I am just as irritated–and I confess this though I think it makes me sound petty–when people suddenly become aware of my golden-colored skin and say thoughtless things like, "I want a tan like yours!" or "Have you been to the Bahamas lately?" This latter statement was almost a given any winter that I lived in Chicago–and never went anywhere near a tropical sun. The former is more often said to me by visitors to my Florida home. If I wear white, or red, or certain other colors, I look different than when I wear blue or black, and often get the same kinds of remarks. It never seems to occur to even friends who know I'm mixed blood that tan skin is maybe indicative of something other than sun-worshipping.
Much of these irritating and awkward social interactions come about, I believe, because Americans are stuck on on our black-white racial dialectic. We literally see black and white and little else. Ask members of other ethnic groups–Latinas (handy but inadequate as a grouping, I know), American Indians, Asians–and they'll tell you they often feel invisible due to the scarce attention paid to their cultures and languages. But for people of mixed blood, this is accentuated by the common insistence on black hair, black eyes, dark skin as "the other" alternative to white-ness.
What does Asian-American Indian-White look like? Pretty much like me, you might conclude with some thought. Golden-skinned, blue-green eyed, with lactose intolerance from hell. Add a dash of African inheritance, without much outer effect, and a kick-ass taste for hot peppers. These cultures were all present in my family in a somewhat haphazard configuration.
Not that we don't have dark eyes, hair and skin in my family. We do, as you might expect, if you know a thing or two about genetics, and my siblings and cousins who were dealt those odds have different stories to tell: how classmates asked if they would do a war dance, storekeepers followed them around, people asked if they were black or white, or stared on the street when they walked into the "white school" (Asians and American Indians were not particularly welcome in the majority society of the segregated South in the 1950s and 60s, but most went to white schools, because the Jim Crow laws weren't consistently applied to us).
"But you don't get much discrimination aimed at you, do you?" some folks have gotten up the nerve to ask. Ask me how it felt when kids threw stones at me and my youngest brother and yelled, "Your big brother is an Injun! Your mother must have been with the Injun mailman!" Or my father how it felt when the housing supervisor on the mill village told him to "never bring those n****** back here again!" when his family came to visit. Told they were Indians, not blacks, the supervisor just cursed both, with the same demand to keep them out. (Later I'll write about how my parents tried to pass as "white with Indian," to their perpetual unhappiness.) My father refused to ever live in a mill village again, even though the houses there were cheaper and my parents could have owned a house decades earlier, but waited instead for a more expensive, modest house lying between the black and white parts of town, where no one asked many questions. But my mother was nervous every time the darker-skinned relatives visited, I'm sorry to say.
I write this not to make an affirmative-action argument of any kind, as in "my discrimination is as bad as yours." I think I need to write it because it illustrates something I feel fervently: We all have the right to our own identities,and to pride in the same. I went to the gay pride march in Chicago for years on the strength of that conviction. I need my friends to acknowledge as well that my family history and the multiple cultures I grew up in (which, yes, confuse even me at times) affect how I see the world and write about it, and–okay, I admit it–that yes, an Afrilachi-India-Roma-Scottish poet is pretty cool, too.
I love real comments, but no spam, please!