My life-long identity crisis came full-circle during my most recent trip home. My mother, grandmother, and I went to visit my uncle, who is extremely territorial and will not open his front door until he can confirm your identity. When we arrived at his house, I gave my horn a quick honk, waiting for him to come outside. I see movement through the window blinds, but no opening of the door. Hmm, that’s strange. I do it again, and I receive the same peep-through-the-window treatment. Finally, he comes out of the house and says that he thought I was a “strange white girl in a red car”, and didn’t know who I was. Technically, I am white female in a rental car he’d never seen before, but I never thought I would be so unrecognizable that my family would mistake me for a stranger.
For the majority of my life, I never even had to question the fact that I was Black. Yes, I do get called Twinkie ( yellow on the outside and white on the inside), and I have green eyes, but that’s the beautiful wonder of my ethnicity- we come in all shades, spanning across the color spectrum! I thought it was absolutely amazing that I could be birthed from a woman with gorgeous, chocolate skin and have a hue with yellow undertones and eyes that sometimes scared people. Yes, the majority of my family was a darker shade than I, but that’s normal, right? Then, about 8 years ago, my granny told me I was White.
My first reaction was, no wonder my jokes are so corny. Soon after, I started to think about the underlying feeling that has always been there that just needed confirmation. I’m in a situation where I am never going to know the other side of my identity, but that fateful day I had the courage to ask if I was in fact of another persuasion. Ever since then, I’ve been wondering, along with everyone else who confuses my genetic makeup, just what I am.
Before the rest of the world ever wondered what island I came from, I was subconsciously obsessed with my own color. I remember my aunt having a checkers set with brown and white pieces. She said I would always insist on being the white checkers and would ball my eyes out if I had to play as the brown ones. Then, in elementary school, I didn’t realize that being one certain color was a big deal. There were many instances when I was told by several classmates that I was white, but it was never delivered as a compliment, but more as a verbal assault. Was it bad to be white? Was I super cool because I was Black? I’m sure my mind didn’t wonder about this too much, because there were much more important things to ponder, like boys and Trapper Keepers.
I was given this information of my background at a time where most would consider me a full-fledged adult. At this point, most people have a hold over their identity, so did it really even matter that I now find out about the other half of me? Getting confirmation that I was multi-racial created a flurry of emotions within me that I didn’t realize existed. For one thing, I couldn’t wait to tell other people who I was a Black & White cookie. I was eager to check off the “mixed-race” box on forms. I even told people I was Irish, even though I didn’t really know my father’s origin, but it sounded like the coolest White person to be. I giggled with excitement when checking both the “White” and “Black” on my online dating profiles. To say I was giddy about my newly discovered identity would be an understatement. But why? I believe that I took some sort of pride in knowing that half of me was no longer a secret, a guess, or an assumption. But then again, it was still a mystery, as I did not know my true identity, which is still evident today as I continue to grapple with just who I am.
When I cam to Miami, an entirely new ballgame was in play. Down here, if you’re tan, you’re Hispanic for some reason. You can look like one of the Children of the Corn and people will still approach you with a “Que pasa?”. I’ve been mistaken for Dominican, Cuban, and even Jamaican-Chinese. It wasn’t that these assumptions made me re-think who I was, but it made me ponder more what others thought of me. Even though I had accepted my racial ambiguity, there were ( and still are) times when I am not so sure how comfortable I am in my not-so-new skin. I’ve had people tell me that I’m “not really black”, and even though I’m bi-racial, I get upset. What does that even mean? On the flip side, there is a guy who constantly says to me “but you’re a white woman” whenever we discuss racial issues, and it enrages me. Why is it so important for outsiders to identify who I am?
During the same trip home in which I was mistaken for a white girl in a rented Toyota, the discussion of my father’s ethnicity came full circle with my grandmother. Knowing she couldn’t’ tell me exactly where Pops came from, we began jokingly pondering his country of origin. Being in Michigan, I asked if maybe she though he was Polish. Could I be the secret heir to the Polish Cultural Center in Sterling Heights? What if I was Jewish? It would explain my affinity for bagels and latkes. After a few playful jabs at me, calling me “Mrs. Kowalski” and “Bynumstein”, I knew that it didn’t matter what my genetic makeup was. Am I proud to be Black? Yes. Am I proud to be White? For sure. I am also proud to be a Hot Mess. I embrace my ethnic confusion to others, my diverse hair, my cat eyes, and ability to tan in 30 minutes. There will always be a part of me that feels incomplete, not knowing exactly who I am. But if anyone else ever asks me again “What are you?”, I can gladly say, “I am me”.