Monday, June 16, 2008

Where Are You From? Exactly.

A few (maybe a lot) of things have ticked me off over the years but none as folks asking me ridiculous questions and making assumptions about my heritage. You see I have the fortune of having African parents. I use the term "fortune" loosely; I would not change my parents for anything - they have provided me a gift of seeing different parts of the world and to be clear of who I choose to be; that experience is one I will forever cherish.

But on the other hand, sometimes I've wondered how would it have looked like if I've just been what some folks consider a normal black person who's ancestry cannot be traced for a hundred generations. That way I wouldn't be subjected to the ridiculous questions, the assumption of being so different a la exotic. Gosh! I feel for Barack Obama - the brother had to prove his birth certificate recently. Being raised in a multi-cultural family have left me with various questions, made me aware of folks stereotypical assumptions, and sharpened my wit in the process.

I would share a few of those generalized albeit ignorant statements I've heard over my short life: "Is your name Asian?" Or the name becomes Spanish with folks assuming the "j" sound in my first name is silent. "You've spent time in Africa but you speak English so well?" And don't get me started when folks spoke very slowly when I was a teenager and young adult thinking I wasn't fluent in English after I was introduced.

Forget English, I thought I've heard everything until in a former workplace about a couple of years ago, a White lady started speaking French when the receptionist introduced her to me when I came into the lobby. So now my name is no longer perceived as Asian, Spanish, but French. How did I respond? I smiled and told her I haven't taken French since the nineth grade so the language is quite rusty; English would be just fine. The look on her face was priceless and the receptionist had to hold the laughter and her thoughts till the said White lady left the lobby.

"You must be lucky to be in America. (I got that a few months ago also in the workplace - Hel-lo I was born in America, you dope)." Okay I didn't call the guy a "dope," it would have gone against my home training, but I was thinking about it. That particular statement came after the person asked what kind of name was my name.

The most ignorant of them all is still a statement from my college campus over eight years ago while I waited in the shuttle bus to go to another campus: "You're light-skinded (looking at me up and down), I thought everybody from Africa is like Amistad." Ok, that one left me tongue-tied for some seconds and dumbfounded before I told this black woman bus driver, "there are White Africans" just to give her the same shock she just gave me.

Perhaps that experience might be the reason I don't wear shorts and sleeveless tops except during the dog days of summer in the already hot and humid Florida because people really get to see how "light-skinded" I am, which normally starts a conversation. Even a couple of my relatives noted yesterday that they hardly see me in dresses. I told them I do wear dresses. Then the daughter (it was a mother and daughter hassle) said, "okay you do, but only in the fall when you can wear knee-high boots with the dress." That got everyone in the room laughing - gosh, you gotta love family.

But I digress, what is it about folks to want to single you out for looking "different" or having a "unique" name? I can handle it well from people of a different hue; but I've found it surprising that for the most part, those folks have studied a little bit about other cultures.

For example, a few years ago, a Latino colleague of mine and I went to check out an Ethiopian restaurant that was getting a lot of press. But guess what? You could spot only a handful of folks who are black in the restaurant and the restaurant was in a pretty black part of town. So when I hear dumb comments from people who look like me; I'm almost tempted to fly off the handle.

It got me thinking why black folks don't want to know about other cultures especially from the one they came from. And people wonder why there is such division with African/Caribbean/Haitian Americans with Black Americans. Yes I used "Black Americans" since in a year like 2008, some blogs and notable Media outlets still beg the question "do you see yourself as Black or African American?" Who freaking cares? I've read some pretty interesting stuff with that particular question and it really makes me shake my head that there is a long way to go not just with relationships among different races but among ourselves.

Tags: Barack Obama,Race, African American, Africa