Rita Sayegh/MiC.

“I want the tall Mexican kid!” Nobody moved from the pickup basketball line. Every player’s eyes were suddenly searching for this elusive, presumably Hispanic guy so the game could start. 

“You, dude, YOU” an impatient finger points directly at me, the exasperation clear in my temporary teammate’s voice. 

“Uh… I’m not Mexican,” I awkwardly reply. 

“Yeah, yeah no hablo Español motherfucker. Just get on my team.” 

Uncomfortable laughter erupts. I trot over to my temporary team. 

As hilariously offensive as this exchange was, it may be familiar to many ethnically ambiguous Americans like me. I have learned repeatedly throughout my life that if someone doesn’t know what “group” you belong to, they’ll be sure to put you in one.

I am not entirely sure when I first became aware of my “race”, or even when I realized that race was something that mattered. Perhaps it was one of the times some random white person thought it was a good idea to ask if I was adopted when I was out with my dad. Truly crucial information for her to go about her day. Maybe it was the hundreds of times I got the “Where are you really from?” question. That one is always a favorite. An even better rendition is the “Is it ok if I ask what your race is?” … Uh, I guess so dude? Or maybe it was getting called racial slurs at summer camp. Sailing camp in North Carolina turned out to be a dubious idea at best. 

If you’re even slightly melanated, you may also have a number of awkward, hilarious and/or offensive exchanges imprinted in your memory. There comes a point, whether it be middle school, elementary or even Pre-K, that the white majority of the U.S. stamps you with an otherness that is seemingly impossible to escape. There is something undeniably American about a knee-jerk desire to compartmentalize racial and ethnic groups. A desire that is not born from curiosity or genuine interest in other cultures or histories, but from a need to organize. An attitude that says, “once I find out your ‘group’ I’ll know how I can treat you.”

Throughout a life full of “Which one of your parents is white?” and “Are you allowed to say the N-word?” and “Where did you get your tan?”, I’ve learned that it’s some combination of unsettling and intriguing for many to see me and not be able to immediately allocate me to some region of heritage. I could be Latinx, European, African, Middle Eastern, you name it! I’m a nosy white lady’s worst nightmare. 

An interesting social phenomenon I’ve noticed is the hesitation in the questions — the faux uneasiness in asking. It’s as though it’s polite to be on the fence before asking an inherently rude question. Look, I know you don’t really care about my comfort, so you may as well just ask away. The truth is — I don’t really mind when people ask anymore. I have no problem simply shrugging or walking away from rude or inconsiderate people, or even making up an outlandish answer to cue them in on their own weirdness. “Oh yeah I’m from Sweden, I just tan really easily.” As I have gotten older, I have come to learn that I don’t owe anyone answers about my personal life or identity. A valuable lesson I’ve learned from my mom is that if someone takes offense to my indifference, then they’re simply not a person worth talking to in the first place.

What I do mind is the fact that I don’t even completely know my heritage. Imagine how frustrating it can be sometimes. “Hey man, where you from from?” I’m not really sure. If nosy people at the grocery store are curious, just think about what it’s like to look in the mirror every day. Where am I from?

I have a vague idea, of course. My dad’s side is the simple part, a blend of white European immigrants. Along with his last name, I inherited a healthy dose of Irish-Italian blood, thick curly hair and an inability to dance. My mom’s side is where things get complicated, a mixed bag if ever there was one. She has seven siblings and each one looks to be from different area codes, longitudes, latitudes and continents. Every family member is essentially a surprise. Uncle Doug is undoubtedly a Black man, but Aunt Tony-Girl is a pale amber and everyone thinks my mom looks like Jeanie Boulet from “ER.” My sister and I carried on that legacy, it would seem. She’s fairer than me, with blonde hair and blue eyes no less. One family, same genes, just a cocktail of phenotypic expressions and confused nosy neighbors. 

Don’t get me wrong, curiosity has gotten the better of me many times. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t fully escape the culture of ascription that surrounds me, but my identity is important for more reasons than being able to tell people about it when they ask. Identity is as personal as a name or a laugh. While it’s annoying and disheartening that a made-up construct like race is intrinsic to its construction, as long as it is I will always wonder exactly who, what and where I am composed of. 

There is comfort in racial and ethnic identity. Pride. There is a fondness and security I see others have that I wish I could in many ways. I’m proud to be a member of my family, and I’m proud to call myself a person of Color, but the tension that comes with my ambiguity extends beyond my interactions with white people. What struggles am I allowed to participate in — allowed to feel as though they apply to me? I’ve been discriminated against and suffered both micro and macro-aggressions because of my skin, but I’ve also had people of Color tell me that they consider me white. It seems that no matter what, ascriptive culture has me at a loss. I know that I have African American heritage, but I am by no means a Black man. I know that I am related by blood to members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, but nothing of my upbringing or familial culture was by any means Native American. The Ramapough Lenape themselves are a wonderful combination of Native, Dutch and Freed people, so no luck there if I wanted a concrete group of origin. What a headache! The more I learn about my history, the more blended it becomes. I wish it was as simple as just asking my mom, but that always got me some version of the same disappointing answer. 

“You’re an American Stephen, who cares!” 

The first time I had that conversation with my mom, I was endlessly frustrated. I know I’m an American. Culturally and physically, I fit right into the romanticized melting pot that this country so often fails to live up to. Although I wish it wasn’t the case that the closest identity marker I’d get would be so inherently problematic, it is evident that being an American isn’t even something to be proud of. I was born in Long Island, raised in Maryland (though I claim D.C.) and deeply appreciate the art, food, music and culture I grew up with. However, this country’s history is full of targeted violence and systemic oppression that directly brought about this “melting pot” that many revere and praise. Having an already tainted image of this country given its oppressive history, it was disheartening to be the physical manifestation of a rhetoric that’s simply tokenizing. Being an “American” felt trivial and at odds with my personal values. I wanted to know where the melanin was from, my non-whiteness. So much of American culture tells me that due to my skin tone, being “American” must only be part of the story. Everyone and their racist grandma wants to know, so I figured I ought to figure it out. 

I routinely had this conversation with my mom several years in a row around Christmas time. I would ask for an Ancestry.com or 23andMe test and each time I was met with reluctance or chiding rebuttal. “It’s not like you as a person will change in any way. It doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.” How could it not matter? How could I exist in this ambiguous space without grounding, without a broader community? If I’m going to be bothered so often, at least let me know who the “others” I can relate to are! I’ve often been envious of people who are able to call a group their own, who belong somewhere in a way I often feel as though I don’t. 

However, with each passing year, I believe that I see more nuances to my mom’s philosophy. I think I am slowly learning that her answer isn’t just her being dismissive or flippant, and isn’t necessarily to say that my racial or ethnic identity doesn’t matter. It is in part a rejection of this culture of ascription that detracts from meaningful interaction, and in larger part an explanation that the nuances of my identity are truly as American as it gets. I believe that my mom’s interpretation is her protecting my peace, and I will forever appreciate that. The idea of a hodgepodge person born from generations of cultural and ethnic plurality is a noble one. As I get older, I notice I take more and more pride in that idea of my identity. I think that I still have more capacity for appreciation of my existence and am interested in seeing how that appreciation grows in five or ten years. While feelings of insecurity and curiosity are sure to reappear from time to time, I feel blessed to be in such a unique position.

I’m an American in the sense that I’m just some guy. To my mom’s chagrin, I’m sure I’ll do some ancestry program at some point to get the percentages in my head because I’m obsessive like that, but my initial reasoning for getting the statistics has evolved. I no longer care about changing my life or attitude to fit those numbers as I once did. A naive and immature perspective of social readjustment has grown into a more three-dimensional appreciation of my specific heritage. I’m not going to take on new dimensions of my identity or ~get in touch with my roots~. I don’t intend to adjust my self-perception based on newly discovered pieces of my history. I’ll still shrug off nosy people and continue to make up answers for my amusement when I get asked about my skin. I’ll simply have the privilege of knowing a little bit more about myself and move on trying to be the best person I can be. I’ll continue to take pride as a hodgepodge person because that’s how I identify.

MiC Columnist Stephen Buckley can be reached at stevegb@umich.edu