'What Are You?' 'Are You Adopted?' A Biracial Black Woman Gets Real About The Questions People Have The Nerve To Ask
Since June 2020, we've asked for your stories about how race and ethnicity shape your life and and published as many of these stories as we can. We call this year-long effort Race in LA. Click here for more information and details on how to participate.
By Rebecca Jones
I was born in Burbank and raised in Glendale. My mother is white and my father is Black. This was entirely unremarkable to me for most of my childhood, because race was not discussed in our household, ever.
I recall discovering the concept of racism at around age seven. When my mom explained that many believed Black people to be inferior, I was confused. Numerous popular Black musicians and sports stars came to mind, all of whom appeared to be universally revered. It just didn't add up in my young mind.
The absence in our home of discussion, explanation, or historical context, coupled with an education that discussed slavery as a barely-relevant footnote from the distant past (and certainly did not trace the line between then and now), left me oblivious to reality.
It also left me unable to make sense of the racially-tinged comments directed at me when I was a child.
Whenever I was asked, "Are you adopted?" or "Where do you get your color?" or "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" I had no idea what people were getting at. So I tended to answer literally, without elaborating, as in "from here," which was not the answer people were looking for.
The logical answer to "What are you?" is, of course, "A person." But even as a child, I knew enough not to offer a response so self-evident as to be obnoxious.
I did not (and still don't) know how people perceive me at first sight. I look like whatever people want to see. I've been assumed to be white, Black, Asian, Hawaiian, Brazilian, French, Mexican, Belizean, Jewish, Moroccan, and many more.
People have always asked me strange, disorienting questions to which I've never had a smart response. Usually, my mind just goes blank for a few moments, and I don't think of a brilliant retort until long after the fact.
When I worked at the Huntington Library and Gardens as a security guard, a guest once felt it necessary to ask me, "How's your English?" (to which I replied, after a stunned pause, "Not bad...") before he felt confident that I could reliably direct him to a restroom.
In college, a few of my professors took me aside after class and expressed surprise that I was the author of my own schoolwork and that I performed well on tests. The teacher for my Italian class wrote at the top of one of my essays: "Does someone help you with your assignments?" I found this insulting, but didn't quite know what to make of it.
Eventually, after different versions of this scenario played out over my college career, I concluded that to them, I just appeared to be less intelligent than I am.
'UNDERESTIMATED ON SIGHT'
It occurred to me only recently that this could be tied to racially-based assumptions about dark-skinned people. I suppose it could also be tied to the fact that I am very quiet. When engaged in group conversation I tend to smile and nod a lot, without speaking much. Maybe this could lead one to conclude that I don't speak English?
But I really don't know what's in anybody's head. All I know is that I can predict that I will be underestimated on sight.
More recently, I had a bizarre exchange with a neighbor during the time I was taking prerequisite courses for nursing school at my local community college. I'd walk to and from school, as it was only a half mile from home, and after months of exchanging wordless waves and smiles with this man across the street, he spoke to me one day, as I was approaching my house.
"Heading to work?" he asked.
I was dumbstruck for a few seconds. What work would I be heading to at my own home, with a school backpack hanging from my shoulders?
It took a moment to realize that for years, this man had been assuming me to be the domestic help at my own house. I didn't take that as an insult, it just threw me off balance and rendered me speechless for a few moments.
If I remember correctly, I smiled and said "No, I live here."
Another weird incident worth mentioning took place when I was a child. My maternal aunt, who is white, had my younger sister and me stay a week at her ranch house in Otay Mesa near the border with Mexico. This was before the seat belt law, and we kids used to play on the floor of the back seat on long car rides.
My aunt was pulled over by some kind of officer. I'm pretty sure it was not the police, so it may have been the Border Patrol. She was questioned for a long time about who we were, and why we were "hiding" on the floor of her car. He apparently thought she had smuggled us, her brown-skinned nieces, across the border.
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I guess he thought we looked enough like "illegal aliens," the unfortunate term for undocumented immigrants at the time, to arouse suspicion. I don't know how she convinced him that we were her nieces, but thankfully he eventually let us go.
My racially ambiguous look probably confuses people. I can't blame them for that. Maybe what they feel is similar to what I feel when I can't determine the gender of an adult: curious, intrigued, with questions that would probably come off as ignorant, insensitive, or downright idiotic — so I don't ask. I definitely share the culpability in our culture when it comes to our clumsy attempts to make sense of individuals who are not easily labeled.
Usually, the odd comments and questions directed toward me come off as friendly-ish, and I find most of these encounters innocuous or even a bit funny. Instances of feeling genuinely threatened have been few and far between.
WHAT'S IT LIKE TO NEVER BE QUESTIONED?
It is only in retrospect, and upon deep reflection, that I have considered the likelihood that white people have an experience of the world very different from my own, and a different feeling about their place in it. I suspect that these feelings are largely unconscious, as most of mine have been for much of my life.
A white person with a local accent is not likely to be asked where they are from, nor would anyone be surprised by their intelligence or their English proficiency. A white student walking home with a backpack, I think it's safe to say, will not be assumed to be a domestic worker rather than a neighbor. And they most certainly will not be suspected of being undocumented.
I wonder what this feels like, not only to feel at home in your country of birth, but to have others automatically recognize your legitimacy in it. What it feels like to be considered, by default, a "real" American with nothing counting against you, always getting the benefit of the doubt, and no one surprised by your mental acuity or academic and career accomplishments.
It has only become apparent to me recently — within the past decade, and I'm in my 40s — that some people belong by default, and are not required to prove anything before they are considered acceptable members of our society. Over time I've become increasingly aware of what it means to be a person of color in this country, but it took me a long time to start pondering what it means, and what it might feel like, to be white in this country.
On the other hand, looking like I do also has a multitude of benefits. Oftentimes I enjoy that people make weird assumptions about me, mostly because they are usually wrong, and if they talk to me for a minute, they will find that out.
I like that I can blend in with the crowd in so many places around the world.
When I travel, people often speak to me in their own language, seeing me as potentially one of their own. I've been most surprised to be addressed in Thai, both in Thailand and here at home, in Thai Town in Hollywood. When met with my raised eyebrows and uncomprehending smile, people have apologized, "Oh, sorry, look like Thai!" I love it when this kind of thing happens. It makes me feel inconspicuous, unthreatening, and welcome.
At times, I feel more like a world citizen than a U.S. citizen.
Another side to this — something of a mixed blessing — is that because it's not always obvious that I'm half Black, people tend to speak freely in my presence about Black people. The things I've heard while in "spy mode" have been surprising, sometimes hurtful, and occasionally downright horrifying.
But I'm grateful for the privilege of getting a glimpse into people's minds: what they truly think and feel, and how they speak when they believe they are safe among like-minded companions.
Unfortunately, I still have not figured out how to respond appropriately in these moments. I suppose the best approach would be direct, matter of fact, non-threatening questions:
"Why do you feel the need to lower your voice to a harsh whisper to utter the word 'Black'?"
"Is the fact that the person was Black relevant to your story?"
"When you say that if Obama is elected, 'Those people will just expect more handouts,' which people, specifically, are you referring to?"
"Why would you fear that your Black male medical technician might sexually assault you?"
And there's one request I should learn to make: "Please don't use the N-word in my presence."
I have never mentioned my racial background in response to any of these incidents. I believe this would cause people to clam up, and I would no longer have access to their real thoughts.
And it would probably lead to those awkward non-apologies that I've heard too many times: "Well I didn't mean you," or "You're not like that, you seem white," or "It's OK, you don't even look Black."
I've heard enough of that to last a lifetime. I'm not going to ask for it.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
In one regard, I am grateful for the obliviousness with which I was raised. It didn't occur to me that others might actually consider me inferior, or could be deliberately attempting to marginalize me.
The comments I heard when I was young had no place to land in my consciousness, and I was too ignorant and naive to use them as a foundation for building my sense of self. However, they did make a mark on my unconscious mind, and I did not have a mental framework with which to process them, nor a counternarrative to neutralize them.
I don't know if or how a greater awareness early on would have affected the trajectory of my life. I do know that the work I'm doing now, unearthing and reprocessing so many things from the past — in light of current events and a more open conversation about race in this country — is the work that many people of color have had more of a head start on.
I feel developmentally delayed in this regard. Swallowing and suppressing my reactions, and immediately replacing them with ready-made excuses for the behaviors of others, is a habit so ingrained that it will take a colossal effort to alter those mental patterns. And it is very, very uncomfortable for me to speak about this topic.
But I think the time has come to try.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rebecca Jones was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, and attended college in San Diego. As an adult she has lived in Washington D.C., Japan, and Scotland, but eventually returned to L.A. where she now resides.
She has studied and worked in various fields including linguistics, massage therapy, woodworking, and aerial and ground acrobatics. She currently spends her time babysitting a 3-year-old, tending her plants, and constructing a Guarneri-style violin.