I was born with blond hair.
I remember when I was little and was playing at the park. An older girl came up to me and asked me if I was a Mulatto. I didn’t know what that was, but I said yes.
Later I went up to my dad and asked him what a Mulatto was and said that I told the little girl that I was Mulatto. My dad seethed with anger.
“You are not a Mulatto,” he told me. He went on to explain that the term is derived from a mule “because mules can’t reproduce themselves.” It’s racist, he basically said. It means you’re less than and you’re not less than, he told me.
How apropos that the conversation took place at Martin Luther King Jr. pool and playground.
I remember feeling so very sad and confused. How could someone think that I was different or like a mule, I wondered. My dad was just so angry so I knew it must be serious.
Mulatto is a term used to refer to a person who is born from one white parent and one black parent, or more broadly, a person of any “mixed” ancestry. See Forbes, 1993 and mixedancestry. Contemporary usage of the designation is generally confined to situations in which the term is considered relevant in an historical context, as now most people of mixed white and black ancestry rarely choose to self-identify as mulatto.
The term is not commonly used any more but is generally considered archaic because of its association with slavery, colonial and racial oppression; accepted modern terms include “mixed” and “biracial”. – Wikipedia
If I wasn’t a Mulatto than what was I?
At that time, I had never seen another girl who looked like me. Now it’s common to see blond kids of all ethnic backgrounds and mixes. Even one of Ladybug’s sisters has blond hair, but back in the late 70’s and early 80’s it wasn’t nearly as common.
Anyway, at a young age I knew I was not Mulatto.
I also learned I was not an Aborigine or an Albino (all things people asked me if I was).
I heard my mother tell people that my hair was naturally blond, and remember being asked in the third grade at sleep-away camp whether I bleached my hair. When I said no one of the other girls whispered that I was lying.
Growing up looking the way that I do, I was often a target for pretty much everyone. Discrimination don’t discriminate.
I didn’t look white and yet I didn’t look black enough. I got called racial slurs by everyone and to this very day people are constantly asking what my race is.
My mom once told me to tell people my race was “human” and so from that day to today I pretty much always say human and wait to see if they’ll continue with the question. “No, I mean what is your ethnicity,” they usually follow-up with a sigh as if I didn’t know what they meant.
Of course I did.
In the 9th grade on the train home someone asked me my ethnic background. I responded, “I’m mixed,” to which another girl on the bus commented, “You should just tell people you’re black because you act too white already.”
Ironically, when I’ve identified myself as “black” I usually get asked, “and what else,” which explains why one of my favorite sayings is “life is nothing if not ironic.”
So, how do I define my ethnic background? Well, not as easy as some and then maybe easier than others.
When Brother was in the third grade he wrote a paper about his family as a school project. I remember he was so proud showing me what he wrote. In the paper, he talked about the fact that he is Jewish, his loves when his father speaks French to his little sister, and he has an uncle with 35 kids.
The next day, after reading his report for the class, Brother came home and was sullen. “They laughed at me,” he explained. “They thought I was lying,” he said, his eyes looking towards the ground embarrassed.
The class, in which Brother was one of two brown faces, saw my beautiful brown boy and didn’t believe he was Jewish, or French was spoken in his home, or that his uncle had 35 kids (okay, technically his grandpa’s uncle but that still makes him Brother’s great-great uncle and, yes, he really had that many kids ).
I consoled him the best way I knew how while biting my tongue and doing my best to not make judgments myself or use terms like “racist” or “ignorant” when talking about his classmates (or really their parents).
Labels are wrong and generalizing someone because of something they say isn’t always correct or proper. The kids didn’t know any better. They were just operating under the rules and clues that their parents and society as a whole has forced on them.
I met with the teacher later that week for parent-teacher conferences and expressed how hurt Brother had been by the class. I explained to her that it was all true, and she said she would be sure to tell the class.
Kermit the Frog wasn’t lying when he said, “it ain’t easy being green.”
It ain’t easy being anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into a box.
I had hoped that my children would have been spared some of the confusion that I suffered as a child; the feeling of not quite fitting in and wondering exactly who you are or how to put your check mark in a box that doesn’t accurately reflect your life experience or your family.
The confusion of why we have boxes in the first place.
Because in our family we’re all different colors and, yes, we’re different ethnic backgrounds too (*cough* like pretty much every American *cough*) but to us that is normal and natural. What is not normal and natural is the idea that one has to choose who you are, and who you identify with.
And if you really want to get extra complex with it and throw who someone identifies with culturally, which may not be remotely the same as their ethnic background, it can get so confusing that it’s dizzying.
At the root of all of us, we’re all just people trying to get by in life.
I am an advocate of knowing your history. I am an advocate of being proud of your heritage which includes someone’s ethnic background, country of national origin, etc.
But I don’t advocate labels, or defining people solely as their ethnic background.
In a way, it’s a paradox.
We need to know our history so we know where we come from, but that should not be what defines us solely or even primarily. It’s a part but not the total sum of one’s being.
Sure, my life experiences are related to how I look which is related to my ethnic background. Yes, my ethnic background impacts the way my life is and the way the world sees me, but that’s not just who I am.
I do happily identify as a woman of color, or mixed, black, or however I’m answering the question in that given moment, but that’s not all of me. That’s one part of me. I also love to dance, can’t sing to save my life, prefer things pink and sweet, and am too sensitive for my own good.
How boring would we all be if race was all there was?
To break the cycle that is plaguing humanity we have to start with the children. I try to teach my kids not to describe people by how they look. Instead of “the Asian boy in my class” he should be “the boy who loves birds” or “the guy who is really funny.”
Instead of saying “that [insert physical description here] kid” I try to encourage my kids to find other ways to define people, maybe by what they’re wearing rather than their physical attributes with the exception of hair color which is relatively benign.
The point is to stay away from terms that relate to ethnicity or skinny, fat, or other descriptions that can be hurtful or judgmental. This exercise forces them to think outside the box and really think about the person who they are describing.
Not because I don’t want my children to see ethnic differences because that’s just silly. Ethnic differences are beautiful. We should see ethnic differences and appreciate them.
The whole idea that we should be colorblind may actually be a form of racism, according to Psychology Today, which is why it’s important that we do see and respect them.
What we should not do is allow ethnic differences is to separate us from them, or to be so focused on racial identity that we can’t see or be anything else.
One day, hopefully the standard answer to the question, “what is your race,” will be “human.”
And being green, or any other color under the sun will be just a little bit easier.