The Identity Game

"Where are you from?"

Seems like a fairly innocuous question, right? It fascinates me, where people are from, especially living in New York, where I am not from.

But if their race is ambiguous, or even if it's clear, sometimes I ask, "Where are your people from?"

For me, racial identity is a source of liberation, and it conjures up the memory of my family. "Why do you ask people that?" my friend asked me one day as we ate dinner and I told him about one my latest "finds" -- a woman who I had always assumed was "white" but who was Haitian, a political refugee, in fact, and who had married a man from Vietnam. I was in thrall of my "only in New York" novelty at the match.

"I like to know where people are from," I responded, now a little defensive since he wasn't buying in the "fun" of my discovery, which was the reason I told him; I hadn't shared this tidbit with him to have my motives questioned.

"You don't like to know where people are from," he began, his eyes squinting a little as they focused on me, slightly more intense to make his point. "You have to know what people are."

The possibility sent me into a reflective space for some days, as I started to piece together certain threads of a larger narrative I participated in about identity.

On the one hand, there was something generous (or at least innocent) in my inquiry. In North Carolina, where I grew up, folk often asked, "Who are your people?" It was a way of finding a connection. I tell people, "Look, my mother has over 70 first cousins! It's a likely thing that if you ask someone down in those parts enough questions about where they're from, you might find yet another family member."

Asking who someone's people were was an echo of the search of the freed slaves as they made their way down dusty roads, looking for kin or "fam'ly" who had been scattered and displaced. When connections were found -- then and now -- it offered a space for celebration that we were one, and had survived the attempts to discard us to the wind.

However, as my friend hinted, there can be an ugly side motivating the need to know where someone's people are from: at the same time all those freed Africans were searching for their children, parents and siblings, the law herded people into a confined racial identity to maintain a social order bedrocked on white supremacy. It was illegal to gallivant without a racial moniker in the white world if you had a determinable amount of African blood.

Today, white supremacy is no longer explicitly enforced by the law. But I'm still reminded of the motivation to treat people according to what their race has been determined to be when I hear stories like my friend Amanda's. Amanda is a fair-skinned black woman from Texas who works in financial services in New York. Her colleagues constantly bombard her with questions about her race -- "What are you?" and the like. "It seems that no one at work knows how to talk to me, or how to be comfortable around me if they can't pin down my race," she complained. "And for some reason, they find it difficult to believe and accept what I tell them. Which is the truth!"

What ignorance! I exclaimed -- my first reaction. It seemed to be basic American history that because of the mixing of races -- especially during slavery -- there were some blacks who were light-skinned. Nothing less than genealogy explained the unpredictability and range of skin color today.

But later I thought of my experience in Paris, where I lived for some time. In the States, my dark brown skin never prompted inquiries about my racial identity. But in Paris, white Europeans rarely believed I was American. In racist incidents on the street, there was never any question about where I was from: I was always assumed to be African. (Once on the regional public train, I had my feet slightly propped on the seat in front of me, which caused a white Frenchman to exclaim, "All you Africans need to stay where you are! You come here and don't respect our country!")

In casual conversation -- over dinner at someone's home, for example -- white French watched me with a somewhat amused look as I explained that I was American. They waited patiently. And when I was done, they insisted, "But where are your parents from?" It was clear I was being given the chance to cut to the chase and tell the truth about how I could be a black American and look so African. After several conversations like this, I realized that they were having difficulty believing where I was from because of how I looked. So the next time this sort of exchange came up, I tried to give a short history lesson (to their ignorant asses) about slavery and the African Diaspora. No success. As I lectured, they had the same patient waiting in their eyes. When I finished, they focused on, "so where are your ancestors from?" Still waiting for me to "admit" I was really from Africa.

But wait -- wasn't I?

The whole thing left me with a strange sort of guilt about whether I was denying I was African. When I was in Senegal (where I had to go since I rarely had a Senegalese person approach me without saying, "Nangadef!" in Wolof -- the predominant language there) I was again forced to deny I was African. But being there confirmed that I wasn't. Although there was a comforting familiarity in so much of what I felt and experienced, at the end of my trip, I had more comfort with the fact that I was a black girl, from Fayetteville, North Carolina. (And as folks say back home, "Won't nothing wrong with that!")

Which brings me full circle. I looked across the table at my friend's face, where he sat waiting to hear my reaction to his accusation that I just had to pin down a person's racial classification. The defensiveness that had surged in me earlier subsided. It was true: I did like to know what people were.

For me, racial identity is a source of liberation. When I tell who I am, whose I am, and where I'm from, I conjure up the memory of my family. When "Fayetteville" floats from my lips, out waft memories of being little with my cousins, us running and running around the yard, while adults sat and fanned themselves under the big sycamore trees in the yard of the house where my great-grandparents raised all 14 of their children. I am inviting the listener to tell me how they identify themselves -- how they celebrate their own creation story. And whatever answer they offer is the one I accept.

Alicia L. Young is a freelance writer and civil rights attorney who recently moved from one end of the world to another -- Brooklyn to Harlem.

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