Today I am Latina

Based on outside feedback, this week I'm Latina. Based on genetics, I am not. Confused? You're not alone.

In the past I've talked about group think and the random shifts in how I am perceived, racially. Some days, I'm Black. On those days, I get acknowledging nods from black people on the street. Black people that I interact with, who are strangers, talk to me like we're old friends.

The "Black days" are comfortable because, in large part, that's what I am. But it doesn't matter what I think I am because, when I first meet someone, they interact with me based on what THEY think I am. And for quite a while, everyone agreed I was Black, inside and out.

Lately, I've had to work harder to establish myself as Black. No big struggles, just notable.

This week, I learned why. Apparently, I'm shifting to being Latina. Three proof points:

First, I met a man at the gym. He's from Italy. Cool, I love Italy. He said, "But you're Spanish, right?" Me, "No." Him, "But your name is Serena (it isn't) and you have some Spanish in your face."

Aside from boggling my name and making it sound like I have paella stuck to my cheeks, what does this mean? Thanks to being a mix of European, Native American and African stock, almost any one of my features might be Spanish but they could also be anything else. I chalked it up to my new friend being from Italy and kept moving.

Second, I was talking to my favorite clerk at the grocery store. He asked me what I do for living and I told him I write children's books. "Wow," he says. "Are they bilingual?" Me, "Uh, no, why?" Him, "Oh, they aren't in English and Spanish?" Me, (nervous laughter) "No, I don't speak Spanish." Him, (nervous laughter) "Oh...Ok...Well, it's cool that you're a writer."

This man has been talking to me for two years. I've never spoken Spanish to him and I have a Midwestern accent. I live in a neighborhood that is 80% White and about 20% Asian. I can understand him not thinking I'm the only local Black person, but why go Hispanic? There's no obvious answer. So I chalk it up to group think and the phase of the moon.

Except, THIRD, Yahoo! fed up this M&M ad in Spanish for me. I haven't done anything on Yahoo! to indicate an ability to speak Spanish. So, despite behavior to the contrary, right now, even my technology thinks I'm Latina. It's not bad, but it is weird.

No lesson learned. Just the life of a mixed chick in the U.S. Off to enjoy another day of surprising people with my secret blackness.

Exotic = You Don't Belong

I've been avoiding Trayvon Martin related news, blogs and Facebook posts. The story breaks my heart wide open. Letting in other people's pain is almost more than I can take. Today, I thought five days of silence was enough. That I could handle a little input. That it might help me grow.

Instead, I'm crushed. Laid flat. Scared.

I know that it is unlikely that I will be followed and shot dead for looking threatening in America. I'm too old, too thin, too female and too racially ambiguous.

However, I have been turned into an outsider. And, when you're an outsider, you don't belong. And people who don't belong - from illegal aliens to Trayvon - don't get the same protections as the people who are inside, determining who is in and who gets left out.

This scab was picked today as I read a post from Questlove. His quick thought on being exotic rings true: "All the time I'm in scenarios in which primitive, exotic-looking me (6'2", 300 pounds, uncivilized afro for starters) finds himself in places that people that look like me aren't normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct?

We all have to be somewhere on Earth. We all deserve to be where ever we want to be on this Earth. I believe that Quest is putting his tongue squarely in his cheek when he describes himself as exotic. I hope that anyone who reads that sees that too. I mean, what's so exotic about 6'2"? My White brother is that tall and, trust me, he has never been called exotic. 300 pounds exotic? In our ever-fattening nation, that's become almost average. That leaves the uncivilized afro. If you agree that Quest is exotic looking, but are willing to agree that his height and weight aren't all that remarkable, than you are agreeing that Black hair that refuses to meet a certain standard of length and shape is bizarre, outlier, worth investigating, doesn't belong.

Questlove is a famous "exotic," so he gets recognized and people want his rare star to be closer to them. He gets pulled off the shelf where we stash papayas and pygmies and brought behind the velvet rope.

Trayvon Martin was too exotic for George Zimmerman's world. He didn't belong. He needed to be watched, followed, confronted, killed. He couldn't be "somewhere on Earth" as far as George was concerned.

If you're an insider (in America, this means White but, insub groups it can mean "looking like everyone else in this community," be they White, Black or Latino), how willing are you to try being an outside for an hour? A day? A lifetime? Can you handle feeling, at best, like you don't belong and at worst, despised and feared and in danger?

Still unsure if this story applies to you? Try this: go to a predominantly Black neighborhood and walk down the street in broad daylight. Feeling comfy? Ok, good. Now, pick a moderately crowded hair salon or barber (I say moderately crowded because it's a sign of skills but you won't have to wait ALL day). Go in and ask for a hair cut. If you can stick it out, you will leave with a sharp hairdo and a strong sense of what it is like to be the only person in the room who looks like you.

Maybe you'll get stared at. Don't worry, a hard look hasn't killed any of us so far. Maybe you'll be laughed at. Get over it and get your cut. Pay attention. Are you afraid? Does the sound of the razor or scissor near your ear send you off on a nightmare fantasy of having your throat slit. Are you lonely? Do you watch the door, hoping another person who looks like you, even if it's Joe Serial Killer, will come in the door? Savor this rare moment and don't worry. It isn't hard to find "your place" again in America. It just might feel a little different when you get back there.

Being Mixed Sucks

I say that being mixed is no big deal. I should say, I wish it was no big deal because, in reality, it can be a blessing, a pain, an agony, a tearing of the mind and/or soul.

I'm reading "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to just about anywhere else. It focuses on three people, none of whom are significantly mixed, but also tells the story of a mixed family that crushed me. Here's what happened:

A family of mixed people is driving out of the South to California. The people in the car include a grandfather, grandmother, mother and her three children. All of them are very fair skinned with wavy hair except the youngest grandson. He's brown.

There are almost no hotels along the way that take "Colored" people. The grandfather - the only one who drives - is getting tired. He can't drive any more. They stop at a hotel and, according to the story, he self identified as Black and tried to get them a room. No, he is told. No darkies allowed.

They go to the next hotel. This time, he doesn't identify. He just asks if they have a room. Sure, they say, here's your room key. Bring your family in.

Great, except for that pesky brown grandson. They cover him in blankets and carry him in "like a bag of groceries." According to his sister, who told the story, the boy was emotionally scarred by that one event and troubled from that day forward.

Here's what I think: that family often tried to pass or wished out loud that they could pass but couldn't because of this little boy. I think they weren't quiet about it being his "fault" that their lives were harder than needed. I know how that generation was. They were not worried about hurting their kids' feelings. Unlike today's parenting mantra, not everyone was a winner. So it wasn't that one moment during their migration or the cursed South that wrecked this boy. It was his family, who made him feel like a bag of groceries.

Families aren't much different today. Sure, very few people try to pass. Being light skinned or ambiguous is becoming enough to get broadly accepted. So, there's no need to hide the brown son. But how we treat the brown son hasn't changed enough. I have a close acquaintance who has two biracial sons. One is light-skinned with wavy hair. He was allowed to grow it long and now wears it in "cool" corn rows. The other son is brown skinned, has full lips and tight, curly hair. He doesn't look mixed. He looks Black. And, according to his mother, he is the less good looking one.

She said this to me and I know that, across America, other parents are saying or thinking the same thing about their children. That doesn't mean they don't love them. My acquaintance loves both of her sons and also is very vocal about the fact that the brown one is smarter and will probably end up being taller. And thankfully he wasn't around at the time. But the way she said it, like it was fact, makes me believe that it is common talk around their house. So, here he is, going through the most awkward age - 13 with braces, yikes! - and his family has "agreed" that he's not good looking. His 17-year-old, light-skinned brother with his straight teeth (he already had his braces) and long, soft hair is the handsome one.

And this is when being mixed sucks. When everyone says "mixed babies are so cute," they aren't talking about the ones who come out looking White, Asian or Black. They are talking about the ones who have the perfect blend of two groups' characteristics. If you don't have that, you're not as cute. And so, before you're fully formed, it's already been decided. You are less than your siblings. You are less than other mixed people. You don't fit in with a group that is already small and usually without community. And, if you're a color that continues to be discriminated against, you're less than people who you may, actually, be greater than. You're stuffed under the blanket for the rest of your life.

Heartbreak in 2013.