“Where are you from?”
“Where are your parents from?”
“Okay but where are their parents from?”
“Okay but what are you?”
Race has always been a hot-button issue in America. This is not news to anyone paying attention, but it’s come back into the forefront of American politics with movements like Black Lives Matter, protests by NFL players, and demonstrations in Charlottesville. Now it’s worming its way into news we receive from abroad, regarding the Royal Family. In case you’ve been wintering under a rock, Prince Harry is getting engaged to Meghan Markle, an actress and humanitarian who happens to be mixed-race. The internet is going crazy, with headlines like “Will Meghan Markle Really Be Britain's First Mixed-Race Royal?” and “Why Meghan Won’t Say She’s Black.” As I read the articles that focused primarily on her ethnicity, I felt my heart ache for this woman I didn’t know at all.
Then again, I do know her because in this particular instance - I am her. My mother is white, primarily of English, Irish, and French ancestry. My father is black, with African and also English ancestry through my grandmother and her father. To be honest, I forget sometimes until it’s called to my attention.
Maybe that sounds crazy but it’s true - I navigate life like everyone else until my “ otherness” is highlighted. As I grew up, I learned to turn it into a game that put the questioner on the defensive. “What am I?” Okay. Do some work. Make some guesses and we’ll go from there. It became a necessity to avoid being perpetually offended.
That said, some of the worst moments stick with me - I can remember vividly an ex’s mother crying when she found out I was mixed and my father was black. Being from an old-school Mississippi family, I remember being cruelly teased for my physical features by family members that felt they were too much of a “tell.” For years, I threw myself into a spiral of hair straightening, body image obsessions, and tears. I just wanted to feel like I looked normal and at some point, looking “normal” became synonymous with “looking white.”
However, I remember other moments too. In particular, I remember how my mother dealt with the situation initially. One of my earliest memories involves my father telling me that I was black. Maybe he viewed it as helpful guidance, but as a very young child - I lost it. My entire world melted in front of me. I didn’t look like what I had seen as “black” but I also didn’t look “white” either. I didn’t know at the time how to differentiate between the terms, nor did I realize I needed to. This was my first introduction to the concept of race and why it mattered. To this day, my mother recalls how seeing me so lost broke her heart.
Thankfully, my mother was quick to correct my father, with a sentiment that sticks with me to this day. She said, in the kind and loving way that only a mother can, I was not black. I was not white. I was the best of both. My almond shaped eyes, my olive skin, my dark curly hair, and my big toothy smile incorporated the best of both of my parents. To this day, this is how I consider myself. As I grew older, I began to see the beauty in my otherness. My self-identity, my experiences, and my race are all entwined and they are a huge part of who I am, but they do not define me wholly.
If I could go back and tell my younger self anything - I would tell her that it gets better. I would tell her that the features you hate now will be the features you (and the people that love you) adore. That wild curly hair will be your defining feature and there will be a day when you will hate how it looks straightened. Your tan skin will be something you chase when you’re stuck working in an office. That nose will be a feature you question, but can’t imagine yourself without.
Confidence is a funny thing. It is a facet of our personalities that so often is forged in adversity. Despite the ramblings of misguided and hateful people, diversity is what makes our country great. Having confidence in our diversity is our greatest strength and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better off we all will be.
The next time you encounter someone different from you - I challenge you: Ask what makes their life rich. Ask them what they like to do.
Instead of “What are you?”, let’s shift to “Who are you?”
I am so many things that run deeper than the color of my skin or the arrangement of my genes presenting in front of you.
And for that matter, so are you.
Celebrate it. Relish it. Share it.
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