On Strangers Asking Me, “What Are You?”
Laura Weidman Powers

My [“Caucasian”]mom got pretty agitated when I decided to minor in Ethnic Studies (her mother, on the other hand was curious and read my leftover books). She used to say “You know, Mariah, you’re not just Black…” in that way where “black” sounds like “bleck!” I would reply, “Yeah, but when I walk in a room, people see me as Black…” (and try to figure out what else). Personally, I’ve never liked “Black and White” as it erases other nuanced aspects of my heritage, but I absolutely dislike “bi-racial” as 1.) it perpetuates the social construct of “race” and 2.) it doesn’t account for more than one ethnic group.

When people ask my nationality, I say, “American.”
My race? “Human”
My ethnicity? Better. “Multi-ethnic.”

My culture?? Black (by popular demand)…and multi-cultural. I’ve found Black culture overall is more inclusive and accepting, although, to be fair, depending on the environment, any ethnic group /culture can be hostile to “mixed” people.

Like you, I’ve had a litany of guesses about my heritage. Aborigine and Filipina were perhaps my favorites. Hispanic variations are common. I consider it a compliment when someone mistakes me as one their own. In a way, as a “mixed” person I am.

Both of my parents have been here many generations and are not “pure” anything. We’re Americans! Is anyone “purebred”? Most White people I know don’t even know (or think about) where their ancestors came from. Most probably didn’t come under ideal conditions. And what is the ethnic identity of the offspring of an English and a Italian emigrant born in and living in Spain…who then becomes an American citizen? And their kids? English? Italian? Spanish? European? American? It’s subjective and largely irrelevent.

I seldom feel compelled to break down my “pedigree” to strangers. I despise check boxes, and the expectation that we define ourselves has serious implications. You don’t need a checkbox to know people in Flint need uncontaminated water. My [half-]sister had to check a box during her cancer treatment that defined her care. The care for someone of African ancestry was different from someone of European ancestry. But she has both. They refused to factor in that her mother was Caucasian (and also had cancer). Ridiculous.

If you get to know someone or the subject is in appropriate context, usually they will volunteer that information (and one can avoid offending someone who may have adoption or rape in their family tree, for example — like many “Black” Americans). Some really enjoy talking about their diverse ethnic composition. More than the superficial appearance, I’m more interested in deeper understanding of cultures and ethnic groups — particularly how we can respect and live in harmony with one another.

Thanks for sharing…

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