What Are You?

Walking to my gate, I pass an African-American male. We nod in acknowledgement of one another and continue on our ways.  Arriving at my gate I find a seat and begin to situate my carry-on and work bag.  I look up and catch the gaze of a White female staring at me.  As our eyes meet, she hurriedly looks away.  After sitting for several minutes, I approach the gate with a question about my boarding pass.  Two gate agents, both African-American females, are sitting behind the counter and are in the midst of conversation. I stand and wait, remaining unacknowledged.  After a moment, a White male comes and stands in line behind me.  The two women promptly stop their conversation and come to help me, and then the White male behind me.  As I return to my seat with my boarding pass question answered and new questions running through my mind, an Asian male, age about 60, looks at me with a wondering glance and then returns to his reading.

From my earliest recollection, my race has been salient. I was recently asked, “Leidene, who are you in your humanity, beyond race?”  As I contemplated the question, I realized that I have no idea.  For me, there is no “me” without race.  My race is inextricably linked to who I am.  And some ask, isn’t it because you look for it, you expect it to be that way?  It’s clear to me that those who ask such questions haven’t lived race as I have and don’t live race as I do. As a result they attempt to construct their understanding of my racial experiences without my racial experiences, but rather with their own. This seldom works. 

So, back to my earliest recollection of race. I’m in kindergarten, and a friend asks me, “What are you?”  I have no idea but am excited about the question and even more so about getting an answer to share with my friend.  Who in my 5 year old world knows everything about me?  My mom!  My Dad too, but he works much later than Mom so soon after my Mom gets home from work, I run to her asking, “Mom, what am I?”  My Chinese-American mother (who was born and raised in Hawai’i) who married my father who is African-American and who was initially disowned for marrying my father because he is Black said, “You’re Black and Chinese.”  I accepted her answer with excitement and couldn’t wait to let my friend know first thing tomorrow.  When I saw my friend the next day, I ran to her and said, “I’m Black and Chinese,” feeling very good about myself now having an answer to my friend’s question.  She said, “Cool,” and we kept singing and dancing and doing the things that kindergartners do.  Kids are just curious.  They don’t emerge from their mother’s womb with these socially constructed understandings.  As others asked me this same question, I started to feel really special and I was really excited that I now had an answer for them.  I’m Black and Chinese.  Then someone else would ask.  I’d respond, “I’m Black and Chinese.”  Someone else would ask.  I’d respond, “I’m Black and Chinese.”  What initially created in me a sense of specialness and excitement, turned into a sense of frustration and “otherness” by the 73rd time somebody asked me, “What are you?”  I started to internalize “otherness” as defined by psychologists recognizing if we were the same, you wouldn’t be asking me what I am all the time.  Clearly, I was different.

By the time I reached the upper grade levels of elementary school some of my girl classmates would say with an attitude, “You think you cute,” or “You conceited,” and I’m thinking – actually I’m just here minding my business — but it was clear they were not pleased with me or my presence.  And it seemed to have something to do with my skin being light and me having “good hair.” 

From such regularly occurring experiences, I learned that what I look like means something — sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it can land me on the receiving end of hostility just for being present.  Taking all this in, I share with my Mom one day that I think some of the girls at school don’t like me.  My Mom readily let me know that wasn’t true, which I internalized as me possibly though improbably misunderstanding my classmates and/or my Mom being unable to help me with what I was experiencing.  My Chinese-American mother was not equipped to help me understand the dynamics of race within the Black community.  

So, I learned to get along with my classmates.  I became very likeable. I played down what I looked like and worked to fit in.  When the girls at school had cornrows with beads at the ends, I got them too.  When gold hoop earrings with your name on them and nameplate leather belts were in, I got those too.  They couldn’t tell me I didn’t belong here.  Clearly, I did. 

Onto college.  One of my closest college friends and I were talking about growing up, what it was like, et cetera, and after I shared with her some of what I did to fit in, she said, “Oh, that’s why you talk like that.”  I thought, “Talk like what?”  She meant, “Talk ‘Black.’” Until that moment I hadn’t consciously thought about how or why I talk the way I do.  Because she looked African-American, a need to talk a certain way didn’t compute, because she was Black and that was an accepted, undisputed, and unquestioned truth.  Her dark skin granted her automatic acceptance within her racial community.  Who I am, however, was questioned regularly until I learned to pre-emptively quell such examination with the way I spoke, dressed, or did my hair.

In doing race work professionally, I’ve learned that people who look like me are sometimes referred to as “racially ambiguous.”  You look at me and don’t necessarily know what my race is. Moreover, “what I am” according to others, changes with geography as people construct who I am based on their own exposure and experiences.  In Phoenix, where I lived for eight years I was a Chicana por la causa.  Si se puede!  And I learned there’s a difference between being Chicana, Mexicana, Mexican-American or Mexican.  In Harlem, I’m Puerto Rican or Dominican.  In my mother’s home state of Hawai’i, I’m local or kama’aina.  Then there are those who refer to me as mixed or biracial.  I contemplated for a while this latter description until I recognized that the biracial category was established as increasing numbers of White people had children with People of Color and wanted their children to be classified as both or let me say they didn’t want them declassified only as of color.  When I was growing up if you had one drop of color in you, you were Black, not White and this attitude was even stronger for folks who were born before I was.  Biracial was not an option for me.

My racial identity – what I am – continues to be brought to my attention either directly or indirectly just about daily.  Such a focus from others on what I look like prompts an involuntary, personal recognition of my race accompanied by a sense of racial “otherness.”  This circumstance has led me to seek and secure communities of acceptance like my sorority and other organizations for Black women, where what I am, racially speaking, is a given rather than a question.

When the African American Brotha and I exchange nods, this reminds me that I do belong. When the White woman stares at me in the airport, she reminds me that I am often a source of curiosity to be pondered and figured out.  When my Black sisters have me wait in a manner they don’t require of the White male, I wonder if they’ve internalized their own lack of importance and reflect that in how they have treated me.  Finally, when the Asian male possibly recognizes a part of himself in me but not quite – each of these recurring moments remind me of “What am I” and all that goes into my knowing how to answer that question.  I wonder how many of us desire a racial place to belong – a place to simply be without having to answer the questions, what are you and why are you here?

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