What a privilege it must be for people to be able to identify you, to place you correctly in the American mosaic with just one look. Not to have them stare quizzically at your face, or ask , “What are you?” like they have a right to know. How comfortable it must be to live without being on guard for the stream of strangers who mistake your identity for some other group and disturb your sense of self.
But I wouldn’t know. Because my mixed black-white looks, olive skin, and curly hair confuse people. So much so that their questions and assumptions about me have become a tiresome intrusion to be borne.
Sometimes the misidentification is maddening. Like the time a white gas station attendant where I filled up regularly stuck his head and stale smoker’s breath too close to my open window to ask, “You Spanish?”
When I said no, he kept on down the list. “Eye-Talian?” No. “Injun?” No. “You ain’t a Jew, are you?” No. “Then what? Tell me,” he said.
Black, I said.
He ordered me to get out of the car so he could take a good look, reaching for the door handle.
“You better step the hell out of my way if you don’t want your foot run over,” I snapped, then peeled out of the station.
Nearly forty years later, I experienced a slightly more polite repetition of this line of questioning 1,500 miles away. The confused party was a perplexed East Indian gas attendant. When I said I was black, his “Oh!” sounded like that of a student learning the right answer to a pop quiz. Irritating as it was to be the object of curiosity, I wondered how an obvious immigrant — brown, wearing a turban and speaking heavily accented English, didn’t understand my distaste at such a challenge.
Sometimes being misidentified goes beyond simply being irritating to have larger ramifications on my life. At an annual physical, I was handed a printout of the day’s vitals and information about further appointments. I glanced over the fine print and noticed racial categories listed. Mine was marked white. Was the mark a careless mistake that failed to capture our prior conversation about treating sun spots due to the extra melanin in my mixed race skin? Or had he simply made an assumption when I’d first walked into the room? What if I’d had symptoms of sickle cell anemia or lupus, diseases more common in African Americans? Would he have missed that possibility because he thought I was white?
Then again, my misidentification might be to my advantage. Last spring, when the sun shone brightly, I drove absentmindedly on a straightaway until an intimidating motorcycle policeman in sunglasses pulled me over and said I was speeding. I fidgeted behind the wheel, thinking about points added to my license and increased insurance rates while watching him pull out a form and write me up. But he handed me a warning, not a ticket. But there it was again. When I read over the form, he’d checked my race as white. Couldn’t he see I sported an afro to make a statement?
But what if he had seen me as black? Would he have penalized me, profiled me, handed me a ticket instead of a warning? Statistics on the harsher penalties police impose on blacks made me wonder, shamefacedly, if being taken for white is a privilege. And to the extent I do get those extra passes, although I’ve never asked for them, darker African Americans have resented me. Should I accept those misperceptions or keep protesting that no, I’m black? And if I accept those misperceptions, or just let them go to end the whole uncomfortable business, am I selling out, as I know some black people would think?
If I am going to confess, there are times when my misidentification brings out the worst in me. One night, in a cab in midtown Manhattan, I suddenly spotted my destination, blocks ahead of where I’d told the cabbie it was. He stopped on the wide avenue where he could—on the opposite side of the street. I pushed open the cab door on the traffic side without looking. Whoosh! A brown Hispanic man on a bike swerved narrowly around my door.
“Dumb white bitch!” he yelled at me, pedaling away into the night.
So frustrated to be insulted by another person of color, I stood in the street shouting after him. “I’m not white! I’m NOT white.”
When I recounted this episode later to a friend, he asked me, “He called you a ‘dumb white bitch.’ But, of those three insulting names, the only one that offended you was being called white?”
It was. Street talking people used ‘dumb’ and ‘bitch’ so commonly as put downs for minor disagreements I was able to dismiss both with minor irritation. But, knowing first-hand the vitriol people of color use against white people, I couldn’t bear to be seen as white. Or to hear a brown person lob his version of “what are you” at me. And just as painful, standing on that rainy Manhattan street, I was made to feel the white half of me, the white side that America buried with the one drop rule and the irrelevance assigned my white mother’s race. I’d always known that my black father made me a black person. So what other reaction I could have had to being called white when black was all that had ever mattered?
What I wish is that people would identify me as a person, and accept my mixedness as unremarkable. That gas attendants, police, and aggrieved bikers would let me be both races and not need to categorize me. That those who need to know my specific racial background, like doctors, would inquire, note and act on its pertinence.
As America’s mixed race population grows, as the Census predicts it will, I look forward to when people won’t stare at me, misidentify me, or ask “what are you.”
How grand that will feel. I can’t wait.
Image: “ identity ” by Natasha Mayers , licensed under CC BY 2.0
Johnson completed the Memoir Incubator program at Grub Street. She has been awarded residencies at Djerassi, Blue Mountain Center, Ragdale, and the VCCA. Johnson holds a Harvard MBA and a Howard University BA.