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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Friday, June 15, 2007

What do you call yourself?

I'm not talking your nickname or your last name. I mean your look.

I ask because of this fascinating article. In fact, I suggest you click the link and read the article (should take just a few minutes) before continuing.

In case you don't have time, it's a story done by one of my Herald colleagues as part of a series about the emergence of blacks in Latin America. The series basically suggests that in terms of progress blacks in Latin America they are where black Americans were decades ago. The article linked above though is about how black folks down there loathe the idea of being called black. Some, who had some distant white cousin many generations back, insist on calling themselves white as a matter of prestige. They so strongly believe that there is a negative connotation to "black," that they will call themselves anything else to avoid that label. People with my complexion may call themselves "coffee" or "mocha" colored. Seriously. Many spend big bucks straightening their hair because they believe it makes them look white, and thus prettier.

I have a Haitian friend here in Miami - he's not in the above article - who insists he's not black. His complexion is 3X darker than mine. His hair texture is the same as mine, maybe a little more coarse. But to him, "black" is an American thing. We once were riding along and he started talking to me about "you black people" being this way or that way. I had to make that cartoon screeching sound, interrupt, and ask him to look in a mirror. When I asked, "If you're not black what are you," he answered, "I'm Haitian!" My sarcastic retort was that next time he encountered a blatant racist he should quickly explain to them that in spite of his appearance he isn't black. And that bit of info should lower the walls and make them friends.

And then there's this quote from actress Jessica Alba made to Para Todos magazine, about her ambiguous light brown complexion and how she felt about it as a child: "[Before] I always felt like such an outcast and now I feel like people are more diverse ethnically. I was always self conscience of my puffy lips and darker skin when I was a kid, because I felt like I didn't fit in. And now its mainstream, and color isn't as big of a deal and if anything its better."

Anyway, my colleague's article, my Haitian friend, and Alba's comments made me think of my best friend growing up. I don't want to embarrass the guy, so I won't mention his name. But we attended elementary school together. Then my family moved to Italy. Later, after my family moved back to the States and I was wrapping up high school, we rekindled our friendship. This guy - let's give him the alias of "Joe," for the sake of discussion - was white, with blond hair and blue eyes.

I recall that when we would meet girls at the mall or at the beach, sometimes to mess with them I'd speak in an accent. Naturally, they would ask "what are you?" It wasn't an offensive thing. They were curious. I would drop the accent, to let them know I had been teasing, and I'd immediately answer "I'm black," or "I'm American." I happen to know - and I knew then - that my family's long-distance roots are in the Ivory Coast, in Africa. But it never once occurred to me to blurt out "I'm African!" It just didn't.

My buddy, on the other hand, had family roots in the UK and Australia. But one cousin somewhere down the line was from Northern Italy. So when the girls would ask, "Joe" would answer without hesitation "I'm Italian." He did it, because he thought "Italian" was exotic and the girls would be more impressed with "Italian" than whatever else he could come up with.

Over the years, other white friends of mine unhesitatingly ID'd themselves as "Irish" or "Swedish" or "German," because that's where their family roots lay, even if my friends had never even visited those countries themselves. It never occured to them to just say "I'm white" or I'm "German American" or "Irish American," etc.

I'm no head shrinker. But to this day, I can't explain why I instinctively answered the "what" question with my skin color first, while it never occurred to "Joe" to mention his skin color. He and I talked about this once, when we were grown. In his mind, his skin color was obvious. You could see it. So any questions about what/who he was were bettered answered by his ethnicity.

Makes sense to me.

I know I don't dislike myself, like some of the people in that article linked above. Just the opposite. I've got my faults, but I'm pretty damned comfortable with me. So what's the deal?

If you clicked the link above and read that story (you really should, if you haven't) then you know that there is a particular fixation on straight hair among some blacks in the Caribbean. I can recall growing up in Southeast Virginia my maternal grandmother complimenting the grandkids at weekend barbecues for having "good" hair. Know what that means in Southern vernacular? Straight hair, hair that resembles Caucasian hair. We all took it as a compliment. We were all like "Wow! Grandma says I have the good hair!" I remember laughing till I was crying and rolling on the floor in stitches, as my late grandfather, James Sr., would tell the story of how he and his friends in middle school got their hair "fried, died, and laid to the side," AKA heavily permed so that it would flow and wave like Elvis's mane - sorta like Sammy Davis Jr. did to match the 'dos of his Rat Pack buddies. My grandfather talked about how painful those lye perm jobs were and how he and his young/dumb buddies would practically burn their scalps to achieve this look.

Bananas. A set of clippers, a stiff bristle brush, the occasional dab of moisturizing gel, and my hair is as fancy as it'll ever get...though I admit, when I was in high school I used a couple of the permy concoctions too, to achieve a certain flowing look. I have since developed sense.

OK, at this point I'm just rambling.

But seriously, when someone asks you - if they ever ask you - "what" you are or "where" you're from, if you gather that they mean more than what neighborhood you live in, how do you answer them?

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32 Comments:

  • Fascinating and very thought provoking post and article. I came across this phenomenon a few months back when I was discussing that whole “who is a Cherokee” issue (http://djblackadam.typepad.com/damnitq/2007/03/the_one_drop_ru.html) when they excluded Blacks who had claimed Cherokee ancestry, sort of a “Reverse One Drop” rule, when you have a chance to take a gander, here is the article I wrote on the topict: http://djblackadam.typepad.com/damnitq/2007/03/the_one_drop_ru_1.html

    I would love for you to share your thoughts.

    By Anonymous DJ Black Adam, at 12:41 PM  

  • I'm Irish and hispanic but if the question isn't asked politely I tell them American.

    It's funny about your Hatian friend. I could see in a country with few whites it would be pointless to call yourself black

    By Blogger Hammer, at 12:42 PM  

  • DJ Black Adam, thanks for the comment. And I will read your post. I'm curious.

    Hammer, that is a good ID policy you have. And as for my Haitian buddy, also a good point. If there is only black around it really doesn't make sense to bring it up, I guess. It's sort of like the old joke about Brazil nuts. The guy in Brazil explains "Here we just call them nuts." One problem w/my Haitian buddy is that he too affiliates the word "black" with badness and negativity. That's the primary reason he doesn't like it.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 1:00 PM  

  • I used to be a big fan of Jessica Alba but I just read a good story over on Highbrid Nation that really made me like her a lot less. Check it out if you get a chance. Now shes's saying she's not part Mexican? That's really disappointing. She's gonna lose a lot of fans over that.

    By Anonymous Evorgleb, at 1:27 PM  

  • I always call myself, African American if more than American is neccesary.

    By Anonymous DJ Black Adam, at 2:23 PM  

  • I guess I'd have to call myself a latté. That's what you get when you mix a Norwegian mother with an Arabic father.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 2:50 PM  

  • I am proud to call myself black. I feel less connected to the term African American, because to me, that describes a person who emigrated here from an African country. My people were brought here so long ago -- I know not where from -- and our arrival was far from 'emigration.'

    I am a black woman with lots of native American blood. I am often mistaken for being from other places. You've inspired me. I shall blog about that so that I don't write a novel here in your comments.

    On another note, James, I have moved my blog home. Please e-mail me for the URL, as I really appreciate your visits and I don't want you to miss a beat. I will soon delete the old blog.

    Hit me up at katrice0321 at yahoo dot com. That goes for any of your other readers who may be interested. You're all welcome!

    By Blogger katrice, at 3:05 PM  

  • I don't think anyone's every asked me what I am unless we were talking specifically about ancenstry. If you are wondering I'm Irish, English and bit of German.

    I once worked with a girl who was obviously Hispanic. She had a spanish name even. But, she angrily denied that she was Hispanic. I always thought that was strange but I never aksed her why she did that.

    Of course it could be the racist history of this town too. She eventually moved away to Texas and married a Mexican guy.

    I guess basically I'm cool whith whatever people want to call themselves though.

    By Blogger Jay, at 3:28 PM  

  • I can't believe I'm about to fess up about this, but here goes:

    When I was in college and it was all the rage to be something "other than white", I spent a couple of brief years trying to identify myself as "Native American" based on the fact that my maternal grandmother was half Cherokee and half Choctaw and born on a reservation in Oklahoma before being blown out to California during the Dust Bowl.

    I had no clue what it was to be "Indian" nor have I ever experienced life as one, but for us white kids it was hip to grab on to some other ethnicity and that's what I did. Because, like, I'm a total dweeb who should have been shot sometime after the age of 18.

    At any rate, I remember talking to my grandmother about this issue at some point and she took exception to the fact that I would claim to be anything other than American. It was, after all, what she had always called herself.

    I'm going to go flog myself out of embarassment for revealing that now.

    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 3:31 PM  

  • If someone asked "What are you?", my first reaction would be "What do you mean?". I don't tend to classify people as to genetic ethnic groups; I usually identify them as to culture, which isn't always immediately apparent. For instance, if you go down to Four Corners, and associate with the Diné (Navajo), there are two types, those from the Rez and those raised off the Rez; they tend to be a bit different. I have met people who were of African descent, but those from large cities are culturally different from those raised in rural areas. That's why I don't like most labels very much; they are too confining. Describing a person by their cultural characteristics is more accurate, in my opinion.

    By Blogger BobG, at 3:46 PM  

  • Great post today.

    I'm asked by some, "where are you from?" If I say, "NYC" or "Hollis!!" they stop to correct me. "No - what island are you from."

    Although I was born in Brooklyn, I answer, "Manhattan Island."

    For some reason, many people of Caribbean heritage don't believe that I'm American.

    I consider myself a whole 'nother catagory - I'm a native New Yorker!

    By Blogger jali, at 5:19 PM  

  • The problem with asking for identification, beyond the fact that people insist that you give your bona fides (I can't write that word anymoe without thinking of the movie "Oh Brother Where Are't Thou,") in a casual conversation, is that there is implicit in the question, the question "are you on my level?"

    Like your "Italian" friend, I don't get the question asked much because it's pretty obvious that I'm a white, middle class, non-descript, American-born male. People know "what" I am by seeing me and hearing me.

    Being what I am, I may not have the credentials to wish that people would stop asking the question; and, that they rather make the "judgement" as to "what" people are based on their conclusion of what they see and hear the person doing.

    By Blogger Dave, at 6:19 PM  

  • I get asked "what I am" regularly as I apparently look exotic in a non-specific way.

    Identifying anyone's ethnicity as a means of further dividing the human race does not strike me as productive.

    The whole issue of pride in ones heritage should be a given. And if you and I, personally, do good deeds, then we have a right to feel proud, regardless of where our ancestors came from, what color they were, and the kind of hair they grew.

    The article saddened me. I would hope that we were long over one narrow standard of beauty by now.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, at 6:33 PM  

  • with no accent to speak of and obvious skin color, I usually say I'm a mutt or just a Virginian. If I get quizical looks I begin to name the many places of my family tree starting with the highest percentage of what my heritage is or even where I was born explaining that even though I was born there, I really grew up in Virginia. Occassionally, I'll even say I'm an American. Not to be anti American, it's usually other Americans who ask, so, saying I'm American seems weird.

    By Blogger My Reflecting Pool, at 6:37 PM  

  • I usually say that I'm black because saying that I'm African/Jamaican American takes too much explanation.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 9:06 PM  

  • I'm an American. So is my wife. If pushed for ethnicity, both her maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather left the same village, Minsk Gabberna after the Great 1905 Pogrom in Red Square in Russia and came to America.

    By Blogger The CEO, at 9:07 PM  

  • I can relate to this in a way. Growing up in Hialeah when I did I was surrounded by hispanic kids in elementary, junior high and high school. When people asked me "what are you" or "where are you from" I knew exactly what they were asking me. They wanted to know if I was hispanic or not. People always seems so surprised that a fair skinned, green-eyed blonde knew Spanish and they just had to know why. When I would tell people I was American they would drill me on my heritage and when it was revealed that my mom was Italian they said "Oh that's why you speak Spanish". In actuality, it wasn't, my mother never spoke Italian to me.

    As I got older, much like Jessica Alba in the above mentioned link by Evorgleb, I was somewhat reluctant to admit to being a white girl or gringa (as we were called) and wanting to fit in more so than stand out, I began to identify myself as Italian. Again, I knew that they were asking for my heritage when they asked "what are you".

    Just for the record, though I grew up with an Irish father and an Italian mother (and my name is VERY IRISH) my actual heritage is Swedish and Italian. Don't get excited though, I didn't get the Swedish bikini team body (no I got the big Italian @ss) or the beautiful glowing skin color of an Italian (I'm fairer than fair). Nope, I got seriously jipped!

    By Blogger Dayngr, at 10:36 PM  

  • I read the article... and I thought about how I adore my granddaughters beautiful curly curls. I hate my straight hair. Why couldn't I have curls.

    Recently I have heard complaints (can't remember who made them but I think it was NAACP) about the Major League baseball not having enough "Blacks"
    Neither did they consider Dom. Rep, Haiti, Cuba, Puerta Rico etc.. Black,

    Oh the other thing I may have mentioned here before was when I was watching CNN last year. There were riots in Paris. The CNN Anchor said they were young African-Americans. I wondered why our kids were over in Paris burning cars....... Oh the PC pickle.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 1:24 AM  

  • I really enjoyed this post, James, as it one of my favorite topics. I'm a Spanish language and literature major. In graduate school I studied this issue with self-identification among blacks in the Caribbean, particularly the Dominican Republic, from a linguistic perspective. It is quite fascinating and sad. Here's an interesting linguistic tidbit. Most American born children of immigrants (2nd generation) speak English predominantly, while they may speak and understand their first language. Most 3rd generation descendants of immigrants do not retain the families language at all. Of 3rd generation descendants of immigrants, the immigrant group most likely to retain and speak the language of the 1st generation are Dominicans. Why? It seems that the motivation to speak Spanish is to distinguish themselves from African-Americans.

    The D.R. is insane when it comes to phenotype. The obsession with acquiring "white" features knows almost no end. A by product of that is that ALL of the sisters in the DC and NY areas know where to go to get our hair straight...to the Dominicans!

    I self-identify as Black. To me, that term does not distinguish me from my black brothers and sisters in the Caribbean. I prefer that. I think there should be a term that implies that I and my Trini friend are the same. African-American isn't accurate for him. And I don't feel a strong enough connection to Africa for it to define me. I like Black.

    I love this post. I can talk about this forever. But I won't do it in your comments. I promise.

    OK, one last thing. I used to teach 7 year olds in a bilingual classroom. It was 2-way immersion. Half of the students spoke Spanish and were learning English, the other half was the opposite. One day during reading a Latina girl (with obvious Black ancestry, at least to me) says, in Spanish, that Black people don't speak English well. I was puzzled and asked her why she said that. She said because it's true. I asked her if I spoke English well. She said yes. I told her I was Black (which I think is abundantly apparent to anyone with eyes). She looked more puzzled than I did. She insisted that I was not. I asked her why she thought I wasn't Black. Her answer--because you speak Spanish.

    OK. I'm done. Bye.

    By Blogger Lex, at 2:19 AM  

  • WOW! That article really played major head games with me!
    What the heck am I, really? By ethnicity, my ancestors came from Sweden and from Scotland; I'm white, American, far from middle class as my income level probably ranks me down in the lower class. My dad's family - the Scots - were very small-boned, tiny people whereas my Mom's family - those Swedes - were more big-boned -if that aspect is an "ethnic" type trait. I dunno!
    I'm just me I guess. I never had a clue there were so many variations on "race" - I always thought there was just white, black, oriental and Indian but then, one has to differentiate between Native American and Indian, as in from India I guess. Too darned confusing for sure.
    And here I sit too with my hair permed in the tight little curls that could, for the first two weeks after I get a perm, be "picked" out to be like an Afro, sort of. I do it out of sheer economics though - it keeps a curl in my hair longer that way! Maybe it all boils down to people are never quite satisfied with what components they came with -curly hair, straighten it and straight hair, get a curly perm! Go figure, huh?

    By Blogger Jeni, at 2:20 AM  

  • It's not a question I'm asked often, being one of the blonde-haired blue-eyed variety. But if it comes up I say I'm from Pennsylvania... because I am.

    By Blogger Melissa, at 1:39 PM  

  • SOmeone asks me that, I guess I have to wonder what agenda they have. I'm me. Take me on my own merits or f**k off. Now, there are several labels that might apply to me, and though some more accurate than others, none are perfect. Just me.

    By Anonymous og, at 1:02 PM  

  • wow, james...i left a comment here yesterday...came back to see if you;d responded..and bamm..nothing from me...

    anyway..this was a good post...and i'll try and remember what i said yesterday...

    By Blogger savannah, at 5:02 PM  

  • I never get asked this question, but if I were, I'd answer "mutt." Just like a lot of Americans. (Although since I am from the south, I do have to state emphatically that my family tree DOES fork! :-) )

    I'm surprising myself by responding, because since I am from the south, I tend to avoid topics of race altogether. Maybe one of these days I'll write about my experiences when I've dated black guys. Even being in the south, I got more shit from my black girlfriends than I did my white friends. Go figure.

    By Blogger SWF41, at 7:38 PM  

  • Evorgleb, I checked out that article. Crazy. I won't disagree with you on her potential fan loss.

    DJ Black Adam, this is gonna sound wierd - but it's true. The only time I ever get asked that question these days - I swear - is by elderly British tourists who think for some inexplicable reason that they detect the slight remnants of a Cockney accent in my voice. Why they think they hear that, I'll never know, 'cause from what I've been told I have a nondescript voice that could be from anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard.

    Sarc, I like latte ;-) I'll go with Mocha then, I guess.

    Katrice, I feel ya. I feel the same kind of conflict. I guess my family has been so far removed - no pun intended - from Africa it's nearly impossible for me to think of it as a home of sorts.

    Jay, I've never gotten that whole denial thing. Maybe your friend was intimidated in her hold town. Who she married sounds like a good indicator of that.

    Queen, don't feel bad. He he! Just teasing. Seriously though, there was a period in the '90s where claiming to be of Native American ancestry was a fad that crossed color and non-Native American ethnic lines. I swear I have plenty of black and Latino friends who swore that they were 1/2 this tribe and 1/4 that tribe, when they knew doggone well they only Indian they ever had in them was Indian food.

    BobG, very, very good point. Culture, these days, means so much more than appearance. Or it should, anyway.

    Jali, Native New Yorker as a category? I like that. I see a book or movie in here somewhere ;-)

    Dave, I have to admit, like a lot of folks, I tend to make snap judgments on appearance, and then (most of the time) after I've internally slapped myself back to good sense I try to gauge folks on what they say and/or do. You and I are on the same page.

    HeartsinSanFran, interesting take and well-expressed. If nothing else, take heart in the fact that that article wasn't about 'tudes in the U.S. Though I know some of those thoughts still resonate with some folks, unfortunately.

    My Reflecting Pool, we are similar mutts. I'm a Virginian too.

    Grizzbabe, that is so true about the explanation thing. How much do you give, before the other person is like "OK, OK, I just meant what state or city!"

    CEO, I gotta tell ya, that is an interesting tidbit of history. I swear, I'm being dead serious. If something, anything, prompted me to approach you as a stranger and ask the "what" or "where" questions, and you gave that answer I'd want to know more.

    Dayngr, you had me cracking up at the end. The honesty is refreshing. And it sounds like you handled it well, even as a teen. I can't imagine being asked those questions w/people acting suspicious like I was putting up a front to hide who I really was. Kudos to you for moving right along.

    Pamela, that is just insane that that overly PC anchor referred to young black kids in France as "African American." Ridiculous. And very good point about the NAACP's exclusion of black Latinos from their stats in complaining to the league. Not speaking for the NAACP ('cause I'm still angry with that organization for forcing Bruce Gordon to resign as president), but I've heard this is a chicken or egg argument. Many black Latinos insist on being identified by ethnicity and culture, because they worry that black will lump them in with African Americans. Again, I'm no fan these days, but perhaps that's why the NAACP didn't include them.

    Lex, you gave a lot more perspective to this topic. Thanks! That's pro knowledge you should put into a book or something.

    Jeni, I say you and me both when it comes to the head games. I had to read that article twice, I was so shocked. But I recall in high school and my first couple of years of college (and once or twice over the years since then) having used a perm-like product to provide a certain wavy texture to my hair. I remember always being embarassed about it and lying to my buddies that "No way! I didn't use an S-Curl. My hair is like this 'naturally'."

    Melissa, being the king of too-long answers, when I was young I used to answer "Virginia, but my mom's from North Carolina and my dad is from Philly, so you could sorta say..."

    Og, as always you make the simplest answer eloquent. Just me. I like that.

    Savannah, no worries. I'm sorry the form ate your first comment. I've had that happen a few times.

    SWF41, I also like "mutt" as an answer. You have me so curious now. You realize you have inadvertently "invited" me to ask more about your experiences in the south. Maybe I'll use it for my writing research ;-)

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:49 PM  

  • Should anyone ask, I'd say that I'm a Brit (having English & Welsh ancestry). But mainly I'd say I was human, as is everyone else - should be treating each other as such.

    What's so important about labelling people? Is it just to come up with 'differences' so that we can be 'excused' for treating them as less than completely human? Cos every time we do that we're doing the same thing to ourselves.

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 7:49 AM  

  • I'm half mexican half persian. I dont even fit on the freakin census. I'm olive. if someone asks me and i try to go with skin color i'll just end up sounding like a moron

    "oh yeah.. i'm tan. you know.. at least most of the time. then i'm just olive." "you mean like green?" "uhh... yeah."

    yeah. that bad. i tell people i'm persian and they think i'm gonna blow something up. i tell them i'm mexican and they think i have 49 kids and don't speak english.

    i just tell them i'm from california. that seems to clear it all up. lol

    By Blogger What A Crock, at 11:11 AM  

  • Excellent article! It clearly indicates how this society create some unwanted,discouraging thoughts in some group of people...Whats there in the skin color and the hair type?But people still giving importance to these things..We should learn to respect people invariable of color and region...
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    By Anonymous sakthi, at 1:12 PM  

  • I'm sorry I missed this one. Sufficeth to say that NO ONE in this world (not even Africans) wants to be labeled Black or African American, but everyone wants our style. I would like for any of you closet nigger lovers to please explain this phenomenon to me. (and before you go off on the term "nigger lover"--remember that Jesus Christ was the biggest nigger lover this world has ever known. If I lump you in with him, how can you claim you are not in good company?)

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 1:12 PM  

  • To clarify a bit, I was not suggesting that we ignore the issue of ethnicity, because the differences among us are what make us unique and interesting.

    But too often, when people ask what someone is, they want to pigeonhole us with preconceived notions, while we are all too complex to be simplified like a bumper sticker.

    I am usually willing to oblige with my lineage, to the degree I know it, when the question seems free of such an agenda.

    My ancestry is Hungarian, German, Cherokee and Russian-Jewish. I consider myself American.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, at 3:30 PM  

  • I am Canadian.

    It's not just a beer slogan.

    By Blogger Wavemancali, at 4:28 PM  

  • JB, fire away. I'm a veritable treasure chest of useless information. :-D

    By Blogger SWF41, at 7:36 PM  

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