One of my favorite places for “researching” topics that come up in my daily life is my local grocery store. It just so happens that the one closest to me has often been referred to as the “barrio grocery,” which I suppose means that there’s horchata and Jarritos soda on the shelves next to ten varieties of Coca-Cola. Or that there’s chorizo for sale next to Jimmy Dean breakfast links. These factors, plus the generally democratic activity of needing to buy food, generates people-watching opportunities transforming my local grocery store into a great place to wander through the aisles while sifting questions about identity.
I find it particularly relaxing to stand between the tortillas and the bagels while munching an interesting topic.
Today I was thinking about the term “mixed race.” What does this term actually mean? I’m in the dairy aisle when this question pops up. Right in front of me are containers of yogurt in various flavors, including mixed berry. I pick one up. I decide to look for other examples of mixed things. I find mixed fruit, mixed vegetables, mixed chicken parts. I also note other things that are not labeled as “mixed” but rather as “assorted” or “combination,” like cookies, crackers, and nuts. In almost all cases, mixed things are different things touching each other in the same package, not things that are structurally blended together. A coconut cookie and an almond cookie are friends, but there are no coconut-almond cookies presented as themselves.
The mixed chicken parts particularly intrigue me. It’s flesh, not that different than what I’m made of, and I’m guessing that the “mixed” bit has to do with the fact that the parts come from different chickens who may or may not have known each other. Every time I look at mixed chicken parts I think of fashion magazines and the way they cut up the female body into images — an eye, a pair of lips, an arm, a torso. In many of the images there’s no way to guess what race or ethnicity the woman might claim, because she isn’t presented as a whole person. As I’m poking at the nubbly surfaces of chicken thighs through taut plastic, I’m reminded that when I referred to myself as “half Asian” to a friend, he asked — in all innocence — “Which half?”
So am I “mixed” like chicken parts or like mixed berry yogurt — a pinkish-purple sludge of mixed berryness buried under a layer of white? I wonder. Where’s the separation? I feel like a whole person but I’m also aware that I don’t talk about the blackened duck eggs in the Chinese grocery to my white friends. I usher them past the little six-packs and act like I don’t hear them when they ask, “What are those?” I pretend like I don’t know what they’re talking about. What on earth are what? Oh, look, over here are dumplings. You like dumplings, don’t you? Dumplings, of course, are encased in white flour. The inside is probably a mixed something, but the outside is white and smooth to give them a beautiful, tasty appearance. It says so right on the package.
Am I being a jerk, not giving people a chance? Probably. I’m aware that in navigating my mixed-raced-ness, I’m not talking about topics that might well be all right to discuss. I want to. I want to ask my girlfriends if they’ve been approached as a potential dominatrix as many times as I have. I want them to know that the reason I go to that expensive hairdresser is that she never tries to make me look like a Republican news anchor with a white woman haircut, and also because she’s a Latina from the border with an attitude. I want to make them dinner and serve shrimp crackers next to the poisson au beurre.
I like all of it, the mixedness, and the mixed-uped-ness. I’m going to take these mixed berries home and pour them over my assorted waffles.
Elaine Dove is an artist and healer living in Austin, Texas. For more information, visit her blog.