1“Are you Jewish?”
I realized at a young age that because I’m often perceived as biracial I am effectively biracial in many situations. I used to invite people who asked my background to take a guess. I learned a lot from playing that game but lost interest in it somewhere along the way.
My job includes fielding calls on the publicity department’s general line. I give my name to a man calling from a Jewish news site. He asks if Mariah is Irish. It’s not, but I offer that it appears in the Bible, spelled Moriah. He’s upset I’ve suggested he might not know this and tells me about the sacrifice of Isaac on Mt. Moriah in the Book of Genesis. If he weren’t so prone to interrupting me, I would explain the obvious: Mariah, like so many of the names mine is mistaken for (and that I respond to) is derived from Mary, which comes from Miriam. I don’t care enough to explain that the English used to pronounce Maria like my name, like Mariah Carey’s name.
He takes down my last name and asks if I’m Jewish. Yes, I tell him, but my last name isn’t. Perhaps because he wants me to be like him so badly, he stops me before I can explain: My last name is my father’s — inherited from slave masters — and I’m technically but not religiously or particularly culturally Jewish by way of my maternal grandmother who was white, unlike the rest of my grandparents. The man gives me what he calls an etymology lesson: Stovall is a corrupted German or Yiddish word. It’s Jewish after all.
My father and his white girlfriend recently traveled to England where she was thrilled to find her last name on an ancient family crest. My dad found ours too but didn’t buy any souvenirs emblazoned with the image. In good humor he balked at the idea of purchasing a token to remember the Stovalls, who immigrated to America and enslaved our family. He’s traced his ancestry. It was the English Stovalls, not the Germans, and certainly not the Jews.
Imagine if the stranger seeking kinship on the phone had asked, Are you white?
2“You sure you’re not a little Chinese?”
On a weekend afternoon, I spend the better part of an hour waiting in the lobby of my office building. My ID card isn’t properly coded for after-hours access. I awkwardly chat with the security guard while we wait for another security guard to materialize with a key. I’m obsessed with fruits and vegetables and let my guard down when he shows me pictures of his garden and tells me about the cookbook he’s writing. I’m affirming when he likens something in his culture’s cuisine to soul food, though I’ve now forgotten which African or Caribbean nation his family calls home.
He asks what I am but my answer — black — isn’t enough. I knew it wouldn’t be. He studies me and asks, What else? There must be something more to me. He demands it. I start shutting down. You sure you’re not a little Chinese? I don’t do what I did when I was younger and satisfy him by explaining: One of my grandparents was white and I have some Native American ancestry, the specifics of which I can’t summon. Should I explain basic American history to him? Is he unfamiliar with the one-drop rule? All African-Americans have varied heritage from rape and consensual sex. We were never immigrants like his family or anyone else in this country, save Native Americans.
3“Are you Hawaiian?”
I need a program installed on my computer at work. The IT man assigned to help me can’t get it right. We go back and forth for weeks, on the phone, over email, and in person, while he tries more and more futile approaches. I thank him and suggest he must have a colleague who can try something else, but he’s determined to do it himself. I owe him coffee, he informs me. He asks if I’ll go out with him for coffee, and I ignore the question.
He installed the program incorrectly. He asks, giddy, if I’m Hawaiian. He isn’t, as far as I can tell. Would being Hawaiian make me just different enough to pique his interest without pushing the boundaries of his comfort zone? I tell him I’m black and hear his smile folding, a pause before he laughs and says, We’re all brown people, right? I marvel at how we can exoticize each other even as we claim to be the same. In the moment before he proclaimed unity for all people of color he seemed to betray a personal hierarchy in which black is at the bottom.
4“Where are you from?”
I buy raspberries from a man with a sidewalk produce stand in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. It’s the middle of the day and I’m the only customer. He wants me to spend more money, time. I ask if he has guavas, fairly certain I’ve seen them tucked away in the corner before. Guava? He explains he’s stocked it before but people in this neighborhood don’t buy it. Try Chinatown, he suggests. I agree and list other rare fruits I know I can find there. He squints and asks if I like guavas. Does he think I’ve never tasted them? Do I not look like I like them? Does he not like them? Or have I reminded him of home?
He asks where I’m from. I know what question he’s really asking, but I answer the one he asked. I’m from New Jersey. Guavas aren’t native to the Garden State but to Mexico and parts of Central and South America. I stop myself from guessing or asking where he’s from when he starts rubbing and squeezing my arm. I thank him for the raspberries and walk away.
5“You look like a Thai Girl.”
My mother, my white husband, my white friend, and I have dinner at a Thai restaurant. The Thai owner visits our table at intervals — first when my friend finds a screw in her food, though he’s not particularly apologetic. He does make a point of coming over to tell me I look like a Thai girl. I have heard this or some version of it before about half the ethnicities on Earth. I don’t ask what kind of girl he thinks my mother, who is sitting across from me, looks like. I don’t even know if he knows she’s my mother, or that her mother was a European Jew, or that her father was black, or that my father is black. Some people say I look just like her, but my skin is darker, my hair is curlier, and my nose is broader.
The restaurateur sits down next to me and smiles when I order taro custard for desert. He’s unimpressed with my friend’s decision to have the pumpkin version, even though it’s called Thai pumpkin custard. He explains that if I go to Thailand I’ll see lots of girls who look like me, too.
6Before, they were just people.
I’m human. I do it too: use subtle clues and fleeting first impressions to try and decipher people’s backgrounds. Women who look like me pique my curiosity. I’m not immune to craving the comfort and confirmation of mirrors, or familiar faces in new places. I try to wait for sufficient context before asking someone about her ethnic or geographic roots but often I don’t ask at all. Having any type of identity requires you to constantly reconcile your self-image with how the world sees you. It’s eye-opening and it’s exhausting. The Egyptian-Canadian writer Omar El Akkad said, “The right to be uncomplicated and to speak about what you are and not speak about what you are [in] any ratio you want may not be available to us.”
Black people who come to America from majority-black countries often say they didn’t know they were black until they got to the states. Before, they were just people. I’ve wondered where in the world I have to go to free my body from being a mystery for other people to solve. No matter where it is, if “it” exists, people will find other ways of trying to tell me what I mean or am made of, and who I get to be.