I’ve always been asked about my ethnicity. I didn’t think anything of it. I thought that people were just curious because of my Jamaican accent. But over the years, I’ve managed to perfect the American accent and thought that people would stop asking about my background.
Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. Now that my husband and I are parents to biracial children, questions about their race are something that we deal with all the time.
“Where are you from?” That’s a great way to break the ice and start a conversation — so I thought.
“I’m from Jamaica,” I’d answer proudly. But the more people asked, the more I wondered why. Is it that obvious I’m not a natural-born American?
Finally I started to change my response. “I live in New York.”
But then I’d get hit with the follow-up question, “But where are you from originally?” I guess my answer was apparently not enough to satisfy their curiosity.
The older I got, the more people asked about my ethnic background during job interviews, casual conversations, you name it. It was weird to me because I speak with an American accent and I’m black.
So I finally started asking, “Why?”
“Where are you from?” a news director asked during an interview. “Well, I grew up in New York,” I said.
He went on to ask about where my family is from and where I’m from originally. Is my Jamaican accent starting to slip out? I thought I had this thing under control, I thought to myself.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the TV news business — the more ambiguous the accent, the better your chances of getting hired. For some odd reason, heavy regional accents aren’t always accepted.
I took a moment to gather my thoughts and asked the gentleman, “Why do you ask? I get asked that all the time.”
“You have a very exotic look,” he responded. It wasn’t my accent. It was the way I looked?!
All this time, I had no idea. Then I connected the dots. There was always that guy in class who teased me by pulling his eyes back and mimicking me.
The beauty queen from South Carolina who slipped me her number and insisted that I call her, after I failed to make top ten. She later told me to accentuate my eyes. “Your eyes are your stand-out feature,” she said.
Then I began to think of modeling agents who told me, “You have a very exotic look.”
“Ohh, I want to beat your face,” a makeup artist once said (a phrase commonly used in the modeling industry). The artist complimented my eyes and skin, saying that she could do amazing things to bring out my features.
Back to my interview. As I sat in the news director’s office, I had an “Aha moment,” as Oprah would say.
After all these years, I realize that I do look different. Even though my pigment is dark brown, my features tell another story.
For the record, I do have Asian relatives, but have never made the connection. My mom often talks about her Irish grandmother from Ireland, but I never considered myself Irish. I was raised Jamaican, so I always considered myself Caribbean or West Indian.
Now that I’m a mom to biracial children, the focus has shifted. People want to know about their background. If we’re together, it’s pretty obvious. But when I’m alone it’s another story.
Whenever I show someone photos of our kids, they look back at me with a confused expression.
“What is the father?” “Is he light-skinned?” “Is the father Spanish?” “What are they mixed with?” “Is their dad white?” These are some of the questions people ask after seeing pictures of them. I don’t want to appear overly sensitive, but it can get pretty annoying.
I reached out to a friend of mine, Constance Jones, who is also biracial. I asked her if there is a right way to ask, “Are you mixed?”
“There is no proper way — I am open to anyone who seems interested in learning about my history,” she said.
“I spent a large part of my childhood in Germany — so maybe that made a difference — I had a strong connection to my ‘white side’ at a young age,” she added.
She went on to say that she grew up around lots of other mixed people on military bases, and was never questioned about her race until college.
“I know who I am… so that’s all that matters I think…,” she said.
When I think of my kids being asked to define themselves, I conjure up ways to approach the subject matter.
To be honest, I don’t mind being asked about our racial backgrounds or ethnicities at the right place and time. But it shouldn’t be the first thing out of your mouth.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been curious, too. However, I wouldn’t just flat-out ask someone about their race. It’s all about the approach and allowing the person to volunteer information.