What are you? I check the "other" box

Mixed Race and Checking the Box
Mixed Race and Checking the Box

What are you?

I am deep in the middle of writing down my stories. I'm using Old Friend Far Away by Natalie Goldberg and the content of her book is enough to keep you writing for a year straight, I swear. I have decided (since it's a library book) to just pen the prompts that she provides (hundreds of them) into a blank journal and work on them as I have time.

One of the themes that keeps sneaking back to me as I perform her "just write for 10 minutes" suggestion is my mixed heritage. My mulatto status. My half-breed moniker and the box that I used to wish desperately that I could check due to the simple fact that my father is black and my mother is white.

As time goes on, those monochromatic boxes have expanded. Girls like me used to just be relegated to choosing white, black or other. It wasn't that long ago!

Then came the wave of Native American boxes being added ... then the inclusion of the Hispanic box. Now there is the "other" box and ahem ... drum roll, I am even seeing "mixed race" or bi-racial as a box.

Because I was not schooled traditionally, I probably only have 14% of the typical issues that others might be able to share who were born in the late 1970s and raised in the very non-diverse 1980s in the middle of America. I admit that I was sheltered from much of the pain that others have felt, but it doesn't mean that I don't have an opinion on what it means to be unsure of where you belong --- from an early age.

Smith Siblings
Smith Siblings

I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska. Actually, I grew up in the country, 30 minutes outside of a very small town in Nebraska. We were there because my father worked for Union Pacific and as I remember it, there were a lot of Hispanics also working for the railroad, but not very many families that looked like ours. I have four siblings, three of us are biologically related and there is one sibling (adopted as a very young babe) that none of us can imagine a childhood and life without. I can still remember the whispers at Hinky Dinky in the checkout lane while buying groceries, "where do you think that one came from?" (referring to the black kiddo holding hands with his very white mama) or the mean kids at the public pool who called us all names because we weren't pale skinned like them. There were assumptions made about our ability to succeed at sports, and even surprise uttered when my mother corrected a nosy nelly who had the gall to state that there must have been an affair inside of the marriage for there to be different colored babies. Growing up, it was ok for one of my brothers to use the "N" word and not the other.

Smith Babies
Smith Babies

White girls are jealous of the "body" that is ever present in my my curls. I don't suffer from a greasy scalp and have never known "limp hair" or the syndrome of "it just fell flat!" They purse their lips and buy "booty lifters", neither of which I need, because both of those things came with my bod, as do my semi-high cheekbones and year-round tan that looks like an expensive bronzer. The black chicks have been known to dis me (yes, that's a term and yes it's happened to me as an active verb) for the fact that I can comb through my "good hair" and had light skin and great cheekbones. My nose is not one that was handed down from my dad's side of the family and my skin doesn't tend to get too terribly ashy.

Smith Siblings
Smith Siblings
Smith Daughters
Smith Daughters

I cannot be easily identified as belonging to any one race or nationality at first glance.

I get the question "so, what are you?", (what they mean is "what race are you" but no one is dumb enough to put it THAT way). Which box do I check when it comes to my race?  When I tell them what my nationality is (German, Danish, African American and some Native American Indian), most people say "I would have had NO idea!" When we lived in India, I had several experiences where I was asked if I was Punjabi and in Spanish-speaking areas, especially when in Florida, I have to consistently say "no habla espanol!" I am asked this question FREQUENTLY.

Just yesterday, one of the hotel staff, after several curious smiles and long stares looked at me, cocked his head a bit and said "Hey, so what are you?"  Oh, yes he did.  I just graciously smiled and said "Do you mean, what nationalities make up my background?"  I used to get annoyed and frustrated and tell people who asked "I am a girl, what do you think I am?" but have realized as I have matured (a bit) that ignorance isn't always rude or intentional, it's just a product of unawareness. Usually, I try to hold onto the conversation a little bit by explaining that so few of us anymore can identify with just ONE race, or just ONE nationality. The world is better with a melding of backgrounds and richer for it.

Here's where the post gets a little messy.

I do not identify with any one culture, or heritage that makes up my bloodline. I don't have a series of time-honored traditions that represent the nationalities that make up my genealogy. I also don't know where I fit in on the spectrum of issues that STILL divide a nation, a people group, a community when it comes to color and racism. My understanding of racism while growing up, and the issues I had to deal with because of the pigment of my skin revolved solely around the reality that my family was a mixed set of shades. The first life change that affected my interaction with racism happened when my parents divorced in the mid-80s. The next major shift happened when I left home at the ripe old age of 16 and was no longer seen together with the rest of my family. The older I get, strangely, the moments trickle away into a very quiet whisper that are only triggered by stories that happen to other people. I married an Italian man and my children all have olive-colored skin and we all *match* each other. We still get inquiries about the family's background, since we tend to blend in most any place we have lived, but weirdly, people seem to be most enamored by my husband's Sicilian background.

I DO cringe when people describe others using their skin color and get incredibly frustrated when black people holler about racism and white people continue to claim ignorance. I'm consistently saddened that we are still having discussions about equality and minorities and segregation and lack of diversity.

My honest reality is that it is difficult for me to feel I have a voice when it comes to discussing all of those really important things. 

There was a hashtag awhile back that had some air time on Twitter. While I watched tweet after tweet roll down my feed, I was extremely conflicted. I felt that if I were to jump on the bandwagon of a group of women calling for equality between white and black women, that I would literally ... be in the middle.

How am I to know what it's like to be a BLACK woman. How am I to know what it's like to be a WHITE woman? I check the "other" box. 

I bring all of this up to bring a little light into the discussion about cultural awareness and sensitivity as it relates to racism. Obviously the situation is one of complexity and confusion, otherwise we humans would have already figured out a way to live our lives without it. It's not just about black people and white people. It's about not being able to understand those who are different than you are. It's about being defensive when you feel your normal is being challenged.

It's about feeling uncomfortable when you don't agree that someone else is your equal.

It's also quite simply about refusing to listen.

If we would spend more than the 5 seconds that it takes to "tick the box" we might find that we get to know our neighbor, or actually befriend the grocery store clerk regardless of her hajib. The hooded boy who shuffles past your driveway every day after school might need a summer job cutting the lawn that you're too busy for. That grumpy old man who uses inappropriate slurs for that hooded boy might just be a product of a generation that uses the excuse that they didn't know any better.

I have been talking with a couple of people about their upcoming relocation to a place in the world where very few people are going to look like them. I am reminded of the very important need for cultural awareness and racial sensitivity when it comes to moving overseas, or anytime you find yourself in a situation where others don't look like you (or act like you, or eat what you eat, etc.).

What would happen - seriously - if we quit relegating everyone to a pre-disposed set of boundaries based on the way they looked? What if we didn't have to check boxes or label ourselves?

So, what are YOU?


Updated March, 2018, nearly four years after I published this: Meghan Markle has had her say on the topic as well. Published in July, 2015, she has this to say: More Than An Other

Naomi Hattaway

Blogger. Serial Mover (packing boxes love me). Collaborator. Volunteer. "There are likely only two necessary things in life. Show up and be grateful." - Naomi Hattaway The Reality Check a weekly email for women based on a virtue, quality or trait that I believe The Tribe should strive to possess http://eepurl.com/L9AjD Raised in Nebraska, I've since lived in Georgia and Ohio before moving abroad to India ... then Singapore. We lived in Orlando, Florida for one year and now we're on our way to Washington D.C. which will make my 15th home. Regardless of my zip or postal code however, I am doing my part to make my corner of the world a better place.