• Jina Etienne

Gas Station

The day I learned that what's on the "outside" matters


Identity. That's where it all starts. Mine wasn't something I questioned right away. But, after an incident at the gas station when I was 14, I started wondering how I fit in.


I was with my mother and we were running a few errands. We had stopped at the Gulf gas station just up the street from our house. Some guys pulled up next to us and started cat calling me. My mother and I started walking to the cashier window but I held back a few steps. I wanted to be far enough away from my mother so that she didn’t have to hear me telling those guys off for being so rude. When she was far enough away, I turned to them and blurted out "What the heck is wrong with you? Can't you see I'm with my mom! Damn!" When I turned back, my mom had stopped walking and turned around to look at me. I wasn't sure if she had heard them, me or both. Turns out it didn't matter. She hadn't really seen or heard anything. I don't even recall now if she said anything to me. She just turned back and went to pay the cashier, then continued on as if nothing ever happened. For me, it was a moment I'll never forget.


In that moment, I realized that those guys had no idea that she was my mother. How could they? To them, I was a young, 5’6”, 140 lb black woman alone at the gas station. My mother, on the other hand, was 5’, 100 lbs soaking wet, and is Filipina. We looked absolutely nothing alike. How could anyone possibly know, just by looking at us, that she and I were related? Those young men had no idea that I was with my mother – they probably would have acted very differently if they had known!

I realized in that moment that things were different for me.

“It is strange, but true, that the most important turning-points of life often come at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.” — Napoleon Hill

I realized that the woman who I had been looking to, whose face I had been idolizing, who defined femininity and who I dreamed to be like one day… she represented a very different woman to the rest of the world than the woman I might become one day. Well, at least she did on the outside. And that was the day that I first learned that the “outside” mattered, that the color of my skin and that of my mother’s, mattered. Oh, there would be more days to come. But, as they say, you never forget the first time.


After that, I started to notice when I was similar and when I was different from those around me. I felt conspicuous about something I hadn't paid attention to before and was beyond my control – my race. Since I was visibly black (as in, looking at me, that is what folks usually assumed I was), I decided to "Lean In" to that side of my ethnicity. I made the transition during middle school. At the start of 6th grade, most of my friends were white or mixed. By the end of 8th grade, my friends were mixed but predominantly black. By the end of my freshman year in high school, my core circle of friends was all black. I sat at the black girls’ table in the lunchroom. I changed my hair style and the way I dressed. I listened to black music. I went to black parties on weekends. I dated black guys.


Then, in my junior year, a painful incident (you can read more about that here) shattered newly constructed identity. I may have looked like my friends, but I saw things very differently. Being biracial made me different from everyone else in more ways that skin color. My heritage was mixed, my opinions and perspectives were mixed, my habits and mannerisms were mixed, and my hair was most definitely mixed (I’ll save my hair issues for another post!). I wasn't black and I wasn’t Filipina, I was a little of both and none of either. Meanwhile, none my childhood friends were bi-racial. Their identity was singular: white, black, Persian, pan-asian, latinx. That would continue through college and the first few years of my career. Although I’d met a few half-breeds (as I would jokingly refer to myself) over the years, it wasn’t until my early thirties that I developed a friendship with another biracial woman – her mother was white, her father black.


She was the first person who understood what it felt like being mixed. Everyone else I’d ever spoken with about it understood it intellectually, in the same way we can sympathize with the challenges of parenting, but don’t really “get it” until we have a child of our own. She validated my “otherness” and I finally felt like I had a friend who was like me.

“An experience like that changes your perspective on life and on the world.” – Mark Shuttleworth

In the years since college, I've started to feel as if I’m being “seen” by society, too. One simple example is the question of race on forms and surveys. Most offer “more than one race” or “check all that apply” options. Those choices didn’t exist when I was growing up, so I’d always skip it. To check ‘black’ would mean negating my mother. To check “Asian” (as it was called back then) would mean negating my father. The the fact that they are now offering those options means there are enough of us to warrant asking and counting.


I’ve come to see being biracial as if it is its own separate race. It is neither good nor bad, it’s just different. Like me. My choices, preferences, tastes and habits are informed by both of my parents’ backgrounds, experiences, stories and ethnic heritage. They form a blended heritage that I am proud of and am now sharing with/passing down to my kids.


Today is my mother's birthday. She would've have turned 82 today. She lost her battle with cancer on March 6, 2012. Although she's been gone 8+ years, I still think of her every day. This post is dedicated to her memory - to honor the lessons she taught me, the patience she showed me, the laughter she so freely and regularly shared with me (and everyone around her) and most importantly, the support and encouragement she gave me to always be myself.

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