Letting Life Lead
They first time I heard that question was on a schoolyard playground in the early eighties. I’d been amusing myself on the rusty swings with the hard seats and kicking up the hard packed dust from the shoe trench. Someone had wound two swings around the support bar and linked two others together into an impossible knot of chain so that you were obliged to swing both at once.
I glanced at the kids and back at my shoes (too much eye contact might get a kid beat-up). “I’m a girl.”
When I wore pants and pulled my hair back, I was told I looked like a boy. I had begun lately to think it was an insult rather than a point of fact.
“No, what are you?”
“I’m a person. A girl. What do you mean?”
They explained to me that they wanted to know if I was Spanish or Portuguese or Puerto Rican or whatever. I had no answer. I didn’t know. I had never asked my family. Was that important information to know at age nine (give or take a year)? I wondered if they wanted to categorize me so that they could decide if I was “one of them” or someone to pick-on and push around. I was a thinker, spent a lot of time in my own head, and I wasn’t adept at social skills. They freaked me out. Kids could be mean and it was hard to tell which ones would turn on you.
I asked my grandparents and mother later what it all meant, and they explained that we were Cape Verdean (I was 3/4ths) and where the Islands were. My great-grandparent had immigrated to America and settled in the area in the Cape Verdean community. With genetic heritage coming from both Europe and Africa, the people are very diverse. How we look ranges the spectrum from light to dark with every eye color and hair color and combination represented.
The history of the Islands and the migration of its people is complicated and surprising.
I concluded then that we were everything and a collective family of cousins, and those kids were weird. I had a strong and immediate connection to being multi-racial because it fit with the wide range of people in my circle and neighborhood. We all looked so different, and yet could identify each other as family.
Over the years I got “What are you?” tossed at me out of the blue. Sometimes it was an innocuous question because the person hoped I spoke their language (sorry, I did try to learn but it didn’t stick) or perhaps desired a kinship in a place where they felt isolated. People liked to try to make sense of my racial ambiguity. Their guesses have gone from Spanish to Native American and roundabout the major countries. Too often though, “What are you” was hurled as if I were a half-human, half-Klingon trespassing Earth-side without a permit.
Sometimes it was worse.
It wasn’t just outsiders drawing lines. I would hear the “old timers” use slurs about people within the community who were considered too dark. There was a subtle but present undertone that lighter complexions and “nice hair” were better. I learned later that this is ingrained in the island culture (improve the race by lightening through marriage) due to what happens to a conquered minority people throughout history. My nose, I learned over time, was just a little too “all over my face.” It left an impression within me that my nose is bigger than it really is. I like my schnoz; but it still hurt even in jest.
Then it became absurd.
“Why do you act white?” a college roommate inquired, and I still don’t know what that means. I was acting like an American from New England as far as I could tell.
“Why do you hang around white people?” I didn’t have a lot of friends because I didn’t have time to hang-out (I had to work and go to school full time), but I didn’t choose them by color. They were the people in my classes; some were white and some weren’t.
“Look at the white girl trying to make black people food,” typed a stranger, recently. I am lighter-skinned and must therefore be white, and thus not dark enough to cook Caribbean food?
It became clear that if I didn’t fit some person’s vision of who I should be, that was somehow my fault for not picking a side or choosing the pigeon-hole they wanted.
So many scholarships and test forms required that I squeeze myself into one of several predetermined boxes. Cape Verdean appeared on occasion, but usually the choices available were Caucasian or black. Bi-racial and multi-ethnic? Pure fantasy.
Why not just check off both? I did sometimes or wrote in what I wanted if I was feeling cheeky. But when it came to scholarships for minorities, I hesitated. Did I have enough color to be a “person of color”? Should I check off black even if I self-identified as multi-racial? If I did check it, was that a lie? If I didn’t, was that denial?
Even in 2016, when I was filling out the forms of my children, I wrote in multi-ethnic and was told that I couldn’t do that. I had to pick among the boxes. I selected more than one and included a disgruntled statement.
What are you?
What kind of question is that? As if the entirety of me can be summed up in one word.
I am all my ancestors the good and the bad. I am neither white nor black. I am in between, belonging to both. I blend.
Somewhere in the center of a massive Venn diagram with blurred genetic edges, fluid boundaries, and jagged life experiences is me. All of me.
I know who I am, and the answer is too complex for one box.
What I am is one of a kind.
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