What do you call yourself?
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?