In a recent survey for a future issue of YES! magazine I was asked: With which of the following racial groups do you most identify?
I stared at this question and its list of choices for a long time. I clicked one box and then unclicked it. I tried to select two, then three options at the time same time. I tried that twice.
Only one box was allowed.
I checked and double checked for an “Other” or “Multi” option. Perhaps someone made a selections or settings error? Surely a publication so committed to social and eco-justice wouldn’t corner their readers into a singular social construction of racial identity. I hadn’t had this conundrum since applying to get my teacher’s license in 2010.
Paralyzed and irritated by the question, I didn’t finish the survey.
I am not trying to sound an alarm of cultural insensitivity here. My reaction is about me. It’s about the story I haven’t told. Being asked to select one racial identity riled up frustration and anxiety with my own unknowing: of my history, of my self. It had me awake at 3 a.m. several days later mentally writing excerpts of this piece. It made me want to click three, or none of their “boxes”.
My mother is white and both of my parents were raised by my white grandparents in a rural farming town outside of Portland, Oregon. I grew up celebrating religious and secular versions of all Christian holidays. I ate traditionally “American” food: potato salad, mud pie, sausage stew, ice berg lettuce with ranch dressing.
I remember my maternal grandfather (whom I adored) frequently made demeaning comments about Mexicans. My paternal adoptive grandmother grew up with Siletz Indians near the reservations where her French immigrant father was a logger, a tree topper. My grandmother remembers that the native children would steal her lunch at school because they were starving. Her mother started a sack lunch charity to feed native kids. My paternal adoptive grandfather fought for union workers rights alongside Cesar Chavez, though I would be amiss if I claimed his activism was for the specific benefit of Mexican workers over his and other white laborer rights.
In my Masters program during a class discussion on race, I said, “I don’t consider myself a person of color.” Subconsciously, I was ashamed of being a person of color. This was a mistake of my privileged whiteness and an example of socialized racism. Now, I am only ashamed of this public statement. But I, like all of us, am still a recovering racist. More a product of whiteness, perhaps, than anything else. But aren’t we all?
When I moved from Oakton, Virginia to Eugene, Oregon in 6th grade, I didn’t know what tofu or vegetarianism was. I pronounced ‘ancient’ with a ‘k’ sound, and I was one of two or three students of color in my classes. I always wondered why I was never cast for main roles in plays. I was good enough of an actress to have the most lines in the play, but too brown to play a lead. I was the “clown” in both Shakespeare’s Loves Labor’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was Tiger Lily in the school’s production of Peter Pan.
When I was a senior in high school, my philosophy teacher asked us to participate in a cross the line activity. All the students stood on one side of a line. The teacher read a statement: “Cross the line if you are a person of color.” I stepped across with two of my classmates and turned around. At 18, this was the first time I internalized being non-white.
My father was adopted from South Korea when he was 3-years-old. He was orphaned along with tens of thousands of children during the Korean war. Because international adoption was new in the late 50’s, my grandparents knew nothing about the importance of my dad’s racial identity and keeping cultural ties to Korea. They raised my dad to assimilate into whiteness. To play baseball and work hard in school. To be an American through his service to his country. A West Point cadet. A Duke Law graduate. An Assistant U.S. District Attorney. My dad is a poster child of the American Dream. I am so proud of him it brings me to tears. I am deeply grateful for the life he and my mother worked so hard to provide for my brother and me.
My dad looks like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, hardly distinguishable as Asian. He visited South Korea arranged by his adoption agency, Holt International, when I was a in high school. He came home with a binder of documents about his adoption and a letter from his birth mother referring to him as a “little Spanish boy”.
Several years ago, an ex boyfriend of mine, no doubt intrigued and excited by my “exotic” appearance, went on the hunt to find out where my biological paternal grandfather might have come from. According to a sophisticated Wikipedia search in 2011, Colombia was the only Spanish-speaking armed forces unit in the Korean War. Based on what I saw when I looked in the mirror and my need to pin down a bloodline from somewhere, I adopted this Latin American part of my identity. It just made sense. Additionally, my 23 and Me results showed Native American lineage, designating all of North and South America. Not very helpful. Colombian sounded and appeared likely enough.
Recently, I did an interview with a new podcast in Portland that examines the experience of being bi or multi racial. I looked back at my 23 and Me results 6 years later for details I’d forgotten. It appeared, through a more complete database of DNA, that my bloodline was in fact more located in Spain and a small percentage from Puerto Rico in the last 300 years. You know, the “discovery”, conquistadors, genocide, and such. Was I perhaps a descendant of the hundreds of Tainos who were left of a once thriving and abundant society?
I recalled the letter my biological grandmother wrote about a “little Spanish boy”. Ohhhhh, I thought to myself, Spain “Spanish”. I did another Wikipedia search to find that Spain was in the Korean War on “other assignment”. Ah Spain, where did you not leave your bloodline in the Americas and beyond?
I know the controversy over 23 and Me. I choose to put some faith in it. When so much of your story is a mystery, you hold on to any page someone will write you.
I can speculate all I want, but really, I still don’t know squat about the part of the ancestry that most resembles me. (At least one student every year: “Ms. Fitz, are you Mexican?”) And probably never will.
In Oakton, Virginia, my group of girl friends in 4th grade included me, two black girls and a white girl. I haven’t had friends of color until the last few years of my adult life here in Portland (ironically — #portlandsowhite).
After the move to Oregon, my first friend in 6th grade spat, “Well, at least I don’t have dark skin” as an insult during one of our childish fights. It’s been presumed that I speak Spanish at home more times than I can count and I’ve been asked “What are you?” at least two times as many times as that.
In my graduate program, I was ostracized by students of color for “being ignorant” and not being “on their side” when it comes to issues of race. Conversely, I’ve felt deeply connected to a family of racially diverse colleagues at my last school. Together, we fought for safe spaces for our students and watched a fascist become president.
I have lived a privileged life: middle to upper-middle class and well- educated. I have traveled the world. I lived in Germany and the East Coast for some of my early life and landed in the famously liberal and notoriously white Eugene for my formative years. I spent my first semester in college in Hawaii, feeling more racially comfortable there than I ever have before or since. My first international trip was to Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. And I taught English for a year in Spain. These places called to me. And they call me back.
My story is not unique and likely one that will reflect more stories of people in the future. My blood is the blood of colonization and globalization and trauma and war. It is also the blood of determination and strength and grit and connection to place.
So, YES! magazine, I don’t know which racial group I most identify with. Please don’t ask me to pick. You do inspiring work, but you might want to change the settings and selections on that survey question.
Note: This is the first time I’ve ever publicly discussed my lived experience with race and racism. People who have known me for decades or my whole life have perhaps never heard me share these thoughts and stories. It is not racist to ask about another person’s racial identity and experience. In these times, we need to be having these conversations. Consider this an open invitation to ask questions and open a dialogue.