Drew McDowell, Intersectionality and Me

“You aren’t Black. I don’t know what you are, but you ain’t Black.”

I believe it was late autumn/early winter in 2015, when I was ganged up by three guys just outside the McDonald’s in Clapham. I remember I was wearing my favourite neon pink t-shirt, feeling merry after a great night out with friends, having danced the night away at the Two Brewers, a queer cabaret bar in Clapham, London. And I was alone outside simply waiting for my Uber to arrive to hurriedly transport me home my bed. In the span of waiting a few minutes for my Uber, I was quickly surrounded by these three men in their late 20s, two were British white men and one Afro-Caribbean/British man. It seemed like I was targeted for looking “gay,” and they clearly had an issue with gayness, leading them to taunt, harass, and attempt to scare me, which, I’m not embarrassed to say that they succeeded.

I interrupted their harassment by challenging the Black guy by expressing my confusion of his prejudice against me knowing how we as Black men can be treated. I wish I could say that I was surprised by his response when he said: “You aren’t Black. I don’t know what you are, but you ain’t Black.” Before the situation could escalate anymore and any further attempts to get a rise out of me, my Uber driver arrived. He rolled down his window and shouted, asking if I was Andrew. I made a quick getaway and slumped into his car, shaken, and expressed my gratitude for his arrival at such the perfect moment. He mentioned to me that he suspected something was awry and asked if I need to go to the police. I thanked him and declined his offer. I wanted to be home in the comfort of my bed, and simply hide.

Growing up I always knew I was different and had a unique family situation. Divorced parents, one from Colombia and the other from Mississippi who grew up on a plantation. I also had stepparents, both of which are white – a Jewish stepmother and a first generation Irish-American stepfather. My family was the very definition and representation of the American Melting-Pot – a true intersection of races, cultures, languages, countries, neurodivergence and religious beliefs. I was aware of my family dynamics and how they differed from my other friends’ families, but that awareness was limited to the size of my family and the fact my parents were divorced. It was only through my first experience at a very young age that I encountered the ugliness of racism and the prejudices against multiracial families. My first experience of being called a “nigger” by a group of white children on the playground, sending me in hysterics, running home crying to my mother and calling my father in Florida, wishing desperately that I was white. If that’s how the world treated black kids, I didn’t want to be black.

But unfortunately, those racist and prejudicial experiences didn’t stop with the white kids in my class but also included the black and Latin communities just the same. My parents, separately, gave me a version of “the talk,” but from their racial perspectives, which meant I was prepared to an extent of receiving racial slurs from white people. I was taught to be proud of blackness and Colombian roots. However, I don’t think my parents ever predicted that I would need a similar “talk” to prepare me for the onslaught of rejection, looks of indifference or simply not feeling good-enough because I was a mixed-race child. After all, I was the first mixed race kid on either side of the family. I believe there was a degree of ignorance, albeit unintentional, from my parents because they likely believed I would be wholly accepted by both the black and Latin communities. I was therefore unprepared by being shunned and turned away from the Latin kids who could speak fluent Spanish; whereas I could only understand, fluently and get by conversationally. Just another ‘gringo.’ But also, Mulattos [1] dealt with a lot of racism in Colombia, something that I only became aware of later in life during visits to Colombia. It wasn’t just the US that had the problem.

I was also rejected by the other black kids in school because I wasn’t black enough. By comparison to the other black kids and adults, I was always considered too light skinned to be black. Thanks to my mother’s Colombian roots, my skin tone fell between my mother’s golden, sun-kissed tanned colouring and my dad’s dark ebony melanin. In the ‘80s, interracial relationships were frowned upon, to the extent that Spike Lee made a film called “Jungle Fever[2],” which highlighted the racist and prejudicial views – stemming from both black and white communities – about interracial relationships. The point of my reference of the film is that growing up, mixed-race children like myself were underrepresented. I, therefore, didn’t have a place in any community. I wasn’t black enough for the black community; I wasn’t Hispanic enough since I couldn’t speak Spanish fluently enough to be accepted into the Latin community; and I was having to navigate the prejudices of the white community.

At a very young age and with the experiences I lived through early on, I was standing in front of a three-way fork in the road and faced with making an adult decision regarding my identity and feeling I needed to choose one social and racial group to attach myself to. I would have to implant myself into one and only one community, hoping to be accepted; much like my parents had to make a choice as an interracial couple. We all want to be part of a community, a feeling of belonging, and accepted by others. Therefore, the external pressures of having to choose and needing to choose became a necessity and survival instinct. Sounds dramatic, but as a kid you want nothing more than to fit in. Because of that, I learned to conform to the one community that held a majority representation in my town. It wasn’t a calculated choice, it just happened that I grew up in a predominantly white town near Cape Cod. Before the term ‘code-switching’ came into existence, I simply learned to conform to my white friends, without giving it much thought or intention. For that reason, I was mocked for having mannerisms like a white guy, dressing very preppy, and I was always “complimented” by adults for being well-spoken (aka I didn’t sound “ghetto” like my black brethren). I learned to laugh off the micro-aggressions and justified them as a normal interaction between friends.

Whilst I learned to fit into my white friendship groups, I leaned into my mother’s Colombian culture. Apart from my limited fluency in Spanish, I lived and breathed the culture, music, food and dances. And because my dad lived in Florida, and me growing up near Cape Cod, I had very little exposure and experience to my black roots and family history. By all accounts, my racial identities were at odds with each other and remained that way until well into my 30s.

But I was not yet done with my crossroads in life and before I knew it, I was dealing with yet another identity crisis in my late teens and early 20s – am I gay? Skipping ahead and overlooking my coming out story, I was transported back to my early youth when I finally accepted, I was a gay man. I say that because I had to now learn the social dynamics and sub-cultures of the gay male community. And we all remember the infamous Grindr taglines of: “No fats, no fems, no Asians, no blacks.” But I was also having to address the different views, held by the black and Latin communities, towards the LGBTQ+ community. I was now seen as a black-gay man by the black community, which translated to not being man enough; or seen by the Latin community as a Latin-gay man who is living in immortal sin.

Society desperately wants to put everyone in a box, and for them to fit neatly into that box, even if it means abandoning a part of yourself. However, the educational movement of “intersectionality” is blowing up those neat little boxes and teaching people that we are all unique and the intersectional identities that we each hold, bear their own set of challenges, benefits, and beauty. I have learned to love and accept my multi-dimensional identity as a Gay-Black-Colombian and neurodivergent cis-man with gender fluid tendencies and characteristics. That does not make me lesser than or even greater than my friends, family, colleagues or the misinformed. I am simply who I am, and have lived a privileged and disadvantaged life, and continue to grow into my identities as I evolve with time. The important aspect of intersectionality is that each marginalised community that I represent, all suffer prejudice, inequity, racism, and exclusion – and for that reason I wholeheartedly believe if we all work together and accept that we are all fighting the same fight instead of fighting for the same space, we will be stronger and more successful in winning that fight of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

[1] Mulatto – mulato in Spanish – commonly refers to a mixed-race ancestry that includes white European and black African roots. In my case, a Colombian mother and black/African-America father.

[2] Dictionary.com defines jungle fever as a person’s preference for a sexual or romantic relationship that is interracial, especially the preference of a white person for a Black partner.

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