'Where Are You Really From?': My Struggle Against Race Labeling
This is a question that I have heard nearly every day of my life for the past 20 years.
I first heard it in elementary school, when one particular little boy couldn't understand why I was the only little girl on the playground with skin that was lighter than one half of my class but darker than the other half. At first, I wasn't bothered. In fact, it gave me an advantage that none of my other friends had: mystery. People like mystery. People want to be friends with mystery. It's as if the color of my skin suddenly made me an exotic superstar with a past that everyone wanted to know, but I alone had the power to choose who to tell - and what to tell them.
And so I lied. All throughout my childhood.
Some days I was from an aristocratic family from Africa/Britain. Other days, I was the daughter of a Bollywood star. Some days I was Hispanic, while other days I chose to be Native American. My ambiguous look and color of my skin gave me the power to be anything I wanted to be, and the last thing that I wanted to be was who I actually was.
You see, growing up Cajun in the South meant that I had African-American blood with a whole lot of other cultures and races mixed in. But society told me that that wasn't enough. That didn't hold people's interest; that was boring. That didn't fit into a label. In fact, most people didn't even believe me when I told the truth. I didn't have a Matthew Mcconaughey drawl, but I also didn't sound like a news anchor from Michigan. I had a slight Cajun accent even though I spoke standard English, so my race must be exotic ("Seriously though, where are you really from?"). Being me, being American wasn't enough. There had to be an explanation.
This is how I learned how important labels are to American society. If you have African American blood in you, just say you're "black," if you're have Native American or Caucasian blood, you claim that. If you have a mixture of all of the above, then just say "mixed." Society strives to make you fit in, to put a label on you, because labels make people comfortable. People aren't intimidated by labels. People can understand labels. And so people understood the tall tales that I told about my background because they gave me a label, no matter how ridiculous the stories actually were.
But now, even when I speak proper English and sound "too white" according to some people, or if I'm out in the sun too long and people comment about how dark I got ("You actually look black!"), or when I'm just being myself and someone stops and asks where I'm from, where I'm really from, I'm not threatened. Yes, it's annoying. Yes, it's sad. Yes, it's completely inappropriate, but I'm not threatened.
You see, I'm not the same insecure little girl that I was all those years ago. I've grown up. I've learned that it's not important for society to love me, to accept me, to understand me. I have to do that for myself. I understand the importance of my ancestry and all of the good, bad, love, sweat, blood, tears and laughter that courses through my veins every time I step out of my front door.
If people want to label me, if people want to know who I am, if people ask me that same ridiculous question for the millionth time, I go ahead and tell them the truth. I'm Black. I'm White. I'm Cajun. I'm Creole. I write. I read. I laugh. I cry. I eat. I sleep. I drink way too much coffee, and I get silly after 9 p.m. I sing too loud and dance like it's nobody's business when my favorite song comes on the radio. I love the people in my life to pieces. I am an American. That's what I tell them, because that is exactly who I am. And who I am is more than enough.