As I wrote in a previous post, my sexual orientation has been the subject of confusion and speculation from time to time. After writing that post, I began thinking about my racial ambiguity, something that has worked in my favor in more than one way. I’ve been asked about my racial makeup more times than I can count or remember. It started when I was in high school, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was called “oreo,” “high yellow,” or “pug nose” by black boys and girls. I didn’t know those were considered insults because I, like most white people, had no concept of race when I was younger. White boys and girls insulted a different aspect of my appearance, my large size, with charming names such as “grape ape” and “jolly green giant,” while their fathers commented on the size of “the bumps on my chest” when I was as young as 11.
I found out about ten years ago that my mother’s mother’s family escaped eastern Europe during the Russian pograms in the early 1900s, coming to the US in the late teens, early 20s. Her maternal grandfather took the name “Lapp” when he came through Ellis Island, and thoroughly buried the family’s Jewish heritage once he was settled. The story of the immigration is unclear, but we know the younger children, including my mother’s mother, knew nothing of their family’s history. They became staunchly Lutheran, I think, even though the rumor is that my great-grandfather and his family had been practicing Jews before they immigrated.
The history of my biological paternity is one of our family skeletons, and not entirely my story to tell. I’ll leave it in the closet except to say that he would not be considered “white” as western Europeans define “white.” Between these two racial streams, I’ve inherited an emphatically ambiguous appearance. I could be from almost any dark-haired, dark-eyed group of people. Not all of them, but many, and I’ve been asked, mainly by white people, about my ethnicity for years and years. I hate being asked because while it isn’t a *secret*, the story behind it is a personal and painful family story and one I don’t often share.
In the last few years, when asked, my answer is always that I’m white. I was raised white, I pass for white, I reap the benefits of passing for white, and I think like a white person. So I identify as white. I ignore the implied “What’s your racial makeup?” question, because it’s none of their goddamm business. People of color, on the other hand, seem to assume I’m mixed and rarely ask. If I’m out dancing, brown and black men tend to ask “where are you from?” which I interpret as curiosity about my ethnic/racial makeup, or maybe just my country of origin. I’m always kind of stumped (and irritated) because saying “North Carolina” or “Portland” doesn’t seem quite right. Sometimes I answer “the US,” but all those answers feel awkward, like I’m not really answering the question. Should I tell them “I’m a white girl, I just look like a POC?”
It is a strange feeling to be asked about my background, and experience that piece of racism, when I’ve so obviously benefited from my white speech and privilege otherwise. I remember being invited to go to a dinner party with a black friend of mine. There were black and brown people there, but the hostess was white. We were all settled, served, and enjoying the food when she started quizzing me about my ethnicity. She was a total stranger to me, and I was speechless that she thought it was okay to ask me about such a personal thing, publicly, in front of other strangers. I tried to politely redirect her, and avoid her question, but she was persistent. I don’t remember what I finally said, but I remember my friend was incensed on my behalf, he may have been the one who stopped the conversation.
I didn’t know until much later that her assumption that it was okay to ask about my “background” was a display of white privilege. There’s a lot of ignorance packed into what seems like an innocent question, a question white people almost never ask other people they assume are white. I have been asked so many times in my life that I have always accepted it was normal and okay for people to ask. I realized only recently that people ask because they make assumptions about me based on my ethnically ambiguous physical appearance. I talk like a middle class white person, but my appearance triggers some “she’s not white” radar, so they attempt to uncover something they can use to label me, something that will provide a clue, or a quicker understanding of who I am.
To clarify – I have not been the recipient of racism in the same way a person who can’t pass for white has been. The encounters I’ve had were more irritating than degrading or dangerous, and for that I’m grateful. I’m writing this because I’ve been thinking a lot about the shortcuts we take in trying to get to know each other. I understand that we have to label in order to somehow organize the massive amounts of information we absorb. Humans have labeled as a way of making meaning for as long as we’ve been conscious – it’s instinctive and helpful in many ways.
But we are starting to see and hear and experience the damage that comes from slapping labels onto everything and everyone. We are also starting to resist being labeled by others – we want more and more to define ourselves, to explore our uniqueness and the elements that have combined to create our own individual selves. Being labeled becomes burdensome and irritating, even when we know there is no ill intent, just someone trying to wade through a pile of data.
My ethnic ambiguity is part of the richer, deeper story of me, and there are no shortcuts to learning that tale.