By Chantal Braganza
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an elementary school classroom. Do they still have those paper people chains across the tops of chalkboards, each one a costume for a country?
In the first grade, we were once paired up with an eighth-grade student each to make flags of where our parents were from. It was a simple assignment. Get some books, look up the flag, the Big Kid drew it and the Little Kid coloured. For the eighth graders this likely seemed like a waste of time—especially the cool ones, which my partner was, and I know this because he was wearing a No Fear sweatshirt, chewed gum in the school library and stuck the pieces in the axles of where those wiry rotating bookshelves would turn.
He also couldn’t have been thrilled to have been partnered with a kid who would force him to draw four flags instead of one, because she was too indecisive to pick. Mexico was easy enough. My mom was born there, lived there till she moved here, and it’s technically the country in which I first started talking.
For my dad we drew three. One for Kenya, ’cause that’s where he was born & raised; one for Goa, because the community he was raised in was historically expatriate; and one for India, because as of 1987 that’s where Goa is. (But honestly? Few expat Goans will tell you that upfront. We were colonized by the Portuguese first, goddamnit, and apparently there’s a difference.)
It’s the first memory I have of coming up with an explanation of where I’m from, a question I was asked enough growing up to be led to believe heritage was something I had to account for. I’ve got a similar business-card-like story for how my parents met. It’s a cute one, and probably better when my mom tells it.
But yeah. I’ve passed for plenty of things, and am ashamed to admit the ways in which this was advantageous. A couple of years after that flag project, two kids appeared in my class at our then-smallish suburban school, freshly moved from one of the same places whose flag I’d fought an eighth grader so hard to colour. They spoke differently, acted differently and were the uncoolest people to be associated with—whether by association of friendship or race. Honestly, it doesn’t matter from where or which of the flags, because I probably would have done the same regardless: I stepped out of that identity for the rest of my time at that school. It wasn’t for long, but long enough to feel horrible about it until it was convenient again to slip back into that skin.
I started thinking about this a lot after reading a Thought Catalog piece on How to Be Racially Ambiguous and talking about it on Twitter. It’s funny and kinda brilliant, but to be honest I was kind of insulted the first time I read it. Probably because plenty of what Carmen Villafañe says is true. A hallmark of good satire, I guess?
There’s still a couple of things with the piece I’m not jazzed about, and Kelli Korducki, who’d written about this earlier, so wonderfully explains one of them:
“Why would you want to be just one simple, uncomplicated race when you can make yourself more interesting at parties with your heightened sense of worldliness and traumatic multi-racial identity?” asks Villafañe. This is totally tongue-in-cheek, by the way. Sure, it’s great having that invisible backback to carry around when convenient, so that you can take people by surprise with your wacky “ethnic” background tales, but sometimes you want to feel your mother’s discrimination. Not because it will give you cool stories and street cred, but because she is your fucking mother. That is half of you. Just as much of you as anything else.
The idea that being in any kind of position of privilege wipes out, even makes up for, awkward/painful/embarrassing/and-ok-sometimes-funny experiences of being hard to classify is also kind of grating. But the fact that racial ambiguity is something to satirize, even start a YouTube video genre about, means that it’s also not some sidelined section in social studies textbooks or a niche category in immigration-themed fiction anymore. Mixed-race issues/feelings/etc. are slowly becoming mainstream discussions (as Kelli also pointed out), and I’m thrilled that they are. Hell knows I haven’t spent enough time talking about it myself, as this disjointed post probably suggests.
Oh! One more thing. What smarted the most about the TC piece was, in the end, most true for me. “When someone asks you where you’re from,” Villfañe says, “take a deep breath and roll your eyes. They may as well have asked you to translate the Bible into one of the three languages you don’t speak fluently.” In a way, that’s kinda exactly how I started this post. Half because I felt I had to. And the other half? Well, it really did feel good.