet I also was regularly asked if I was a “dot or feather” Indian. When my teammates and I ran down the street from our high school, people would yell at us from their truck windows “Go back to Mexico,” among other racial slurs. Kids often found it funny to speak to me in a fake Indian accent. Or tell me that I have a big “Jew” nose. In college many of my teammates called me “Espinoza Gomez” because I look like I could be Mexican. During training camp before my freshman year the men’s team did a skit of Espinoza eating a burrito out of a trash can.
But I was also incredibly privileged to have the opportunities that I did, and the support from my family to pursue what I wanted. I knew I was raised and looked a little different, but I assimilated. I absorbed many of the racially charged comments people made to me, but I never brought them up. I may have occasionally been the butt of jokes, but I was lucky because I could assimilate. I have never felt my life or very existence was in danger because of what I look like.
Over the last several years I have grown my understanding of racial inequities and intricacies. I have opened my eyes to the idea of privilege, and have begun to embrace more of what makes me different. I remember taking a class in college in which I learned that it is in fact a part of human nature to recognize patterns in order to make functioning expedient in future similar settings or interactions. In other words, if you have yet to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, you may be surprised by your results. But it’s the risk of these stereotypes turning into prejudice and discrimination that is concerning. It’s cyclical. It’s what made the kids I grew up with say the things they did to me, because they heard these same things from their parents. It’s why a black man running through a white neighborhood was shot and killed for his appearance.
So why am telling you this? Because as a running community we seem to be far more comfortable talking about races rather than race.
Over the last few months we have been jolted by our society’s lack of preparedness, equality, and leadership. At the same time we have learned the power of speaking up and sharing stories. We have shifted the platform of conversation to social media, which has gifted us with previously underrecognized information, and world-wide solidarity. I have personally experienced the power of the twittersphere, after tweeting about an elderly couple I helped to get groceries.
The words that we say and choose to share can have a bigger impact than anyone could ever realize.
As a professional athlete, I believe that it’s my duty to represent more than just athleticism. Speaking about race can be awkward and difficult. Particularly if your racial identity feels split, or you don’t think that this conversation is for you. But it is a privilege in itself to not talk about it. I personally did not want to speak up because I felt that my experiences weren’t worth putting on paper. I was worried I would be detracting from the Black Lives Matter movement; rather my hope is to support it.
In recent weeks I have worked to take down that personal barrier. I have had lengthy discussions with friends both in and outside of the running community. We have shared experiences on growing up in our hometowns, about our families, and the different languages and cultures we celebrated. In a way it was so liberating- some of these people are friends I have known for over a decade, yet we had never touched on the conversations we were now diving into.
I am telling my story for the sake of normalizing it. To talk about race, and not the type we run around in ovals for. To learn about it. And to embrace it.
Who wants the baton next?