Identity Crisis

An African American Coworker/Friend asked me “are you offended if someone considers you African American?”  Random question.  Not sure where it came from, cause we weren’t discussing this. But, clearly something happened in her life (or maybe I posted something on Facebook), which made her question my feelings toward this topic.

I find it interesting how obsessed people are with color and categorizing in Maryland.  I say Maryland because when I lived in New York, I don’t recall ever being asked “what are you?”  Probably because everyone around me was “something” that couldn’t be neatly labeled.  Being first generation American, with Trinidadian parents, I am sometimes perplexed on how to answer that question, quickly and efficiently.  I don’t assume folks want to know my complete lineage, but rather, want an easy way to compartmentalize me.  For what reason, I do not know.  Living in New York, I was around other Caribbean folks – Jamaicans upstairs, Guyanese and Haitians across the street, and a Grenadian best friend.  Being around other “foreigners” was normal, and, all I knew.

Then my mother moved us to Prince Georges County, Maryland.

I hated it.  I hated it so much.

I remember when registering for school, they suggested enrolling me in ESOL classes.  ESOL is for kids who’s second language is English.  I remember my mother being extremely offended, as we ONLY spoke English at home.  The national language of Trinidad is English.  Yes, we have accents and dialects, but it’s ENGLISH.  How dare these school officials ask my mother, who taught English in Trinidad (the subject, not the language), if her child needed to go into a class for students requiring extra attention, to grasp the ONLY language she has ever spoken?

I remember being asked by classmates “what are you?” and not knowing how to answer.  I remember going home to my mother and asking her how to answer that question.  My mother, going through her own identity crisis, instructed me to respond “I am black.”  However, anyone looking at me, at that age, with my long, bone-straight hair, clay complexion, and last name Dookie, knew I was NOT just black (if black at all).

Me at 15 Years Old (left)

Me at 15 Years Old (left)

I remember my first experience with African Americans.  I remember being bullied, teased because of my last name, my weight issue, my clothes, and just not being like them.  I remember watching them tease the other first generation American kids for similar reasons, as well as their struggle with English (there were a decent amount of Asians in my school).  At least I didn’t have to worry about that.

In the 11th grade, I joined JROTC.  I remember sitting in class, the instructor handing us our assignment, me passing it back to my classmate, as instructed, him sleeping, and me waking him up.  I remember his response, “what the fuck is yo’ problem?!” I remember my response, “wake the fuck up!” And, I will never, in my life, forget what he said next, “why don’t you get back on the boat you came here on, and go the fuck back home!”  I found it interesting, an African American, clearly of slave descent, telling me, to get back on this fictitious boat.  What bothered me even more was knowing how I ended up in this country.  My father was drafted in Trinidad by the U.S.A. to fight in Vietnam.  In return for his service and risking his life for this country, he and his family would be granted citizenship.  I did not come to this country on a boat, but rather on my father’s blood.

Throughout the years, the majority of my friends and men I have dated have been African American.  I honestly have a love-hate feeling toward this culture.  While members of it have caused me tons of pain, I’ve also received tons of love, support, and cultivated AMAZING relationships.  It is easy to say people are people, however, my early and current experiences, have shaped my perception.

I do not consider myself African American for many reasons.  The #1 being, I am not African American.  Neither one of my parents are African, nor American (they are both citizens of America, but still Trinidadian).

If asked “what are you?” and in the mood to entertain the question, I reply I am mixed.  My mother is a mixture of Black and French, along with Carib Indian.  I am sure slavery was involved somewhere in there, but I have no clue how to trace back.  My father’s mother (fraternal grandmother) is half Chinese, a quarter Nigerian, and a quarter Venezuelan (based on what was told to me when I demanded answers).  I honestly would not be surprised if someone in my family commented on this post correcting this information (crazy, huh?).  My fraternal grandfather came from India.

Yes, I technically could tell people I am 1/8th chinese, 1/4th indian, etc, etc, but, most folks want the quick and dirty answer.

My Mom, Sister, and Dad - Pre Ayanna

My Mom, Sister, and Dad – Pre Ayanna

I will say it annoys me when I respond “I am mixed” to the “what are you question,” and the asker responds “well who isn’t?!”  I take it as a putdown, or a “you ain’t special” type comment.  I don’t think being mixed makes me “special” or “better” than other folks.  I think being mixed is who I am.  I was not asked to be born this way, however, who ever is in the soul and body placement group, thought my soul belonged in this body to have this human experience.

Me (baby) & My Sis

Me (baby) & My Sis

So, to neatly answer my coworker’s original question, no, I am not offended when folks call me African American.  I am ANNOYED when they insist on TELLING ME what they THINK I SHOULD be.  I consider myself mixed, Trinidadian, and American.  I hate the concept of the “1 Drop Rule.”  If I had to pick a color, I would say I am Brown.  I have been known to tell people to kiss my Brown ass.

I acknowledge most of White America sees me as a black woman, though.  My thoughts on this will be saved for another post.

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3 thoughts on “Identity Crisis

  1. Well said. I was heart-broken when my multi-ethnic toddler came home from pre-school (12 years ago) asking me “what does mixed mean”? I advised her the correct response is I’m Mali(her name) or I’m human. It’s nobody’s dog-damn business, unless you choose to share. I don’t ask, until I’m close enough with that person for an equally earnest conversation. Thanks for sharing, Ayanna ❤

    • So sad. It’s definitely a hard question, and folks can be so unknowingly rude. I’m sure your daughter goes through it on a regular basis. Writing this post made me do some deep thinking on my identity. I’m sure it will continue to evolve.

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