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G Smith, ColorLines
November / December 2007
Through thick glasses
and what looked like many years of leisurely living, she peered
at me from across the small Virginia boat club and approached. I
noticed her as she made her way towards me through plaid pants,
straw hats and twitching fans until she introduced herself and we
exchanged cordial greetings and small talk. All was going smoothly
with her, and then she said it,
"And is that hair
indigenous to your culture?"
I almost laughed out
loud at the absurdity of her question. However, I did have to give
her credit for supplying a new gem of ridiculous ideas in a litany
of expressions of confusion about my ethnicity over the years. To
be fair, my green eyes, brown skin, and blond dreadlocks shroud
my not so exotic upbringing in suburban St. Louis, and she at least
had the decency to engage me in some sort of conversation before
she started asking about my "culture."
But it is not only southern
elderly women who want to know where I come from. These questions
come from strangers from all over the country. For the most part
the question is friendly, and the questioner feels they are asking
something harmless, and that I may in fact appreciate that they
noticed me as one of these kids who is not like the others.
Sometimes the question
is accusatory - the "What color are you?" with
the implication that I am either not white enough, not black enough,
or too much of either. However, for the most part there is not hostility
in the question, just confusion. So why do these situations leave
me unsettled and annoyed?
This desire to know the
ethnicity of those around us is a curious one, and it often betrays
people's desire to order the world. You are black, and I have a
box for this. You are white, and I have a box for this. While these
boxes can create and perpetuate negative stereotypes, I do think
that race and ethnicity need to be recognized. The colorblindness
mentioned in today's enlightened society is a mistake. That only
works if we were able to press the reset button on history and culture.
So it is not the labeling
per se that makes these questions stand out in my mind as somehow
wrong. Nor is it an uncomfortable question for me to answer. If
there is one thing I learned from my mother, it is to be what I
am without apology, explanation, or excuses. I'll tell old friends
and new all about my heritage. It is somewhat unique, and I am proud
of my ethnicity.
But therein lies the
problem. I'm happy to tell people I know all about myself: where
I'm from, who in my family matches my eyes, that my color fades
in the winter, how I came to be the literal black sheep of my family.
But that is the rub. I gladly talk about this with my friends, people
It is this sense of urgency,
this demand, this insistence that I fess-up to strangers so they
know how to categorize me before they even know my name. Often times,
I get the feeling that people are annoyed about the ambiguity of
my appearance; that I'm trying to trick them; that they have a right
to know about me right away.
Some pregnant friends
of mine have expressed similar annoyance when strangers look at
them with bug-eyes and a baby-cooing lips and land their paws on
I want to ask these strangers
when they demand to know my story, what's your story? Where do you
come from? How come you have that dimple on your chin? Is that your
natural hair color? Are those hair plugs?
It is people-s
insistence on knowing my race before they have any interest in knowing
who I am that really gets to me. It's offensive and starts me off
not trusting that this person is going to hear anything I say after
they've boxed me.
So to the elderly woman
at this boat club, I give my canned answer, the one that I know
people will accept with understanding eyes, even though I know they've
just had to create a new box. I say "I'm Afro-Norwegian"
and in my head I say, "Box that!" Although in real life,
I offer comfort to the confused and continue the joke, saying, "We're
a minor minority. We meet on the first Tuesday of every month."
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