Native, Slave and...

On average, once a month, someone asks me some version of the question "What Are You?" This past weekend, in Washington, DC, I got it twice, so I'm good until July, I guess. Sometimes, I enjoy making people guess. It usually makes them uncomfortable. Makes them realize they've casually asked the equivalent of how much money do I make or how old am I. Besides, I like puzzles and games. When it comes to my race, every day is a carnival and I always win the prize because no one has EVER guessed correctly.
And yet, I am one of the most common American mixtures, I think. Black, white, Native American. No islands, except England. No Latino, but my mom speaks Spanish. No Middle Eastern, even though a version of my name is common in Lebanon. Just a basic combo of Americans - Native, slave and Son of the American Revolution.
There are times when people ask when I'm in a bad mood or taken by surprise and I don't want to play the guessing game. This weekend someone asked as a way of flirting with me. I was not wooed. A couple months ago some boys sidled up to me in Times Square to say, "What you mixed with?" I wasn't in the mood and didn't think they should continue to live in this world thinking that was a good opening salvo. "Do I know you?!" I snarled, in a rare moment of righteous New York bitchiness. 
Humans love to categorize. We do it naturally, even compulsively. I know that my parents did not combine into an easily categorized human being but trust me, if you get to know me, you'll find out soon enough what I am. However, if we're passing on the street, just meeting at a party, standing in line at Walgreens or sitting next to each other in a park, I ask that you resist your biological urge to hunt, gather and categorize me.
P.S. If you can't help yourself, here's a quick guide to terms you could use and might want to avoid:
Mixed, bi-racial, person of color - fine by me
Mulatto - reeks of 1975, like honky or afro american
Mutt, redbone, high yellow gal, mariney - jokey, diminutive, borderline (unless you're mixed, too)
Snowflake, light bright (damn near white), Triple H (half and half ho) - generally insulting, very loaded, what some might call "fightin' words."
Halfrican, Leprecoon, Mixie-can, Something Rican, Real Black Irish - to me are all hilarious, but watch yourself; not all mixed people look alike and we certainly don't all feel the same about how we're discussed!

Bad judging

This weekend I met a woman at a party. She is married to a black man. When he introduced me, I had a small moment of judging; a fleeting thought of "Oh, another black guy married to a white woman."
She was cool and so we talked for a while. Some how the fact that I'm in a sorority that is made up predominantly of African American women came up. She asked me which one, I told her (Oo-oop!) and she told me that she is a member of what is sometimes described as a rival sorority. 
I was almost stunned. It's good that people can't see what happens inside out heads. It would have looked like a tornado. Even I, a frequently mistaken for "other" mixed girl, hadn't realized this woman was black. 
I felt myself completely rearranging the story I had created for her, her husband and what we could talk about -- I felt I could be more open, in some ways.
But it was also a moment of real self awareness. I realized how many boxes I had put her in based on her looks and being married to a black man. They weren't all bad or good, just judgements. And definitely unnecessary. It's easy to wish other people wouldn't make assumptions about me. The reality is, I need to take my own advice!

Pick It Out

Most black people know what the term "good hair" means. If you haven't encountered this phrase, you're lucky or live in a very homogenous community. Good hair is not typical black or African hair. It usually is some combination of fine, soft, shiny, long and naturally straight or wavey. I might be missing some elements, but you get the gist. 
I'm sure there is a similar term amongst Asians and Latinos. Any group with tendency towards coarse hair will have at least a few, if not many, amongst them who yearn to have their hair look and feel different. Some would say those people want white hair, but that shows a lack of awareness of the hair of many Native Americans and Middle Eastern people.
I was raised by very, um, practical people. To them, hair covers your head, helps keep you warm in the winter, prevents sunburn in the summer and should either be short and out of the way or long and pulled back (again, out of the way). Having "good hair" meant nothing to them. My mom, who has very fine, bone-straight hair, thought keeping my big, bouncy curls functional was a challenge and a novelty. Solution: home haircuts for 11 years that only varied in how perfectly round they turned out. Result: for most of my elementary school years, strangers told me I was a very cute boy.
My dad, in the 70s, had a mid-length afro and carried a black power pick. Every time I'd get in his car, he'd turn to me and say, "What's going on here?" -- talking to my hair. Before I could protest, he'd attack me with the power pick, mercilessly torturing my tender head and turning my individual curls into a single, bouncy halo of dark brown fluff. In the summer it was hot. In the winter, I couldn't fit a hat over it. Year round, people thought I was a cute boy.
When I was about to enter junior high, I got my first professional cut. Of course, living in Minnesota in the '80s, I chose a Prince/Sheila E-style cut with long curly bangs and the sides and back cropped short. Parents: aghast. Me: happiest mixed kid on the block!
But the parents left their mark. To this day, I rarely do the things that would take advantage of how my genetic pool influenced my hair. I wear my loose curls in a ponytail more times than not. I am too aesthetically lazy to blow it out straight more than three times a year. I've had it an inch long twice in my life and only grown it out to the middle of my back once. It was hot and boring to comb. But I have to admit, no one ever thought I was a boy.

Today, I am ...

This weekend, I'm definitely black. Yes, I'm still mixed, but I'm really just black.
I haven't suddenly decided to accept my heritage (done), I'm not talking or dressing differently (unless you count a pair of gold sandals bought in frenzy of spring shopping) and I haven't gotten a tan. 
I say I'm black this weekend because of how people are interacting with me. This happens sometimes - people treat me in a certain way and, call me paranoid, I can just tell that they have made some assumptions about me. 
There are times when people think I'm Latina. I recognize these times by the slower speed at which people talk to me, the surprise when I don't have an accent, the questions about where my parents are from and were they born there (i.e. which one came over the border, young lady?). On those days, Latinos ask me for directions or try to sell me food in Spanish. Crazy as it sounds, I feel a little guilty on those days - like I'm a bad Mexican for forgetting my mother tongue and the struggles of my people.
Some days I'm so ambiguous, people don't think about what I am and just act like themselves. Sometimes, this means actin' a fool and saying things you wouldn't say in front of a person of color. I like to think of those as teachable moments, when there's time. I know when I'm having one of those days because, invariably, a taxi driver will talk to me about how the blacks can't be trusted and asks why am I going to Harlem. There's nothing quite like a high-speed, 60-block ride uptown arguing about race to get your heart rate up.
But this weekend, like times, I'm black. I'm getting the black folks eye contact and nod on the street, a shoe salesman felt a little too familiar and made jokey comments about white women and shoe shopping and I got followed in a department store. Nothing about me changes, and yet, everything about the way I'm treated changes.
Experiencing being treated like what I'm not is a little interesting, but it also feels like accidental passing, which I'm very against. "You're black" interactions are comfortable because it's what I think of myself as, but it's also a shame that, despite the Obama mantra of change and accepting, we really haven't and really aren't.

Is That What I Look Like?!

I have freckles. Mostly on my face and right leg. I don't think about them much except to put on sunblock so they don't mutate into something health threatening. 
Sometimes people comment on the freckles. Friends who haven't seen me in a while always say "You have more freckles!" when we run into each other. I'm always surprised by this because I forget that they are there.
Yesterday, I saw a woman in the Apple store who looked Asian mixed with black and maybe white. She had freckles...A LOT of freckles. They were so shocking, I almost did a double take. Her freckles were, to put it mildly, noticeable. I just wanted to look, take them in, think about their affect on her looks. I couldn't look back because she'd caught my eye and  smiled at me. I don't know why, did she think we are freckle sisters or does she forget she has them, too? I smiled back. 
As I looked away, I wondered, do my freckles get the same reaction? No wonder people feel compelled to ask me what I am that makes me look this way. I think what they are saying is "What crazy combination of races did THAT?"

International Person of Mystery

Sometimes mixed people look black. Sometimes they look Asian. And sometimes, they look like_________ (insert what you expect to see here).
Many of my mixed friends look like they could almost be anything, except Scandinavian. When we travel internationally, from Europe and North Africa to Australia and South America, people assume we're natives. If you speak the local language well, this can be a fun benefit. If not, it's very confusing for everyone. Sometimes this confusion happens in my own city.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in an Indian neighborhood with my friend JB, who is one of those mixed people whose features favor the black in him, like Barack Obama. We stopped in a store full of books, statues and cooking implements from south Asia. The store was well-manned with several employees, all of whom were clearly, in my opinion, Indian and looked like they were working - dressed for the indoors, making eye contact with people as they came in, etc. Despite this, three separate people approached JB with questions about items for sale. Even in his hat, scarf and coat, they thought he was Indian and worked in the store. 
A month previously, JB had been in Mexico. When being polite and holding a restaurant door open for his girlfriend and then some tourists, he was thanked in Spanish by the tourists. Of course, they thought he Mexican and was working. It's surprising, actually, that they didn't hand him their car keys and tell him to keep the car close!
I like to call this phenomenon the "International Person of Mystery." Remember this when you're out and about - that black guy might actually be half Korean and be able to understand you if you're talking about him, and that Latino girl might actually just be black and white and not speak a word of Spanish!

Gateway Girl?

After my high school boyfriend and I broke up for the last time, he dated white girls. He is black.
One of my college boyfriends appears to be married to a white woman (don't you hate those tiny photos on Facebook that you're stuck with until you friend someone?!). He's also black.
My other primary college boyfriend married a woman who is half Cuban, half Spanish. As he, who is black, says, "In other words, a snobby, white Latina." 
Several of the black men I've been with have teased me about being so fair, about having diverse interests ("That's the white in you" is a timeless favorite) and about having a parent who lives in Colorado (actually, that's the black parent; the white one lives in Idaho!).
And yet, most of these men either settled down with white women or have an ongoing preference for light-skinned black and mixed women. Which makes me say, "What is going on here?!"
Until recently, I wondered if I am a gateway girl. Like marijuana, am I the transition from the familiar and culturally acceptable to something a little whiter, a little edgier, a little more expensive seeming? 
Now, I think it's something else. Maybe two somethings. First, it's not them, it's me! I'm the one who dates these dudes who think being mixed is a joke that they want in on. I'm the one who consistently dates private-school brothas who have very particular expectations around diction, presentation and fashion. While I might not appreciate my role in their eyes, I can't be mad when I'm a willing participant.
Second, it's possible that black men who aren't willing to date beyond the race may be less likely to date someone who looks like me. Maybe I don't go with their persona or maybe they assume a certain frivolity, lack of understanding of the hardships of being black or mixed uppedness (I know, not a word). Or, maybe, they think about having kids that could end up looking like members of a rainbow coalition! Whatever it is, I can live with it until they get to know me.
Lastly, for full disclosure, after dating that series of men who moved on to white and white Latina, I ended up temporarily marrying a white guy but that's a story for another day!

My Family Mixes a Lot

I know a lot of mixed people. Many of them are friends from Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York but many of them are in my immediate family.
Between my mom and dad and their siblings, I have two half brothers and nine first cousins. Really, that's not a lot and not a little. Almost normal. What's not standard issue is that, between the 12 of us, the only one who isn't mixed is my half brother from my mom. 
This is one of those things that I've lived with for most of my life, so I don't think about it often, but, when it comes up, I realize how bizarre my family really is. It is especially stunning when you consider that, according to a recent Time article, in 1970 there were only half a million people living in the US who claimed mixed heritage. Between the two sides of my family, we have definitely done more than our share in helping to raise that number to 6.8 million in 2000!
But now, as I look at my friends, I feel like my family has passed the torch. A good friend, who is black and Creole, is marrying someone of Caribbean and Columbian decent. Another friend is Chinese and German, as is his sister. He recently partnered with a woman who is black and white and his sister now has two children with her husband, who is African American. 
The next generation of mixed people is coming up, creating a new acceptance of different cultures and even more opportunities for people on the street to ask complete strangers, "What are you?"

Jack & Jill

Sometimes people ask me what it is like to have a parent who is white. This is like trying to say what it's like to have two arms or brown hair - it's what I've always known. Maybe a better question is what has it been like for my mother to have a non-white child, especially after she and my father split up. From what I've seen, she's pretty at ease with it: I had a homegrown afro until I was 12; she and my dad made sure I spent time with both sides of my family; and, to this day, she tells me I am smart and beautiful, without caveat or further explanation.
But, I know she struggled with how to make sure I had enough black role models. I guess she didn't want me to base my life on the people in our poor Minneapolis neighborhood - a motley crew of pimps, druggies, jobless and borderline blue collar. 
One year, when I was still really young, as she scanned the greater world for ways to make sure her black daughter didn't grow up confused or a prostitute, she found Jack & Jill. If you haven't heard of it, Jack & Jill is "a family organization that provides cultural, social, civic and recreational activities that stimulate and expand the mind to enhance life." It is also billed as an African-American family organization. Not knowing the undercurrent of what she was getting into, my mom signed us up.
When people talk about how hard it might be to be a white parent of a black kid - like Brad and Angelina with little Zahara - they focus on things like how do you handle coarse hair, ashy skin or other kids teasing them for being different. They do not talk about what it would be like to be a young, white woman who comes from a wealthy family but was cut off because of marrying a black man and then, when trying to provide a black experience for her child is shunned by the black community. And maybe, depending on your own experience, you might not feel much pity for that woman. After all, it was her choice and living the life of a black person in America and the burdens that come with it isn't a choice.
What I can say is that my mother has only told me the story of taking me to Jack & Jill once, but it has stuck with me. When I picture my short, spunky, very white mom walking into this group and having them tell her that Jack & Jill is not for her or her daughter, even if she is HALF black, I just want to cry. Not for me. For my mother, who loved me so much she tried to join a black organization.

When in Doubt, Say No

One day in junior high, while standing in the cafeteria line, a girl from my class opened the conversation by asking me, "Are you mulatto?"
"No!" I answered, with disdain and disgust, not knowing what she was talking about but not wanting to admit to being something weird.
"Oh, ok." 
End of conversation but not the end of me wondering: what in the heck is mulatto?!
It cracks me up to think about what she must have thought after that little chat. Either, oh, you're black. Or, oh, you're white. Or, oh, you're a mess!
Obviously, I now know what she meant, which is good because similar versions of that question come up at least once a quarter. But to me, asking someone if they're mulatto shows a level of ignorance equal to asking a white person if they're a honky or an Asian if they're a Jap. Originally, mulatto meant white mixed with some other stuff, including something Latin. Today, defines mulatto as a person with one black parent and one white and "they are usually very attractive because they are the perfect blend..." And then there's the myth of the tragic mulatto - a mixed person who is lost, mixed up and even suicidal because they hate the black in themselves. 
I am none of these things. There's no Latino grandma in the closet, neither of my parents is just black or just white, and I am not lost. I'm mixed, but not mixed up.
So, if my little school friend were to ambush me with that same question today, while my tone would differ, my answer would be the same.

Why Are You Dirty?

There have been certain events in my life that have made me realize that people really do think in black, white, Asian and Latino. One of those moments took place when I lived in Chicago - a diverse but rather segregated city.
I'm a public transportation girl. So, one day I'm riding the L. It's crowded, but I'm sitting, with people on both sides of me. 
Out of the blue, the man next to me - middle-aged white guy in a business suit - says, "I'm sorry to be rude, but I have to ask - you're well dressed and are carrying a briefcase, so...why are your hands so dirty?"
I quickly looked down, wondering if I had been letting myself go. Nope, just the usual dark olive skin and moderately short but clean fingernails. To figure out what this complete stranger was talking about, I had to put myself in his shoes - see myself from the outside. Not to sound preachy, but this is something most white people have the luxury of never having to do.
Anyway, a second look made me realize that this gentleman had mistaken the pigment in my knuckles for dirt. My faith in humanity was restored by his embarrassment but, to this day, I'm still a little shocked that someone to have the nerve to ask a stranger why they are dirty.

Stuff Mixed People Like

Mixed people like all kinds of stuff. Mostly, we just like Barack Obama. That's our boy!

You Mean, I'm not Puerto Rican?

A good friend of mine from high school, let's call him James, is also mixed. We never talked about our mixed heritages when we were in high school so, based on his looks, I assumed he was some combo of black and white and I left it at that.
Several years after we graduated, James and I ran into each other at a party. When I asked him how it was going he said he was dealing with a lot at the moment. As a sensitive girl with a crush, I asked him what was going on. James tells me that all of his life, he had been told that his dad was a Puerto Rican guy from Chicago. Recently his father had turned up and admitted to being just a regular African-American dude (don't get mad, he really was from Chicago!). Overnight, James went from being half Irish, half Puerto Rican to being half black, half white. It rocked his world.
I told James he should have asked me - I could have told him that from the first day we met! 
Recently, we were talking about this identity flip again. James told me that his dad was part of a generation of black men who decided that they could do better with ladies and life if they weren't black. But, they couldn't pass for white - so they picked something, anything but black, and tried to pass that off. 
James is comfortable with who he really is. I hope his father, and other men like him, can be, too.

Whoa is me

If you ever hear me complaining about the tribulations of being light complected, please stop me. Of course, it isn't all picnics and winning lottery tickets, but it could be worse. 
Last year, Ebony ran a point/counter-point piece on which was more difficult, being a light-skinned person or someone with a dark complexion. I have to admit, I rolled my eyes at the complaints of the light-skinned woman: being judged, feeling left out, being excluded and being hit on, if I remember correctly. 
These are not easy things to experience. I know the annoyance of having strangers ask "What are you?", but so does my friend who is black but happens to look half Indian. And yes, both white and black people tend to make snap judgements about me (we'll save those for another day), but it would be the same if I was extremely overweight or tall or rocked a mohawk. 
No matter what your background, being confident in yourself, kind to others, composed under duress and able to laugh at silly stuff will get you through much of life. These skills, combined with being proud of all that you are, can be particularly useful when you're different from the people around you. 
Besides, light-skinned people rarely are faced with profiling by police that can lead to anything from a random traffic stop to spending a lifetime in prison because all black people look alike to some non-blacks. I was going to go on about how we can catch a taxi in the middle of the night or don't get followed by security in department stores, but really, need I say more?!