The Race Box

The other day I received a call from our local hospital. They needed to pre-register our littlest one for a medical exam, and began asking me a series of questions. Birth date? Insurance? Race? Before I could answer the last question, the woman on the other end quickly added, “Caucasian, right?” I paused, wondering why she assumed she was white. My first thought was that maybe she had my husband’s information in front of her….although that didn’t make much sense. Later, I realized that she had assumed I was white (that’s for another essay though). After a brief pause, I answered, “Well…I’m Black. But her father is…Latino…(At this point I remembered that they don’t usually allow you to just put “Latino” as a race)..of European Descent…(in my head I added, “and probably some Mapuche and possibly Inca and definitely Ashkenazi Jew, and quite probably some North African in there too…).” “Ok, so what should I put? African American or Caucasian? I can only check one”. Only check one. Only check one?

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I remembered my Dad’s research about this very topic, how adamantly opposed he is to categorizing his patients according to race, because although culturally significant, racial categories don’t give us enough information. A lot of people identify as “African American” but the majority of African Americans are of mixed heritage, a combination of West African, European and Native American bloodlines. The history of the “one-drop rule” in this country means that even if you technically have more European/Caucasian ancestors, you could still be considered “Black”. So a Yoruba man from Nigeria, and a person who identifies as African-American, despite having only one African grandparent, would be placed in the same racial category. Fascinating for social scientists, but a little ridiculous from a biological standpoint.

“I can also just check, Not Answered”, the woman added. I paused again. If I didn’t say “Black” was I going to turn into one of those self-hating Black people who want to run away from their African ancestry?? I should just say “Black” out of principle, as a political statement if nothing else, right? The world was going to see them as Black anyway….well at least our eldest. I looked at the baby on my lap, with her loose curls and lighter skin. I remembered that the medical staff in Santiago kept saying she looked, “mestizo” when she was born, asking me if she was going to get darker as she grew, if her hair was going to get curlier. As if I knew. Ok, maybe the world wouldn’t readily identify her as Black, but surely she would identify herself as Black…!?

“Ma’am?” I was taking far too long to answer this stupid question. “No, it’s fine, I just…I’d rather not answer the question.”

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Every year since Mia was born, I see chunks of my Tanzanian identity detach and float away, swallowed up by some vague cosmopolitan/Afropolitan-ness; the identity of a person raised in malls and airports, fed by English speaking sitcoms and commercialized holidays. Being in Chile for two years made me feel that loss even more. When I look at our oldest, I  see a little Chilean girl. She speaks Chilean Spanish and knows Mazapán songs and the Andes mountains. She talks about Santiago every day and asks us when we will go back.

I remember that feeling of homecoming, when my siblings and I would watch the dark waves of Lake Victoria from our tiny plane windows, breathing a heavy sigh of relief when we landed after those long thirty minutes of flying; the red clay dirt staining our jeans and borrowed kangas as we made the bumpy ascent to our ancestral village in Kamachumu; the loud whispering of the banana leaves in the wind…it felt like home. It belonged to us, and we belonged there. It didn’t matter if we didn’t speak the languages, or completely understand the cultural codes. When we stood out in our classes, our Afro puffs amongst a sea of straight hair, Tanzania was waiting for us. When our teachers stumbled on our last names, our classmates snickering, Tanzania was waiting for us. When the Black girls would double dutch and speak in slang I didn’t understand and the white kids would keep their distance, Tanzania was waiting for us. Whenever we were asked, “where are you from?” The answer was always: Tanzania.

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I was listening to an NPR interview with David Oyelowo, the actor who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film “Selma”, and he said something that struck a chord with me. On speaking about what it’s like to grow up as a Black person in the West, he says:

“The truth of the matter is, what living in the West unfortunately does for you as a black person is it engenders in you a minority mentality. You are a minority and so therefore you live in a world where subliminally you are being told, or you are taking on, the fact that not every opportunity afforded within that society is open to you. Whereas when I lived in Nigeria [from the age of 5 to 13] the notion of the color of my skin, the notion of opportunities afforded to me as a result, never occurred to me. And it does affect how you bounce out of bed. It does affect your ambition. It does affect your outlook on life.”

Through my Tanzanian identity, I never had a “minority mentality”. And I hope that my girls will never feel that way either.

I’m accepting the fact that they will probably stand out anywhere they live. Their darker skin and curls will continue to collect lingering stares and smiles in Chile. Their lighter skin and looser curls will attract long glances and giggles in Tanzania. It won’t be that much different from my own experiences in many ways.

But I want them to feel like, despite all that, they belong. That they have a home, roots, land, ancestors whose spirits they can feel and call on for support, a place where they can just be themselves. I hope they can both always feel that way about Chile, and about Tanzania too. I hope I can always feel that way about Tanzania.

meandmia

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I’ve decided to start a new project. I’d like to continue blogging about these questions I have about race and identity and raising multiracial girls. But I want to take it a step further. I’m going to challenge myself to learn more about our Tanzanian and Chilean cultural traditions, this includes music, language, food, and more….

And I’m going to be creating little videos, or mini-films about our attempts at integrating these little traditions into our everyday lives. I hope you’ll check back and follow me on this fun journey. And I’d love to hear from you. How do you practice your own cultural heritage? If you are in a multiracial family, how do you balance or pass down those traditions? How do you feel about those race questions?

18 Random Lessons Learned From Chile

It takes longer than two years to get to know a country, a culture, a language. 

It takes about two years to really feel settled in a new place. 

The Andes Mountains are breathtaking, frightening, beautiful.

If you walk behind a group of Chileans, within the first 30 seconds, you will most likely hear the following words being used, “cachai?” and “huevón”. 

While Chilean cuisine may not be as fancy as others (Peru, hello); they really know how to take advantage of their abundance of amazing fresh fruits and vegetables.

Also, cakes.

Let’s not forget the bread. Dobladitas, ok?!

Oh, and the meat. 

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For such a tiny country (now home to only 17 million people), they have produced an incredible amount of acclaimed writers and musicians. 

When people say, “it doesn’t rain in Santiago in the summer” they mean that literally. It. doesn’t. rain.

Chilean beaches are beautiful. And you couldn’t pay me to swim in one. 

Nescafé is everywhere.

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The custom of kissing people hello and goodbye takes a good chunk of the awkwardness out of meeting and greeting people. 

The custom of kissing people hello and goodbye, can be really annoying, especially when you are arriving and leaving a big party. 

Chileans do not come across as particularly gregarious or warm to strangers, but are some of the most welcoming and kindest people I know.

Chileans are not afraid of PDA. In any given park, you will find a few couples making out. 

Chile is a really diverse country with a lot to see. 

The world is actually quite small. No matter where you are, you´ll find people to love and things to like, as long as you keep an open heart and mind.

New Year, New Life!

I can’t believe it’s already January 2015! Ah! Happy New Year everyone! And I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who’s been following my blog and commenting. It’s been so nice to connect with people from all over the world! My new year’s resolution is to be better about actually…responding to comments in time! :)

This time last year, we were sitting on a beach in Los Molles, eating deliciously oily and crispy cheese and shrimp empanadas in the sand, watching those cold, violent Pacific waves throw surfers around. 

This time last year, we were a family of three, expecting our second child. Our toddler had just been potty trained and we had just started to eliminate dairy from her diet to see if her stomach issues could be resolved. 

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And now, one year later, we’re sitting in our new house in…. New England! There’s snow on the ground and it’s I’m-too-afraid-to-look degrees outside. Our 3.5 year old is eating a dairy free popsicle and telling stories to our 9 month old, who now knows how to crawl.  Life is scary. Everything moves so fast! 

The other day

Just the other day…!

Our last few months in Chile were a whirlwind. Moving countries with a toddler and infant requires a lot of planning, but it was far less stressful than the last time we moved. My nesting phase with this last pregnancy, and D.’s responsibilities at work, have made us infinitely more organized people. I am now the kind of person who gets excited by organizing boxes and LABELS. I don’t even know what I would do in The Container Store. Probably explode. 

I wanted to write a long post entitled, “How to Move Countries With a 3 Year Old and Infant”, but….eh. I lost the inspiration after actually going through it. Not that it was traumatic! Actually, quite the opposite. Everything (except for a few, tiny minor details) went according to plan, and the day-long plane rides were even….enjoyable (as enjoyable as a plane ride in economy can be, with an infant on your lap the entire time) with no meltdowns from either of the girls. But I really couldn’t bring myself to write a “How-To”. It feels so presumptuous and close-minded. Like, just because I made one moderately intense moving trip to another country, I’m now an expert?! I also thought about the fact that both of my grandmothers made trips like this EVERY TWO YEARS, with double and triple the number of children I have, and with less modern resources. So….yeah. 

I actually get really impatient with a lot of articles and blogs surrounding motherhood, for this  very reason. Everyone’s giving advice and creating listicles about their experiences, as if it can all be summed up in one neat little, readable blog piece like a set of IKEA furniture instructions that can be followed by anyone, anywhere, no matter what the context. As if we’re the first people ever to become mothers/parents, and as if just because we have a child, we are now all experts on child-rearing?!?! 

Anyway, that being said, here are a few pictures from December in Santiago:

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One of the “last suppers”. This was a really delicious Cazuela, courtesy of my mother-in-law. So good.

In the backyard of some friends house, after a delicious meal of grilled fish and fresh salad

In the backyard of some friends house, after a delicious meal of grilled fish and fresh salad

One last summer picnic. Food from La Vega!

One last summer picnic. Food from La Vega!

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Saying goodbye to friends at Daycare. So sweet and sad!

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Bags packed, the night before moving. Baby Gabby is ready to go!

Bags packed, the night before moving. Baby Gabby is ready to go!