Race and ethnicity have always been fascinating to me-particularly my own racial identification. For as long as I can remember, I have wondered about my ethnic origins and what implications they would have on my place in the world. Though I would love to, I have never taken a DNA test to determine my family’s exact origins (neither have my parents). Through some informal questioning, however, I have gathered that my father’s ancestors came to the United States as slaves from Africa (likely West Africa). My mother’s family came from various regions in Europe: mainly Scotland, Germany, and Alsace Lorraine (a German territory that dissolved in 1918). My mother thought that her family may have mixed with some Native American down the line, but her parents never confirmed this information. Regardless of where my ancestry lies, my skin is caramel-brown, I have brown eyes and brown, curly hair. Despite these seemingly average physical characteristics, people struggle to place me in a racial category when they meet me. To me, I am not racially vague, but to most of the people I encounter, in the U.S. and abroad, I am a question mark.
I grew up in a small town in Michigan, which was, and remains, a predominantly white community. We lived in the country in a big farm house and didn’t travel much until we were a bit older. My brothers and my involvement in sports took us to other communities near us and that was where most of our exposure to people of color mainly took place. I don’t remember seeing many people that looked like me and my siblings though and I remember thinking “where do we fit in?” At the time, I didn’t realize that other people were wondering the same thing.
I can’t recall the first time that someone asked me, “what are you?” It has happened so many times that I lost count a long time ago. There are instances that I vividly remember: some that turned into intriguing conversation and some that are not worth giving a second thought. One summer in high school, I was working at a summer camp when one of the grounds keepers came straight up to me and asked what Native American tribe my family hailed from. I was embarrassed because my new friends were there and I wasn’t sure how to answer his question. I didn’t know if I was Native American or not. When I got home, I went to my grandparents and asked them. They couldn’t confirm or deny it.
That instance was the first time I remember feeling embarrassed or disgraced that I didn’t know my own heritage. Even more than that, I didn’t even know what race to tell people. I would awkwardly explain that my mom is white and my dad is black, but that didn’t always answer the question. I’ve had people be genuinely be surprised by my answer to their question too. I talked to someone once who was absolutely convinced I was from a Caribbean Island or Brazil. It frustrated me that this person needed to know so badly and I was offended. I thought that being black and white was somehow boring or not exotic enough for this person. A few years ago, I lived and taught English in Thailand for a few months. Many of the locals thought I was Thai. While it was frustrating to try and explain (usually in vain) my racial heritage, I had become more comfortable with my identity and was not at all offended by their assumptions and questions. I even had one woman rub my arm and then rub her own as to say “Our skin is the same!” Or maybe she was just feeling frisky! Either way, I embraced her willingness to approach me and used it as an opportunity to bridge the wide cultural gap between myself and this cheerful, Thai woman.
Over the years, I have gone back and forth about wanting to pinpoint or come up with a word to more accurately describe myself. In the end, I have come to realize that it truly doesn’t matter to me anymore. I have come to love the way I look and that I am different. What I used to see as an inconvenience, I now see as wonderful and I do my best to embrace my looks. I might straighten my hair, but to me that doesn’t make me any less of anything. It just makes me, me.
As humans, we have an instinct to want to fit people and things into categories relatively quickly. It keep us safe and it’s something our brains do automatically to help us navigate the vast amount of information we encounter on a daily basis. I no longer get offended when people ask, “what are you?” Do I still answer with, “Human. What are you?” occasionally? Yes, of course! I am always happy to answer people, though, and I can’t blame them for asking. I, too, am curious about people and where they come from. If they have the courage to come up and ask, then I’ll always be willing to explain. It took time to be comfortable with this, but I truly believe that honesty and willingness to be open about ourselves will only foster greater tolerance in our immensely diverse world.