Race is something I find myself thinking a lot about lately. It is a subject that inserts itself into my life whether I want to care about it or not.
“What are you?”
“Where are you from”
“What is your background?”
I’ve always found it interesting that only some people have an eye for seeing me as a mixed-race person. About half of people see a normal African American while the other half can tell there is something different in the way I look. I’ve come up with many thoughts through the years about why some people have an eye for it and others do not (I think it has some thing to do with upbringing, exposure, and the way you think about race).
Whats even more interesting is the way that people feel a need to categorize by race. Some people have such a strong desire to categorize ethnicity that they will approach me on the street. I’m serious here. I’ve been asked by cashiers at Wendys, by my customers at Starbucks, on the dance floor at White Horse, in airports and by people I’ve only begun a few sentences of a friendship with.
Why do we as people feel a need to place racially ambiguous people?
What this says to me is that we face an internal need to put others in boxes. Your mind sees someone unusual and feels uncomfortable with the unknown, is curious to place those features with something they can place a stigma upon. Which is not, inherently, a bad thing. But it makes me question why this need is so strong (to clarify, this isn’t something that I find offensive. I think it’s interesting sometimes to see who will ask. My argument’s more about the motives behind the question).
The level of speculation is interesting, too. I didn’t realize there was such variety! I’ve been told I could be Brazilian, Cape Verdian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Moroccan, and then some others recognize the Filipino-Chinese in my features. It’s kind of interesting to be racially ambiguous.
But what if I’m not any of that, what if I’m just me?
Personally, I’d rather be ambiguous. I don’t like the expectations that come along with being boxed into a race. I find that I unconsciously avoid black men, who do not avoid me, because they seem to look at me and expect something of me. Some connection, some behavior, some familiar background that I don’t share with them, and I don’t want to face their disappointment when they discover that. I’m not pretending to be anything and if you come up with some conception of who I am just by your perception of my race, that’s not my problem.
Sometimes I avoid the question just to see if people will realize that the way they are approaching it is wrong.
“What are you?”
“No, but where are you from”
As we begin to face an increasingly culturally diverse America, I challenge you to think twice about what race means to you. Does it have relevance? Should it? Do the boxes we place people in always apply?
If racial ambiguity is an interesting topic to anyone else, I encourage you to take a look at this interactive gallery by a photographer who went out of his way to find “The Changing Face of America” through racially ambiguous people.
(Disclaimer: this piece may come across as self-involved. Rather, I think of it as a reflection of my experience and hope you do, too.)