I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked the same question, THE question. The one I have grown accustomed to hearing yet not grown accustomed to answering.
“What are you?”
I’ve been asked this by people I’ve known for months and people I have known for mere seconds.
As a child, I had my prepared answer, “I am Polish, German and Native American.”
Not the full story.
As an adult I’ve tested out different responses, “I am American; I am mixed.”
Not the answer they want to hear.
The truth is I was ashamed.
Ashamed as a young child because I quickly realized I was the only one being asked this question.
Ashamed as a teenager because I would never admit to a quarter of my makeup, Mexican.
Ashamed as an adult that no matter what I had to offer, initially others only cared about the color of my skin.
People would try to justify their question with, “I was curious because you are so (exotic/pretty/unique) looking” or “Your skin tone is so beautiful.”
Reasons that were offered as an excuse, an excuse to quench a curiosity.
I am still asked the question but now there’s more riding on my answer because I have someone watching. A beautiful little boy with brown skin.
My goal is for him to never equate shame with race, instead, my hope is for him to take pride in who he is and where he comes from.
Yet I know I have to do more than hope, I have to teach, and in order for me to teach, I have to learn. Learn to be proud of who I am.
I was never taught pride, in fact, I wasn’t consciously taught anything in regards to race. Rather I felt and heard the undercurrents of racism against a whole half of me.
I was a brown child in a white family.
I was taught that minorities used racism as an excuse and the real issue was personal accountability. The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality.
I heard the sentiment that immigrants were ruining the country. The brown ones of course, not the white ones.
I knew nothing of my Native American/Mexican side of my family other than my uncles were in prison for drug crimes and my aunt married a white man for a better life.
I had little understanding of Mexican or Native American culture. Everything I knew came from a school textbook or the news.
I grew up not seeing value in either but since my skin tone belied my answer of strictly Polish and German, I picked one. I felt less embarrassed by my Native American ancestors, as they were the victims and not the perpetrators as my Mexican lineage was portrayed to be.
My mom and former step-father did nothing to encourage me to explore or learn about my heritage, rather it was ignored.
To this day my mom will claim in one breath she is not racist, and yet in the next breath, state that if Mexicans keep coming to this country, we will become a third-world country.
It’s interesting that she can separate me from the “they” she has conjured up. Yet it makes perfect sense as to why I felt the way I did about myself far into adulthood.
She never saw me as one of “them,” and therefore, I didn’t see myself as one either.
Yet I am.
I’m not sure how long I would have continued this willing suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t until my son came along that I truly started questioning the role of race in my life.
For him, I have to do better.
He is 2 years old and his biggest concern is how many sticks he can pick up on our walks.
But one day, he will see it, he will feel it, and he will understand it. Racism.
One day his beautiful dark brown eyes will look into mine searching for answers. I must step up to that plate.
For my little boy and that little girl who has grown into a woman, I have finally found the strength to question a lifetime of thinking.
The first step of my journey has been the hardest, awareness. Awareness of the racism in my own family, awareness of how that impacted me growing up, and the awareness that I am now in control of my racial and cultural education.
I cannot do anything to change the way I saw myself for so long, but thankfully, the veil has finally been lifted. I will not place that same veil over my child’s eyes, he will be given everything I never was.
Pride in who he is and where he comes from, an understanding of the diversity that surrounds us, and a strong voice with which to speak.
A voice I am just now finding for myself, a voice that is growing stronger each day.