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