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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?