Where #ImFrom: A genetic roll of the dice

By Delondra Williams

My background is mixed, and my skin is light brown, so I look like everything. People aren’t sure whether I’m black, Middle Eastern, Italian, Indian or what. People from almost every ethnicity assume I am one of them. My main mix is actually Mexican and Swedish, but my family has been in the U.S. since before the Civil War.

Delondra with her mom and brothers in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I’m so blended, and we’ve been here so long, it’s impossible to tell where I’m “from.” I get asked this question at least once a week. Once, by a taxi driver who squinted at me through the rearview mirror while I was sitting next to my blonde friend in the back seat. His smile dropped, he cleared his throat and asked, “You said your name was Delondra? Sounds kinda…Islamic. Where are you from, anyway?”

Most white Americans have ethnic markers that have been lost to cultural assimilation. The only difference for me is my skin color doesn’t happen to be white. But my brother is white. It was just the genetic roll of the dice. People sometimes think if a dark-skinned person and a light-skinned person have a baby, that baby will be a mix of the two colors— “café au lait,” as my mom says. But genetics don’t always work like that, and as it happened, my brown mom and my blue-eyed dad had two children together: a brown me, and a year later my white little brother. (So white his first baby hair was blonde, which my mother says I jealously cut off with nail scissors.)

Growing up in our small, rural town, I was considered “Mexican,” and my brother was considered “American.” I was expected — even by my own family — to learn Spanish and the broad strokes of Latino heritage, while my brother was not. I was called names like “Spic,” “beaner” and “wetback,” and my schoolyard nickname was “Stick,” because I was “brown and skinny.”

My brother dealt with his own demons, but never over his skin color. He was never asked where he’s from, because why would he be? When’s the last time you asked that of a white person with no accent?

Delondra with her husband and son. (Photo credit: Troy Blendell)

I don’t consider myself a Mexican American, because I was not raised to identify with anything except American culture. My mother is not Mexican. She’s American. And so is her mother. And so was her mother. I do not consider myself in a mixed marriage with my husband — who is a mix of Cherokee and French, and happens to have white skin — because we are culturally the same. I might know more about Dia de los Muertos and reach for a spicier salsa than my husband, but essentially our upbringings were identical.

I don’t think people who ask the question are trying to be overtly racist or aggressive; I get annoyed sometimes, but not angry. I will sometimes say that I’m mixed, explaining brightly that it’s almost the same mix as Frida Kahlo. But a few times, I have stared at the person for a moment and said, “Oh. You want to know why I’m brown.” I have more melanin in my skin, that’s all.

I get it, they’re curious. But I am from here. I am American.

It’s simply an outdated question. Skin color no longer has any bearing on culture, especially in the U.S. And honestly, unless you’re having a real discussion about both of your backgrounds, it’s an odd thing to ask out of the blue. I still haven’t found a good answer.

This is part of a series called #ImFrom, where members of the AJ+ community share personal stories about the question, “Where are you from?”