YOU MAY ASK ONLY IF IT'S A COSTUME AND ONLY IF IT'S HALLOWEEN
It’s that time of year again where people dress in costumes. Some recognizable, others not so much. It is not uncommon to hear the question asked “what are you?” It’s in fact an expected question if your creative skills are not too strong and like me, you are big on homemade costumes.
I can remember the year I was a VERY ELABORATE Ice Queen yet the only person who knew WHAT I was that year without asking was my then husband. And his knowledge of what I was had nothing to do with my costume. Imagine that. I felt it appropriate my then attitude be in alignment with what I was portraying on this least favorite holiday of mine. And yes, everyone I met that night asked me “what are you?”. It was Halloween.
Now let’s talk about life, not in a costume, not on a day of parties and dress up. Life on any day for a person of mixed race. As a woman who is pale and freckled, I never expect to be asked that question, but if I were and I understood what they really wanted to know, answering honestly it would be “I am a quarter drunk, a quarter bad teeth and half Viking”. You guessed it right if you thought Irish, English and Scandinavian but a stranger wouldn’t ask me that question because I don’t have a beautiful brown complexion that they feel needs an explanation.
People of mixed race know exactly what this question means when they hear it, little kids do not.
I was recently informed this is a very common question asked of people who are of mixed race and have lightish brown skin. “What are you??”
As mother to a child of mixed race, I am told I should expect this question being asked of my daughter. Thanks for the warning, seriously. While I haven’t heard it asked of her yet, I did have a parent learning moment of the “what are you” kind which was way bigger than the question.
My daughter (who was six years old) and I were flipping through the racks at a department store when a chatty woman told me my daughter looked as if she could be part Asian. I smiled at her and her little dog that my child was ooing and awing over and simply said “no” instead of asking her she had her non-service dog in a department store. This is San Diego not Paris. However, this lady wanted to engage further, Chatty Cathy at her finest. She persisted with the inquisition of my daughters complexion, in front of my daughter to which I finally revealed, “She is half African American”.
This is where time stands still. My daughter stands up from petting the dog, with her big round brown eyes. looks at me and exclaims rather loudly “WHAT? I am AFRICAN AMERICAN? I am from Africa?”. I am frozen. No words. Awkward expression on my face. My mind is spinning as I am nervously turning my head from my daughter to this woman and her dog and back again. I’m thinking…we do have mirrors in our home. Her father is present in her life and she sees that he has a dark complexion. How have I as a parent failed to have this conversation? How have I as a parent with fair complexion failed to educate my daughter on her ethnicity blend? How as a parent did I not see this as a piece of important information worthy of explanation? Not in a way that her blend isn’t important but important in that she knew the exact dictionary definition of her blend. I stood speechless for what seemed like eternity. When I finally spoke, to my daughter I said “yes darling, you are half black” and then to the woman “Thanks for being part of a monumental life moment”.
After getting over my own shock and going about our shopping I realized, as her mother I had not had this discussion because her skin color does not define “what she is”. It doesn’t define who she is. It does not define her identity. To me when she is asked this question, no matter the expected answer, I want her to stand tall and proud as she says “I am a confident, courageous, empowered, educated, talented girl who sings like an angel, what about you?”
My naivety of the questions children and people of mixed race are faced with has come to light. I have some learning to do. This chapter was missing from the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting! To other parents of bi-racial kids, educate yourself on what they should expect and to those of you of mixed race reading this, I apologize on behalf of the people who ask you this question. Next time reply with “why do you ask?” That’s usually a good silencer.
originally posted on www.chriskellywithlove.com