About Sarah-Elizabeth Ratliff
My name is Sarah-Elizabeth Ratliff (although I generally go by Sarah), and I am 49 years old. I live on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico with my husband who is 53. Our move here was intentional for several reasons.
Our goal was to escape two things that we feel are inter-related:
- The all-consuming, consuming-all lifestyle of living in the world’s richest country (the United States).
The rich get richer while the poor have the illusion all they need to do is work harder to achieve the same. “Trickle-down economics” is designed to keep a huge divide between the top 1% and the rest of the world. Fewer places is this more epitomized than in the United States. It is my belief that in order to sustain the extreme wealth at the top, the system is designed to keep all non-white races and women in constant turmoil, and at odds with one another. I see the destabilizing of nations, the invasion of nations for their natural resources to further their wealth, and the intentionally created turmoil domestically, being intertwined and interrelated.
It is a misconception that we just need to work hard enough, (I have never seen anyone work harder than the poor who are just trying to make ends meet), because the system doesn’t allow for equal access to jobs, education, opportunities, etc. This was not a system my husband and I wanted to continue living in.
Our goal was to move to Puerto Rico, start an organic farm and live a self-sustaining life. Unfortunately money started running out and I had to look for work (while Paul kept the farm going). What I discovered is that I could make a living, keep the farm going but not compromise my integrity. I pick and choose which types of projects my content marketing agency and small press publishing company will be involved in. Essentially I get to have my cake and eat it too. Through these endeavors I get to advocate for the marginalized and voiceless, and we can still eat.
I was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, although my mother was only there long enough for me to be born. It’s a long story why I wasn’t born in Lagos, Nigeria (where my brothers were born), but it is one that is personal to my parents’ relationship. My parents moved to Nigeria shortly after they were married in 1960. They met and fell in love over the telephone in the mid-1950s. I often say that I believe that if they hadn’t met on the phone, they wouldn’t have chosen the other. Neither of my parents were racist, but in the 1950s, even in New York City, opportunities to mingle outside one’s own race were limited. My mother was black and Japanese and my father was white. After innumerable instances of intolerance toward their union, my parents decided to leave the racist United States and live in Nigeria. My father set up a tropical fish business. He was doing very well financially. We had many household staff who helped my mother.
Obviously I am skipping a lot of history here (colonization, what England refers to as the ‘decolonization of Africa’ and the haphazard and disrespectful way they did it, the natural resources England and other countries continued killing for, etc.), but it’s necessary. In 1967, Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria. Culturally this was the correct thing to do for Biafra. The problem with this was that Biafra is where most of the oil is and the Nigerian government wasn’t interested in sharing power or impoverishing its broader natural resource base. Also the British weren’t about to relinquish the control they maintained over the country’s oil supplies through its public-private subsidiary Shell/British Petroleum. The United States and the Soviet Union also backed the Nigerians, fearing Biafran independence might set off a chain reaction that would split sub-Saharan Africa apart at the seams. So the Nigerians, backed militarily by the Soviet Union, England and the United States set up a blockade. Their intention from the beginning was to starve the Biafrans into submission.
My father being who he was (he had been a journalist in the U.S. and his personality, like mine, meant he couldn’t let well enough alone), made friends with the newly elected president of Biafra, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. His purpose in doing so was to help the starving people and bring international awareness to the atrocity that was taking place. My godfather, who was the New York Times West Africa correspondent, got my father a job with Unicef and eventually the U.S. Department of State to try and work the situation from the inside. The United States, Nigerian and British governments didn’t appreciate my godfather and my father’s involvement and both families were deported only three months after getting involved.
So while my parents had hoped my brothers and I would never see the United States and be raised in Nigeria, instead we were being raised in New York City, where I lived until I was in my mid-20s. I moved to Washington, D.C. at this point, where I met my husband Paul.
Again, I have just condensed over ten years of domestic (United States), international and personal history into a few paragraphs. If your readers would like to know more about it, I go into all the above in much more detail in the book I co-authored, which is an anthology-based book. My co-author is a white British woman who is married to a black Caribbean man. The book, Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide is available in print and eBook. For further information see http://beingbiracial.com. The book contains 24 essays in total, penned by people with varying racial mixtures and the parents of mixed race kids from around the world. You can link to the Facebook page for Being Biracial here: https://www.facebook.com/beingbiracialanthology/
My husband Paul and I are cut from similar bolts of cloth. Although he is black and I am black biracial, our politics, many of our experiences and all of our views on race are identical. Because of the way I was raised, and by whom (my father’s father disowned my father for marrying my mother and that’s why I do not acknowledge him as family) and the fact that when my parents met during the Civil Rights Movement while there were still anti-miscegenation laws on the books in many states, until very recently I have self-identified as black. This might be hysterically funny to some, given that I am only ¼ Black and I am light, bright and quite clearly half white, but this is one of those instances where upbringing can have more influence over a person than DNA and appearance.
Part of why we live on Puerto Rico is because we both fit in. Puerto Ricans are a mixture of West African (former slaves), Taino (the indigenous peoples who were here before the Spanish came) and Spanish. Puerto Ricans range from blonde hair and blue eyes to midnight black and everything in between. The fact that I am “high yellow” and Paul has a brown complexion is rarely an issue here, whereas it was constantly an issue in the United States.
So much for a brief introduction, but all of these things play a part in my self-identification and I haven’t even touched on the Black Panther member my mother had living with us when my parents separated. He and his comrades had a powerful influence on how I see race, race relations, racism and politics and why I see the obvious tie-in between politics and racism.
What impact did racial issues have on your childhood? What was your school life like?
No city in the United States is free from racism, I don’t care what white people claim. They don’t live with it as a constant companion after all. However, New York City in the 1970s and 1980s was relatively calm in comparison to other cities. There were definitely eruptions now and then—both toward us and others.
I have two brothers. One looks mostly Asian (he took after our Japanese grandfather), and the other looks black with a hint of Japanese—just like our mother. Then there’s me: I look White, maybe Hispanic / Latina. I experienced the least amount of racism and my oldest received a ton. Throughout my life I have been accused of taking advantage of white privilege. This is something people who don’t know me love to claim. I couldn’t know what I know, have been raised the way I was raised and then claim I am white. So while I didn’t experience nearly the same degree of racism my oldest brother did and I look white, I never once allowed myself to “pass.” It’s not who I am.
Was it accepted in your wider family and local environment that you are part of an interracial family?
On my mother’s side, my (Japanese) grandfather died when my mother was five years old. I know he would have accepted my father. My maternal grandmother loved my father. My father’s father disowned him but not before he made it clear that my mother was a “nigger” who would never be accepted into his life and that their offspring were “criminal mistakes.”
I grew up in a section of Manhattan called the Upper West Side and there were many mixed families. Acceptance within their homes was easy. Strangers stared a lot at us and my oldest brother was constantly having to kick someone’s ass for calling him a “nigger”. Both brothers got accustomed to defending themselves. The oldest lifted weights and the middle is a black belt in many martial arts.
Who were your idols growing up and why?
Apart from having crushes on celebrities, I don’t recall having idols (in the sense I believe you mean). I marveled at the actions and words of some people; some I knew and others I didn’t. There was my maternal great-grandfather I admired. He was born a slave and he bought his freedom in the 1850s. In an effort to realize a better life, he left the Deep South. One by one, he layered himself in all the clothes he owned and walked from South Carolina to New York (about 600 miles / 950 kilometers). He and his clothes arrived about two months later and he never stepped foot in the South again.
My parents weren’t perfect. As with most families we had our displays of dysfunction but when I think of how they met, the obstacles they endured and the example they set for my brothers and me, I remain in awe of them. They were married in 1960, so before it was legal for inter-racial couples to marry in many states. Knowing my father’s father would disown him, he married my mother anyway. They never allowed challenges, discomfort or how others thought and expressed their opinions of them to affect them.
Do you feel you have been affected by any racial stereotypes?
I’d be lying if I said no. I am not so thick-skinned. Like many biracial / multiracial people, I am caught sometimes in the middle, other times on the periphery of both. Sometimes I am accepted by both groups (I have never identified or attempted to assimilate with the Japanese because I know nothing about what it means to be Japanese). Sometimes neither group wants to claim me and sometimes I don’t want to be part of either group. Sometimes it’s a tug-of-war. Sometimes I am accepted by some in a group, while simultaneously dismissed by others in the same group. Most of the time I can chalk it up to “their hang-ups,” but the problem is that I get where the whole thing comes from and so I find myself embroiled in unnecessary drama as I feel it’s my place to address it. I wish I could learn not to.
Have you ever wished that you were monoracial or felt pressured to be monoracial?
These are questions I feel are damaging to consider. No disrespect to you, Nikki because it’s a logical and appropriate one, given our collective experiences. What I mean is that it’s dangerous for us to consider the potentiality of greener grass on the other side. We are who were and playing that game leads to self-hatred. I prefer to celebrate our diversity than to wish I were darker, lighter, more accepted or any of the other common desires that come with the multiracial experience.
Do you feel more connected to a particular part of your racial identity? Has this changed over time?
Yes, I feel more connected to being black because of the conscious decision my parents made to raise us more black than white (in response to my father’s father disowning him and the racism they knew we’d experience). But what is black? What is white? If it’s merely skin color, no wonder folks look at me like I have three green heads when I self-identify as black. If being black is as much experience as it is how one is raised, again, I am not black: I have never been DWBd, shot by a racist white cop or turned down for a job because it was feared I’d bring the element with me to work. Is being black (or any other race / ethnicity) determined by a person’s musical taste, how they speak, carry themselves, the people they actively seeks out to be-friend and/or the literature they gravitate toward? If so, I don’t think I can be pegged because I am a moving target.
I was raised to appreciate the art (in all its forms) of all races and ethnicities. My parents certainly didn’t limit me to the black / white experience. I speak the way I speak not because I am trying to be white but because I was raised by two writers. However, my parents didn’t see ebonics as a display of ignorance, as do many whites and well-educated blacks. Instead they saw it as a separate language and a natural outgrowth of the African diaspora—not unlike the various patois, Creole and Gullah.
Does this mean I don’t get what it’s like to be white? Of course not. Leaving aside how I feel on the inside and that I vacillate between black and black biracial, I know that on the outside I move through life as a white person. When I lived in the United States and when I travel outside them, I am perceived as white and sometimes Hispanic. It’s not until I correct people that they know otherwise. My husband tells me that black people know I am black, but I have come to the conclusion that because he sees a light-complexioned black woman, he thinks other black people see me this way. Judging from reactions of many black people, I’d have to say it’s incorrect.
However, none of this makes me white. I am connected to being white both because of the way I am perceived and because I am predominantly white, but I almost never identify that way. I only do this when I am in a situation where I find it necessary to defend a white person, a group of white people, to explain the white experience or to explain the mixed experience to a non-white person.
What are your thoughts on light skin privilege?
It exists. To say otherwise is lying to ourselves.
How do you feel about the common assertion that we are all mixed race?
In short? I roll my eyes. It’s only white people who assert this. It’s laughable. I may look at Lucy and agree that we all emanated from her, but to suggest she is in us all is ridiculous. Too much history—and ugly history at that—has passed between Lucy and us to claim this. Meryl Streep, Bill Clinton and other well-intentioned boneheads can claim we’re all black or even mixed race, but until they are DWBd, know someone who wasn’t the fifth cousin of the neighbor they had 30 years ago, or who was the butt of a joke they told at an exclusive event they attended or hosted, they need to stop insulting us with this nonsense. I want to use another expression, but let me just keep rolling my eyes for emphasis. Saying we are all mixed race/ black but not having to deal with the reality of being a person of color, to me, is just white privilege at its “finest.” If we’re truly all mixed race, I ask the powers that be to stop treating their brothers and sisters around the world so effed up! Mixed race? Pfftt!
Has race impacted your career at all in terms of choices and experiences?
As it relates to my career, only once. When I worked at CBS Radio in New York City, I was in an entry-level position of the newsroom. I filled a minority spot (back when many PoCs got jobs thanks to Affirmative Action). I took the writing test and got a 98% on it. Expecting to be promoted to writer, I was passed over by the white intern who scored a failing grade of 57%. For the first time I was faced with something that someone who is much darker in complexion than me experiences day in and day out. I was angry as hell but to claim outrage would have meant slapping my darker complexioned brothers and sisters in the face. I let it go … sort of. CBS and I dealt with matters privately.
As it relates to choices, in both my content marketing agency and my publishing company, race / gender / LGBTQIA are the main niches we concentrate on.
How do you feel monoracial people can benefit from learning about the lives of mixed race people?
- Stop interrupting
- Stop assuming
- Stop judging
- Stop interjecting your experiences
- Stop being condescending
- Stop over-analyzing
- Stop justifying your words and actions
- Stop telling us you know what it’s like
- Stop telling us how we should self-identify
- Stop telling us we NEED to choose one or the other
- Stop telling us there’s no such thing as being biracial / multiracial / mixed race
- Stop telling us race is a social construct
- Stop telling us there is no such term as biracial because the prefix bi and the suffix racial are meaningless
- Stop telling us because not all countries recognize multiracial/ biracial as a legal category on their census that means that we aren’t officially an emerging race and that therefore we have to choose one race
- Stop telling us race is synonymous with our looks
- Stop telling us we aren’t x, y or z because they don’t fit in with your limited view of things
- Stop telling us we can’t be x, y or z because of our musical tastes, our upbringing or how we look
- Stop telling us to get over it
- Stop telling us we can’t be one, both, all and then none
- Stop using pseudo-science to explain race and our personal self-identification journey
- Stop dismissing us
- Stop categorizing us
- Stop projecting your shit onto us
- Stop trying to protect us
- Stop asking us if you can touch our hair
- Stop touching our hair without permission
- Stop assuming because it works for you, it will work for us
- Stop saying you get it when we don’t even always get it and we live it every moment of our lives
- Stop fetishizing us
- Stop calling us exotic
- Stop telling us whom we should marry based on our experiences. We can make these decisions for ourselves and sometimes they have nothing to do with race—hey, like you!
- Stop insinuating that our parents weren’t thinking of us and the crap we’d experience by having us. Maybe our parents did the same thing you did—fall in love. What a flippin’ concept!
- Stop telling us we’re the reason the world is so effed up.
- Just stop. Please … just … stop!
What would you like the future to look like for people of mixed race heritage?
I think we’re already moving towards it. Much as I dislike the judgments and preconceived notions monoracial people routinely project onto us, the more it happens, the more we dig our heels in and we are more determined to define ourselves. I feel like we will ultimately be the bridge between the battling worlds.
Main business and content marketing:
Publishing company: http://coquipress.com
Being Biracial Anthology: http://beingbiracial.com
Personal website: http://sarahratliff.com
For her farm: http://mayanifarms.com
For more mixed race interviews and updates join http://www.facebook.com/amixedracefeministspeaks