Monday, March 2, 2009

What Are You?

Back in December I attended a one day conference for work in Santa Clara. I had never been to Santa Clara before and didn’t realize it was a private Jesuit University or that the Santa Clara mission is actually located right in the heart of the campus. On our lunch break we had time to do some exploring so a co-worker and I went to find the mission and look around. Santa Clara is a small mission but it was absolutely beautiful.

After looking around the mission we still had some time before the conference was to start so we decided to peruse the campus museum across the street. We stumbled across an exhibit that fascinated me so much that I almost didn’t make it back to the afternoon session of the conference. The exhibit was entitled “What are you?”

I think part of the reason I was so drawn to this exhibit was how stark and bare it was. The room was filled with a single row of framed pictures, mug shots was more like it. The photos were just headshots, the subjects having no makeup, no done up hair, and bare shoulders. It was them, raw, exposed for the world to see, but the real exposure was what appeared below each photograph. They were all matted with a simple white frame and below their picture was their self-identified identity written in their own hand. I think this is the main reason why I liked this exhibit so much. Some of them were long beautiful essays, others were just a line or two, but it was what each individual wanted the world to know how they perceived themselves. It is called the Hapa Project, and it is technically targeted towards people of mixed race that included Asian or Pacific Islander, but I feel that the concept can be applied to each and every one of us.

I feel that we live in a society that puts so much of an emphasis not on who we are and what we accomplish but as what color of skin we have or what nationality we are perceived to be. I think it’s wonderful to be proud of who you are and the ancestry that you’ve come from. However, all too often people categorize others to try and wrap up who they are, sometimes for better or worse (when used to discriminate someone based on their looks), into a nice neat little package.

In today’s society you can’t get away from this boxed up identification either. On virtually any paperwork you fill out you have to identify yourself from a series of checkboxes as one thing or another. Quite honestly I never put much thought into filling out that paperwork until my oldest daughter was born. I am, for all intents and purposes, White/Caucasian/Anglo Saxon (whatever term you care to use). Although that’s not entirely true it’s what I and everyone around me had always perceived me as. Therefore checking off the Caucasian checkbox was a no brainer. When Ari was born it made me mad that in order to fill out any of that paperwork she would have to deny a part of her, and the part of her that she was most likely going to deny would be my side. The traits, genes and personality factors that I gave her would most likely go unnoticed in those little checkboxes because visually the other side of her is more dominant. Ari is half Black and half White, like our newly elected President, and just like President Obama, the world perceives her as Black. President Obama has a White mother just like Ari, and although everyone knows that, he is still the America’s first “Black” President. Even though I think it’s great that we have broken that white/male stereotype for our President but it saddens me that we feel we have to quantify it in that way.

As for Ari, she self identifies as being African American. From what I can tell this is what her classmates see her as so it’s how she sees herself. I have used the term Black in referring to her biological father because that is what he preferred to be called. He stated that he didn’t personally come from Africa and neither did any of his ancestors that he personally knew so he felt he was an American who happened to be Black. So, that is how I approached it with Ari. But, at school they are very PC and use the term African American so that is how she now refers to herself. I don’t care if that’s what she chooses to be called as long as it’s what she wants and not that nice and neat little checkbox that society has put her in. When kids at school see us together they invariable ask who I am, because in their minds we don’t look alike and I couldn’t possibly be her mother. When she replies that I am in fact her mom she consistently gets asked if she was adopted. She has told me this bothers her. She knows that there is nothing wrong with being adopted, we’ve had discussions about it, but her reply is always “I know, but I’m not adopted so it bothers me." I actually asked Ari after I started writing this how she would describe herself so I could her her perception. She didn't really have an answer for that so I said:

"What do you say when someone asks, what are you?"

She relied that no one ever asked her that.

I finally said, "well what would you say"

"I'd tell them my Mom is White and my Dad is Black."

"So, what does that make you?"

long silent pause

"I guess I don't know what that makes me."


"I don't know why, but I guess I've just always considered myself Black."

"Do you think it's because that's the way other people see you?"

"No, because nobody has ever said anything about it really, it's just the way I see myself."

So, that is Ari in her own words!

As far as DH is concerned I can’t even begin to write his “What are you?” statement. First and foremost the whole point of the “What are you?” project is to be able to express what you feel you are, and I’m not him. What I do know is that he is constantly being mistaken for being Mexican or Hispanic, which would be great, except he isn’t. About six weeks ago we had a couple kids (a brother and sister) from church come over for dinner. The girl had recently been to India on a humanitarian project but before she went DH talked to her about the country (he has been there) and wrote her a whole letter on what to expect from the culture and other things. Well she was yet again going out of country (Uganda) and so DH invited her and her brother over so he could tell her about this country (he’s been there too) but then found out she changed her trip to Guatemala because she was concerned about the unrest in Uganda. DH has also been to South America and in the course of talking about the culture she asked him point blank “So what are you? Are you Mexican?” It was a completely harmless question and she didn’t mean anything by it, but it is a constant thing in our society the even if we aren’t so bold as she was and ask, we still wonder.

As I said I can’t answer this question for him because I’m not him, but his mother was Filipina and his father is White, with some Native American mixed in I believe. I know that DH checks the Asian checkbox because I'm guessing that is the closest match with what he feels he is. That girl kept staring at Devyn in complete shock saying “I can’t believe she’s a quarter Filipino.” I would have to agree with her, Devyn will invariable be mistaken for being just White, but it was rather funny.

Now on to me…as I said I am pretty much White, I have blond hair (well it used to be blond, now it's getting kind of dark), hazel eyes and pale skin, so you wouldn’t suspect that I have any Native American blood flowing through my veins, but I do. I have ancestors that come from Wells and Germany and England. That is the ancestry that I grew up knowing about. My grandmother on my father’s side was very into genealogy and I’ve been told she has one of my lines traced back to Adam...pretty impressive I’d have to say. But, my father was adopted by this Aunt and Uncle and although they forever became Mom and Dad to him, it doesn’t change the fact that he has this other ancestry out there. It is a somewhat long and personal story, but he was told that his biological father was thought to have had some Native American blood in him. A few, probably 6 or 7, years ago my Dad was talking to one of his biological sisters (he considers her his cousin) and she mentioned she had a family history that included some of his biological father’s ancestry and proceeded to tell him the story that either this man’s mother or grandmother was full-blooded Native American, either Shoshone or Bannock (my Dad doesn’t remember which). She was a baby survivor of a massacre and was found by members of a wagon train, strapped to a cradle board that was propped up against a tree. When I worked at the American West Heritage Center I knew quite a few members of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone and heard their side of the Bear River Massacre . I have to wonder if that isn’t my history as well. This baby was taken on to the Salt Lake Valley and was adopted and raised by some settlers there. At that point she was effectively cut off from her culture and history which is where it stayed for generations. If the story is true then that would either make me an eighth or a sixteenth Native American. The story fascinates me and I have tried to learn more, at the time I emailed the relative who initially told my Dad this story, but she wouldn’t give me any information because she wanted to see my Dad and said he could have it when he came to the upcoming family reunion. He didn’t go to that family reunion and we have never gotten any of that history. For all intents and purposes I consider myself White, but that doesn't mean that I don't accept and cherish this other side of me as well.

How about you? Do you know your ancestry? Have you ever thought about it, or are you more like I was and never really think about those checkboxes?

So, "What Are You"?...please share, either in the comments or on your own blog, but let me know so I can check it out.


FoxyJ said...

Those are beautiful pictures! I'm straight European as far as we know. My dad is actually fairly dark (black hair, dark eyes, and tans really well), and has been told a number of times while travelling in the Mid East that he could be Arab. My mom once had a geneaology expert tell her that during the middle ages English families sometimes adopted Arab children and "christianized" them, so perhaps there is some Arab blood back there somewhere. We'll never know.

My mother's geneaology is also complicated by the fact that her father's mother (my great grandmother) was born to an unmarried girl and has no legally listed father. But it was in a small Mormon town at the turn of the century and everyone knew who the father was. Yet no one would allow my mom's family to claim his as an ancestor. Sad.

It's interesting to get together with my husband's family because it is so diverse. His two oldest sisters have a dad who is Native American, and many of his sisters have married Asians or Pacific Islanders. It's funny when we all get together to see people trying to figure out how people are related.

the wrath of khandrea said...

my kids are caucasian-west indian- samoan-cuban with a black creole stepfather.

you tell me which box to check.

The Proud Grandparents said...

Santa Clara looks like a beautiful place to vist - the pictures are great.

As for my heritage it is all caucasian. I am proud of my British ancestary on the one side with a touch of Irish and German (going back to Prussian days) with a touch of French on the other side.

Kristin said...

My mom's family is Welsh and English. My dad's side is a partly French and English, but there's one line we haven't been able to trace. I've thought a lot about the check boxes since we got Baylie. Maybe we should all just check 'other.'