So, like, are you white?
Irish. Argentinian. Israeli. Jamaican.
White. Hispanic. Black. Mixed.
I am all of these and none of these.
Call me Schrodinger’s human, both existing and not existing in each cultural group.
I was seven when I first realised that I wasn’t who I thought I was, when I found myself in a room full of adults who were debating whether I was Spanish, or Turkish, or Moroccan, perhaps?
I was fourteen when I first realised that people didn’t know how to treat me; whether I should be seen as peer or infiltrator.
I was sixteen when I scraped together my Saturday job earnings to have my hair chemically straightened at the salon, hating the unruly curls that told everyone that I wasn’t like the rest of my friends and family.
I was 22 when I realised, once and for all, that I exist solely in the inbetween. When a guy in a pub — who went to school with my sister and several of my cousins — asked, quite seriously, how I felt about being adopted.
I am 26 now, and still do not know what to call myself.
I grew up in a very large family. Predominately Irish, with a few Jamaicans and Mauritians scattered in. The 100% Irish members were treated no differently to those who were 50% Jamaican or 50% Mauritian or even, god forbid, 50% English. Everyone was equally at home eating boiled cabbage and potatoes as they were eating jerk chicken with rice and peas.
I soaked up every second of the different environments. I would listen diligently to the family stories from ‘back in the day’ in Cork, dutifully singing along to the folk songs and learning the jokes. I would accompany some cousins to the salon to watch them have their hair braided. To have my own hair attended to. To eat patties and learn the steel drums.
To share in those experiences was magical and enlightening for me, and yet they never felt like my experiences. Even as a child, I knew that everyone in those spaces treated me as other. Too white for the salon, too different for the parties at the pub.
I thought that in a family as large and accepting as mine that I would always belong, would always have a place. That isn’t so. Even in my diverse family, I have cousins who do not quite know who or what I am. Not sure if their words will offend me. Not sure if I’ll understand their slang. Not sure if I’ll care about their stories.
Not sure who I am.
Someone who I know as a friend of a friend of a friend took offence with me attending a Diversity in Publishing event earlier this year. She demanded to know why I felt I had the right to be there. It was for diverse writers, publishing professionals, bloggers. A chance to make connections, share frustrations and maybe even make a friend or two.
“This isn’t for you.”
Not wishing to cause offence, or embarrassment for myself, I left.
Even as a 26 year old adult, who has spent years living and breathing the different branches of her heritage, I still don’t know how to respond when people tell me that I am not who I think I am.
I wish I had stood my ground, and pointed out my ethnicity to her. I wanted to scream “I am not how I appear at first look.” I wanted to break the ice and tell her that I share in her frustrations, that I want to change the industry just as much as she does. But instead, I allowed her to dismiss me from the event with a withering look and a muttered ‘white people’. Maybe she was right. It’s something I still struggle with.
I am fully aware of — and accept — the privilege that I have for being a white passing individual. Opportunities present themselves and doors open for me that wouldn’t for my black and Asian peers. But to call me white erases my identity and diminishes my experiences.
It tells me that the years I spent communicating with my Argentine grandmother in Spanglish were worthless.
It tells me that the years I spent accompanying my grandfather to temple were pointless.
It tells me that the hours I spend learning about the cultural significance of how I choose to wear my hair are a fruitless endeavour.
It tells me that I am too white for some spaces, and not white enough for the others.
I was in a pub last year, surrounded by people from my adolescence who are aware of my ethnic makeup. As the drinks flowed, so did the jokes, rapidly becoming more reckless and offensive as the night wore on.
Close to midnight, someone dropped the N word into one of their jokes. All eyes flew immediately to me.
“Don’t worry about her, she’s not properly black.”
“Yeah but, she ain’t white either.”
And so that’s who I am.
Not white. Not black. Not Hispanic.
I am someone who makes the tellers of racist jokes mildly uncomfortable for a few seconds.
I am someone who makes an abstract individual feel responsible for telling me I am not ethnic enough to care about the diversity problem in publishing.
I am someone who does not look like any of their family members, or friends.
I’m 26 years old and still I don’t know who or what the fuck I am.