Multiple Choice

I do not know how many times in my life I have been asked “what are you?” Even when I was a kid, my answers rarely satisfied the questioner. I might say that I was “me.” Or “human.” As I got older, I tended to say “a carbon based, bipedal, terrestrial lifeform.” Other answers have included (but are certainly not limited to,) “overeducated,” “exhausted,” “I’m Batman,” “I yam what I yam,” and “the One and Owenly.”

But these events were all just the surface tension over a deeper pond. It all relates to the idea that a person can, and in fact should, be categorized. That without sorting a person into boxes, identity cannot be ascertained.

I do not automatically agree.

I do not see anything inherently wrong with the idea. Many people identify strongly with particular groups. I suspect that most do. I do not.

I suppose, that like many of the things I have been told are weird about it, this all stems from my childhood. I did not grow up in any particular state. I did not grow up with any particular community of people. The only constant was my nuclear family. None of us fit any of the types in the media. We were just who were were.

OK, yes. My father is very obviously black. But he does not use slang. He always dresses for success. He is an electrical engineer and a businessman. He was nothing like the black men I would see on TV or in the movies.

My mother? My mother looks like she could have been sisters with Maria from Sesame Street or Claire Huxtable from the Cosby Show. She does occasionally slip into Spanish and does cook delicious Mexican food, but she has no accent (beyond a slight South-eastern Ohio/South-western Indiana one) and she does not seem to self-identify with any group other than african american – despite the fact that we know for a fact that her side of the family is also Irish, Cherokee, and Mexican. But in her case, societal pressure in her childhood told her that none of the other things matter. She was just Black.

That has always annoyed and disturbed me. It seems so disrespectful to the rest of our heritage. I love the fact that on my mother’s side Grandma was Black, Irish, Welsh, Scot, and Breton. I am proud of the fact that Grampa (mom’s father) was Black, Cherokee, and (possibly) Mexican.

Sadly, I do not know much about my father’s side of the family. There does seem to be some Irish there as well. And possibly some Lakota. More research must be done.

But the pressure to simplify is strong. And lest there be any confusion, it is not merely from white people, whatever that term means. It is not as if white were universally defined … but I digress.  More than once, I have heard “light skinned blacks” who either do not self identify as black, or who add in other qualifications confronted as if they were putting on airs or denying their own blackness.  The feeling seems to be that any skin tone beyond some hypothetical “whiteness” and with any sort of dark, curly hair is automatically black. It automatically overpowers any other genetic trait, heritage, or social group.

So, let me state for the record what is known (and/or strongly suspected in some cases) from my makeup. My family contains:

  • Breton
  • Cherokee
  • Irish
  • Lakota (possibly)
  • Malian
  • Mexican (or possibly Puerto Rican)
  • Scottish
  • Welsh

I have seen, talked to, grown up with relatives who lean more towards some parts of that than others. Images from old photographs which show the patchwork of family history. And yet, I am supposed to ignore them? Forget them? Pretend that they are not a part of me?

At different times in my life, I would have self identified differently between the various parts of my family. But I have never felt that I was of any one group other than American.

The moving has especially helped with that. I remember living in an area without many “black” people, but with lots of people from Mexico. The few black people around were much darker than I and we just didn’t click. There was no enmity; we just were not tight. So I was basically considered one of the Latinos.

In another state, maybe I was with a group of mostly white kids. Or perhaps I was with the nerds (who were of every race.) Or the theater geeks. Or the marching band. It varied. I hung out with people who accepted me.

So when someone makes generalizing statements about a group and I chime in with my perspective, it gets frustrating when I am told, “you are not of that group. You get no say” when I have had experience as part of that group, both genetically and socially. I do identify with them.

I can see people’s point. Really. But, it feels so simplistic.

I guess that I will stick with what I was saying before. I’m just me. Do not try to box me in to anything else.

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