Check out Inspired by a True Story – Part 1 first.
For 30 years, I have felt the constant pressure to answer these questions, to push forward the truth that others want to hear to help appease them and allow them to attach a label to me. Often, I feel ashamed and saddened that I have defined myself, a complex individual, in a one-sentence personal tag-line that purports to represent me in my entirety. And although, I have always felt conflicted it has only been since, 9/11 that I have been thinking more and more about this “labeling,” this “identification” and I have been wondering, perhaps I am doing all a disservice by answering these questions. I have started spending more time reflecting on my life and the indulgence of these ‘ignorance lessons’ I have given over the years. My reflection has been growing more intense, as I consider the prospective of starting a family. The constant categorization that so seems to be a part of American culture, more so than other places has warped my mind. I am never quite at peace inside this shell. I flash to my earliest memory when I truly knew I was different but I wasn’t able yet to determine why. I recall coming home excited to tell mom that I had figured it out! I knew what I was…”Mommy,” my six-year old voice squeaked “I figured out what I am!”
My mother with the softest brown eyes, who awkwardly looked down at me says, “What do you mean, you’ve figured out what you are?”
“I’m an Indian!” I shout with enthusiasm. “I saw a picture in a book today that showed an Indian with a pilgrim and it looked just like me. The same color skin, the same braids. That’s what I am, an Indian.”
You see, I think I have it all sorted out. I am just beginning to understand the concept of God and the aspect that he creates all life. And the babies he creates come out as all kinds of colors with all kinds of looks. I know nothing about genetics, so this is how I compensate to help me fit in. At six I realize I need answers because the questions have started and up to this point I was just saying I was ‘brown” and assuming that was satisfactory.
“Your not an Indian,” her remarks shatter the excitement that was brewing in my chest.
And before I can ask her more she moves away dismissing this entire conversation and never revisits it again. She never applies labels or tries to categorize me but neither does she attempt to help me with understanding what I am or how I fit. Perhaps this is because of her divorce and my father’s absence throughout my childhood. Truthfully, I am not so sure she could answer the questions that live in me.
When I reminisce about this conversation, it has taken on a more humorous view as the years pass. It does epitomize my quest for answers. It accurately reflects the fact that I still don’t know who I am. I know I am an American but what is that given our need to label one another; African-American, Irish-American, Arab-American…what is it to be just American.
When I think about parenthood it with the eyes of a colored woman, in an interracial marriage. I think about how I will react if I drop them at school and everyone thinks I’m the nanny because we look nothing alike. I understand what it is like to be judged based on your surface appearance. I’ve been mistaken for so many different ethnic groups (Spanish, Brazilian, Indian, Native American, Lebanese…the list goes on) that I used to feel embarrassed and frustrated, now I find it flattering. That I, so resemble so many ethnic groups that for the most part are reaching out for a fellow countrymen, a connection. This camaraderie that seems to resonate with my looks makes me feel good but it doesn’t help to understand my place in America and America can be cruel and ignorant if you are different.