The tragedy of Trayvon Martin has been a reminder of the role race continues to play in American society. After reading President Obama’s remarks on the subject, I found myself considering the extent to which race has controlled our national history, and continues to impact our modern communities and our individual identities. If I’m honest, I can’t ignore the impact of race relations on my personal interactions and on the dynamics of my community. While we can’t rewrite American history, we can try to move forward in an honest, constructive way. Are we doing everything we can?
I remember the exact moment when I became aware that people come in different colors. It happened on a rainy morning in 1992-93 when my kindergarten class was busily engaged in a coloring project. I sat next to my friend, Micah, as we colored pictures of our families. “Will you pass me the crayon for skin?” I asked, not knowing the word for tan or peach. Micah handed me a dark brown crayon. It matched her skin perfectly.
I took the crayon in my hand, and realized as I held it that the color was very different from my skin. Then, I looked at Micah. It seemed odd to me, at that moment, that I had never noticed the difference before. “No, the one that’s like my skin,” I said. Micah fished through the crayon bucket and handed me a color called “apricot,” a word I didn’t know how to say.
When I took the crayon from her, I looked at our hands as they met. She must have been interested as well, because we held our hands still, side by side for a moment. When we had finished staring, we both looked up shyly and giggled, shrugged, and went back to coloring our pictures.
The remarkable thing was that this discovery was interesting for a moment, but of no real importance. We hadn’t yet been taught by dominant culture to attach any significance to skin color. It wasn’t any great mystery. It was a moment of giggly curiosity which was abandoned seconds later in favor of something more interesting.
This memory is my strongest weapon against the regressive, willful ignorance that permeates our society. When I encounter the unfounded fear and ugliness that create situations like the Trayvon Martin shooting, I try to remember that this is learned. I try to remember that once, skin color was less interesting than crayons, and we chose to pay it less attention.
Please Check Only One
Years later, I began to see how complicated the issue of ethnic background is in America. I was helping my mother fill in the blanks on a form. It could have been a school enrollment form, or something like that. In the race/ethnicity section, I was instructed to “Please check only one.”
“Mama, I don’t know which box,” I said.
“Just put ‘Caucasian,'” she answered.
“But which one’s the box for Indian?”
“That is the one here that says Native American/Pacific Islander, but we’re mostly white.”
“Why?” I wondered.
“Because your relatives are white and Indian, but more white. And your skin is light.”
“So I’m both?”
“Yes, you are both, just not on the form. On the form we can only put one, so just put ‘Caucasian.'”
“Does Caucasian mean white?”
“Why don’t they just say ‘white?'”
As I filled in the box with a check mark, I felt vaguely curious as to why a person could be more than one thing, but could only check one box.
Today, most forms instruct us to “Please check all that apply.” It seems that many of us don’t fit comfortably into one category. We now recognize that we have mixed and married and given birth to children who defy simple categorization. Many of us check two, three, or four boxes.
Given the reality that racial purity is truly a thing of the past, some more interesting questions have been knocking around my head for a while. Why must we check any box at all? Where does our obsession with racial classification come from? More to the point, is this a constructive practice or does it continue to reinforce divisions that are becoming less and less grounded in reality? When it comes down to it, why does the government, or an employer, or an educational establishment, or anyone else need to know what color my skin is, or who my ancestors were anyway?
What Are You?
These questions came to the fore at a recent business dinner.
“What are you?” asked Mr. Dickerson, setting his fork on his plate and staring at me intently.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, unsure of the meaning of his unexpected question. It had been an odd interruption to the business conversation we had engaged in previously.
“I mean, what is your ethnic heritage?” He continued to stare expectantly. “I’ve been trying to figure it out.”
I looked around the table. The others looked expectant now as well. My throat tightened. I wasn’t ashamed, but I was on the spot and beginning to panic. This wasn’t an easy question to answer.
“It’s Cherokee, isn’t it, Jessica?” Michelle smiled encouragingly. She knew the answer that Mr. Dickerson was interested in.
“Yes,” I said, “among other things.”
“Ah!” Mr. Dickerson said, triumphantly. “I knew there was something, but I might have guessed something Middle-eastern. Cherokee. How ’bout that?” He picked up his fork once more and continued to eat.
I smiled gratefully at Michelle. She had been a terrific interpreter. I had panicked, not because I didn’t know my ethnic background, but because I honestly didn’t know how that background translated into a modern identity. Michelle, however, knew that it didn’t really matter what was technically accurate to Mr. Dickerson. He didn’t really want to know “What I was.” He wanted to know why I looked different than him.
The truth is, “What are you?” is something of a loaded question to someone in my situation. My ancestors were mostly English, Irish, Cherokee, and Plains Indian, but I am not fully any of those things.
I do have some Caucasian physical traits, most notably, fair skin. I also have several Native American physical traits, the traits to which Mr. Dickerson was alluding when he said, “I knew there was something.” He meant something other than white. He meant my Iroquoian facial structure, black eyes, fine hair, and athletic build. Oddly, I look “Indian” to my Caucasian friends, and “white” to my Native American friends, which occasionally leads to discomfort in both camps. Not surprising given the historical landscape.
When it comes down to it, I don’t feel that I am fully Caucasian or Native American. Despite my mother’s assertion that I am “both,” I actually think I am neither. Certainly there is cultural familiarity in both worlds (which is much more deeply important than race), but the lack of concrete ethnic identity creates dissimilarity between people of mixed lineage like myself and the definite members of any group to which we might belong. We might be accepted, even welcome, but we are always the “other.” When Mr. Dickerson asked “What are you?” I initially froze because I honestly didn’t know what the answer was.
And…also because I felt self-conscious. I knew that Mr. Dickerson was only curious, but I knew that if he had noticed my “different-ness,” so had everyone else. Probably all along.
I Prefer Not to Answer
I have become a big fan of the “Prefer Not to Answer” box. While this type of deflection is rarely successful in social settings like the one described above, I can at least dodge the panicked moment of indecision each time I complete the census, apply for a job, apply for an educational opportunity, go to the dentist, or fill out an online survey. With the “Prefer Not to Answer” option, I can decide not to drive myself crazy trying to answer a multiple choice question where the correct answer isn’t one of the choices. I can, for a time, move past our societal obsession with shoving square pegs into mostly imaginary round holes.
The sad fact is, these labels no longer fit for many people, but we still cling to them. A high school friend of mine once said it best. She said, “I’m not African-American. I wasn’t born in Africa. I’ve never been to Africa. I’m American.” In the same way, I’m not European-American or Caucasian. I’ve never been to Europe or the Caucasus. Almost nobody on either side of my family has lived anywhere except North American for nearly 400 years. Some of them were here for thousands of years before that. I’m American. The only difference is, she’s an American with dark skin and I’m an American with light skin, and we’re stuck with labels designed to make us sound far away from each other.
As long as we remain intent on dividing ourselves into groups like these, more and more of us will continue to be wrong answers in our own homeland. More to the point, as long as we’re preoccupied with which subgroup “most closely describes” us, the hard work of deciding what it means to be American cannot really begin. Which values do we have in common? Which cultural elements will we embrace as one people? What sort of nation do we want to create together? Will we ever be able to be honest about our own history? What cultural legacy will we leave for our children? We must answer these questions together, which is the best reason of all to check the “prefer not to answer” box.
And let’s get real. Why does my dentist need this information? For that matter, why does the government? In fact, why does any random stranger (with the exception of my doctor) need to know what color I am or where my family came from? He doesn’t. He doesn’t have a right to know this any more than he has a right to know my height, weight, hair color, eye color, or bra size. I’m an American, which is all anyone needs to know. I am a product of interracial mixing that has occurred over several hundred years. My very existence proves that on several occasions, my ancestors believed that loving each other and making a child was more important than what color they were. It may not have been very different from the moment when Micah and I discovered that coloring continued to be more interesting than fixating on our skin. To honor my ancestors’ choices and my own reality, I prefer not to answer.
To be clear, I’m suggesting that race doesn’t matter. Culture, however, matters very much. Race is not culture. Far from implying that we should limit our distinct cultural elements, I’m actually suggesting that we open ourselves to increased possibilities. The foods we eat, the ways we dance, the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the ways we encounter God, all of these enhance our lives immeasurably. I’m suggesting that ultimately, we stop limiting ourselves to race-supported culture and embrace any and all desirable cultural practices. I hope that some day, my children will grow up hearing the story of Grandmother Spider alongside the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and many others besides. I hope they speak twelve languages, dance new dances, and encounter divinity wherever they happen to find it, and I hope they never say, “Why should I learn that? Why should I care? I’m not (insert racial classification here.)”
Our nation is still young. We may not know exactly what it means to be American yet, but the only way to find out is to spend some time exploring our similarities and learning about one another instead of emphasizing the tiny ways we are different each and every time we fill out an application, get our teeth cleaned, or attend a dinner party. Maybe this is a way we begin to move past ignorance and fear and avoid future Trayvon Martins.