My friend Sarah Sarita Ratliff is a journalist, author and organic farmer. She co-authored a book with Bryony Sutherland, called Being Bi-Racial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide. In it, they share stories from their own lives and those of contributors whose heritage and cultures are a worldwide fusion. Sarah identies herself as Black, Japanese and White. She and her husband Paul, who is Black, live in Puerto Rico.
She related a story told to her by a friend who works in retail:
“While at work, customer finishes transaction at register, notices the store is empty and decides to make conversation with me, the employee.
C[ustomer]: (opening remark) Do you mind me saying you don’t look like a José?
E[mployee, i.e., me]: (In my head) Yes, I do. F*ck. I can’t say that. Do I try witty? Well, my name is José and this is what I look like. So, QED, I do. Do I explain politely why that question is pretty offensive? You don’t look like a racist. Too “angry.” Or point out that the power dynamic in our relationship — my ability to stay employed depends on keeping customers happy — means there are really no “safe” answers that don’t require my participation in your request that I justify to you that I am who I say I am and why I’m not the color that you need me to be. Oh shit, I’m taking too long and I’m making a strange face and now it’s awkward for him, too. Say something! (My facial expression contorts further as I push back against my own humanity) Oookay?
C: (stares at me for another moment the walks away without comment)
Pro tip: Nobody ever felt better about themselves after a conversation that begins with: “you don’t look like [identity that you seem to be performing inadequately].”
There have been times when Sarah has been asked, “What are you?” Her response has been:
“Well this depends upon my mood. If I am feeling generous, I will explain this is a very insulting question and why. Then I will proceed to explain that I am Black, Japanese and White.
If I am in a sarcastic mood or I am convinced the person asking intends to be antagonistic, I will say something flippant like “human” or “alien,” or when I am feeling like I want to mess with someone I’ll say something like, “in witness protection” or “I escaped on foot over the Himalayas.”
Often the straight answer is too much for folks. I got the “head cocked to one side and eye glazed over” look from many Americans. From Puerto Ricans the response is fairly typical: “Oh you’re just like us, mixed. You’re Puerto Rican now.” I know many American friends of mine who find this response insulting, but I don’t. You have to live amongst Puerto Ricans to get why it’s anything but and that it’s their way of saying, “when you’re here, you’re family.” And we both feel like we belong here.”
When I saw the thread on Facebook, I responded that had I been her friend, I would have asked, “What does a Jose’ look like?” That would have outed this person as racist if he had said that a Jose’ would be a dark complected, Latino. I added that when I meet someone with a unique name or one that might be from another culture, I will ask what the name means. Usually it reflects a quality their parents wanted them to embody, or else a family name. On occasion, a name will be something like Sunshine or Rainbow (really) and I laugh and ask if her parents were hippies like me. They always join me in the humorous observation.
In the Bennetton ad world in which we live, people look all different ways. My Russian immigrant paternal grandparents were darker skinned than my American born maternal grandparents whose parents were of Russian extraction as well. I inherited the appearance of my father’s side of the family, rather short and somewhat swarthy, while my red haired, freckled sister looks more like my mother’s side. Although we joke that she was the milkman’s daughter (she really was, because my father worked for two different dairies in Philadephia while we were growing up), it turns out that my maternal grandfather was tall (like my sister) and had reddish hair. When I was growing up, I heard at least once; maybe more, that line that was somehow intended as a compliment, that really is an insult, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Jewish people live all over the world and have skin color that ranges from full moon pale to velvet black.
Many years ago, my husband and I were foster parents for Kurtis whose biological parents were Black. He lived with us from the time he was 4 months old until he was 18 months old. He is dark complected. As my mother and I were walking with him seated in his stroller in a department store in South Jersey, a White woman stared and shook her head. Rather than confront her, as I was tempted to do, I bent down to this adorable child and told him that she was looking at him for so long because of how cute he was. He wouldn’t have understood racism any more than I did at that moment.
This conversation reminds me of the classic song from the musical South Pacific, called You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.
“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid of people
Whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”-Oscar Hammerstein
Michele Norris, a career journalist whose voice is heard on NPR (National Public Radio) created The Race Card Project for which she asks people to consider what race means to them and to express it in six words. What emerged was eye opening and furthers the dialog, on this topic. Her book, The Grace of Silence, speaks of her own heritage.
Some of the responses to the queries and the stories that follow:
Please consider how you would respond if you were on the receiving end of the comment that indicates:
“You don’t look Asian, Jewish, Muslim, Croation, Gay, Straight, rich, poor, like a drug addict or alcoholic, handicapped, Latino, Black, Native American, Southern, Mid-Western, Indian….”
Before you might initiate a conversation that leads with a statement like that, imagine if you were the recipient as well. If you overhear someone saying something that sounds questionable, will you speak up?
What would a world in which we could see past division and delineation look like to you? What if we could celebrate both diversity and uniqueness?