Thursday, December 10, 2009

What Are You? The Answer Isn't Black or White

A thoughtful piece at NPR by Melissa Goh, exploring the intersection of race and nationalism:
My mother's family is white, about as white as Americans come. She grew up on a hilltop in Ashcamp, Ky., just west of the Virginia border. She tells me that if she had brought home a black man — or even anyone not from the Appalachian hills — her father would have reached for the shotgun.

Apparently, when she brought a Chinese guy "up the holler," my grandfather was too stunned to react. He managed to recover in time for the wedding five months later.

One of the things that make being multiracial unique is the question, "What are you?" Long ago I trained myself to answer, "I'm an American." It's a tidy little line that welcomes patriotic solidarity, while setting up a defensive perimeter should the rest of the conversation take an ugly turn.

It's a safe thing to do, because another part of being mixed is being an outsider. People don't know where you fit — like you've been given a special-access pass to a club that otherwise wouldn't let you in. I tend to "pass" for white, but there's a whole other culture that has equal claim.

So the conversation about what I am can slip fast from race to nationality. "Is your father American?" Well, yes. Yes, he is — though he didn't start that way. But I never knew him as anything else -– just as I never noticed he had an accent or didn't look like the rest of mom's family. They never treated him differently, and, in this one place, among my family, I've never been an outsider.

It wasn't until I was older that I realized the rest of the world might feel differently.
Click above to see what happens when the "rest of the world" seems to include members of her own family.

"Perpetual foreignness," anyone?

1 comment:

Wendy said...

This topic so interests me, I live in a semi-rural area and teach in a relatively rural one that also attracts city students who commute due to tuition costs. I discuss this topic each semester, most people come into the class arguing this issue doesn't exist and then tell me at the end that they never thought of their actions in that context. More discussion and continual education is the only way to combate perpetual foreignness in America.