Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Color: Race or Culture?

Last week, I watched CNN's Black America. During the second part of the special, I realized that I couldn't tell most of the people were black. I mean, CNN was telling me they were black, and they were talking about their experiences as black men/women. But, if I had just seen them on the street, I wouldn't have thought "oh, they're black."

I'm not trying to say I'm color blind. I don't think anyone can truly look at a person and not see any color. But realizing that I couldn't tell who was black without someone telling me made me realize a few things. First, CNN was interviewing a lot of successful people, and they were mostly light-skinned. That's a whole issue in itself, and not where I'm going. Second, it made me really realize there are some people who are very obviously white and some who are very obviously black, and a whole lot of people somewhere in the middle. This led me to one question: how much of someone's color, whether we consider them black or white, is their race and how much is their culture.

Another part of my beginning to think about this came from something that happened to me during my recent visit to Texas. I was at the Dallas Fort Worth airport a few hours before my flight, scrounging for some food. I entered one of the little general stores that had sandwiches on display. The gentleman working at the counter asked if I needed any help. I asked him if they had any sandwiches less than $10. I don't like expensive sandwiches. He pointed me toward some cheaper chicken salad sandwiches. As I was deciding which bowl of fruit to get, instead of the dead chickens, he asked, "are you mixed?" Just like that, just out of the blue.

I was caught of guard, a bit taken aback, yet happy. He was surprised when I told him no. But somehow, I felt like I had achieved something. He was black, and he thought I was, partly, too. It was like a strange acceptance, like whatever I was, it was good enough to be claimed and accepted.

When I told one of my friends about the gentleman's comment, her first question was "do you have braids?" Yes, I do, but I've had them before, and no one's ever said something like that. More often I get, "wow, we don't usually see a white girl with braids." So what's different this time. Maybe it's Texas, or maybe it's something else. Maybe it's what my outside suggested about my culture. mixed me short

I had on a white T with a white bandana, light jeans, giant hot pink earrings, gold high-heeled tennis shoes and my stunna shades. Had I been wearing khakis and a polo shirt with some of those obnoxious rubber/plastic shoes, would he have still asked?

There are a few people at school who are mixed. Some are friends of mine, some just acquaintances. They are generally viewed as either black or white, depending on how others feel they have associated themselves. For example, there are two girls, both in BLSA, both close to the same color. One is a member of a divine nine sorority, takes on major duties within BLSA, and generally hangs out with the other BLSA members. The other doesn't come to a whole lot of BLSA events even though she's a member, is usually found hanging out with her white friends, and, so I've heard, listens to more rock than rap. The first girl is usually just grouped in with the black students. The second girl is often dismissed with the phrase "yeah, but she's white."

I've heard other stories from mixed children, or their families, about society wanting to put them in a box, one race or the other, and how this can cause confusion and frustration. How neither society will fully accept them.

I can't say I know how they feel, I can't say I know about anyone's experiences other than my own. But I'm starting to feel like I've made myself mixed - culturally. It's not like society is trying to figure out where to put me, it knows where it wants me to be, what I'm supposed to identify with. I just won't listen. I'm not sure when that started, maybe in Africa, or maybe when I discovered I like hip hop, or maybe after lots of little things like that came together. Now, I often feel like neither society will accept me. One would if it were deaf, the other might if it were blind.

Trying to have conversations at work or where I live, I often find myself trying to explain things like stunna shades, Bubb Rubb, the Boondocks, or Madame CJ Walker. It often feels like there's a real cultural disconnect, especially when they start talking about bands I've only heard of because my little sister listens to them. Sometimes this disconnect comes up at home too, with my family or old friends. With family, I can chalk it up to us all growing up and finding our own interests. We still have so much in common that the slight disconnects that do exist don't do a whole lot of damage. But with some of my friends, things are a little different. It's hard. A group of friends will start talking about how the problems of the inner city are because families aren't raising their children. How these people just need to be responsible and raise their kids, they can't possibly all be at work all the time. Or about how they all just need to stop having kids underage or out of wedlock. It's such a monoscopic view of the whole situation. I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from getting into embroiled arguments. I don't like to argue with my friends.

Then there's the other side. At school, I can hang out with a lot of people who share some of the same interests I do, and a few people who share a lot of my same interests. It's really nice to have conversations about our opinions and ideas without constantly having to explain what it is we're talking about. However, when I hang out with my friends at school, most of whom are black, there inevitably comes a point in nearly every conversation where I am told I just can't understand because I'm not black. Occasionally, I'm asked to represent and give the opinion of the entire white race on a certain topic. Luckily, this is rare because most of my friends have been on the flip side of this.

Caught in the middle, between my interests and my skin. Sort of between my inside and my outside. It makes me feel the way Ba Lenix described me when he painted the door of my hut with white and black stripes, "it's you, Nchimunya, half Tonga, half mukuwa."

But I'm not mixed. My parents are of German and Polish decent, as far as we know. I'm as white as they come, well after my translucent sister. And I'm not ashamed of my heritage. Bring on the pierogies, polka and sauerkraut. But Polish pride usually revolves around jokes about how backwards Poles are, hanging their Christmas trees upside-down or such. When you do something goofy or wrong, it's the Polish way. And German pride is beer, heavy, fattening foods and lederhosen. It was sort of nice to be identified, for a split second, with a culture full of immense pride, a sort of closed off brotherhood that seeks out its members and welcomes them in with open arms. And for a brief moment, to have someone's perception of my outside match my inside.


Anonymous said...

Ha ha , You Do look black, apply a bit of Tan, and you are set to go!

Anonymous said...

Visit to meet interracial singles online.