Inspiring * Transformational * Courageous * Personable

What are you?

If I had a shiny nickel every time someone has asked me “What are you?”  I would be able to buy a shiny new car.  Through the years the answer has been the same, just in different “what they call us these days” dialect.  When I was in elementary, I’d tell people I was Spanish.  Suburban Kansas City, Missouri in the early 1980’s understood what that meant.

In middle school through college I would answer by saying, “I’m Hispanic.”

These days depending on who is asking me I answer “I’m Latina” or “I’m Hispanic” or “I’m half Colombian half Nicaraguan.”

In my home out of respect to their culture my parents enforced us to speak only Spanish in their presense.  My mom would say,  “you can speak English all day with your friends but once you walk through the front door we only speak Spanish.”

Fast forward to the early 2000’s I was staying in Chicago for a month-long new employee training.  While loading the corporate bus from the hotel to the training headquarters, I sat next to an African-American fellow trainee.  She was very poised, friendly and had a masters degree and was one of those people you know will go far just from your first impressions of them.  So she asked me the million dollar question “So what are you?  Are you mixed?”

“No. I’m Hispanic.”

She kinda gave me this long look taking in my face and hair and said “So you’re saying you’re NOT black?”

“No my mom was born and raised in Nicaragua, my dad was born and raised in Colombia — like as in Central and South America, so no I’m not black, I’m Hispanic.”

Without any hesitation she leaned back in her seat and said “Don’t be perpetrating that you’re not black!!” For the rest of the ride she turned her back at me and did not speak to me.  From that day forward she never even made eye contact with me, never returned a greeting in the hallway and most certainly never sat next to me on the corporate bus ever again.

I was shocked.  No one had ever talked to me that way.  By her comment and her “ostracizing” of me from that moment I felt she thought I was a liar.

Do I have dark skin?  Do I have curly hair?  Yes.  I had an entire “comeback speech” prepared in my head for her — I wanted to tell her “Slaves were taken to Latin America just like they were taken to North America.  Do I have black blood in me?  Yes!  I wouldn’t have this dark of skin and this curly of hair if I didn’t.  But I was born and raised in a family that listened to salsa music, ate latin food and I never uttered a single sentence of English to my parents. I am Latina.  I’m not pretending to be anything I am not.  I’m just being who I was raised to be.”

She never gave me that opportunity so like most good “comebacks” they only come to my mind hours/days after they could have been used.  Dang it!

Now these past couple of days what has kept the media’s attention is this Rachel Dolezal issue.  The woman who was born white, raised white and now identifies herself as a black woman.  I full heartedly understand how she can be drawn to another culture and even take an impassioned interest in fighting for the rights of that culture. But to tell people she IS black is wrong.  Does that mean all it takes is to curl your hair, tan your skin and marry a black man to MAKE you black?  I would love to hear what leaders in the black community feel about her.  Yes she has done alot of work on behalf of black rights, but perhaps she has morphed her love for the culture beyond what is considered normal.  Today I heard her describe herself as transracial.  I didn’t even know transracial even existed until today!

A real black woman will gladly tell you it is not easy to be a black woman.  A real black woman will also tell you how proud she is of all the strong black women that have came before her that have served as inspiration throughout the generations within their families and their community.  A real black woman never tries to be anything other than her true authentic self.

I’m sure in the coming days there will be more unraveled behind Ms. Dolezal’s story, her mental stability or her true intentions behind living as a black woman.  But I hope she can find her true self, find out who she really is and peacefully embrace that newly found authenticity.  There is nothing more sad than a person who is so unhappy with themselves that they take desperate measures to be someone else.

In the meantime I’ll keep answer the “what are you?” question to anyone who asks.  I have always been proud of who I was raised by, the culture I was taught to respect, and the million little things that make being a Latina in this country so special.  But if you are on a bus with me please don’t tell me to “perpetrate” or “not perpetrate” anything because I will channel my inner Bruce Lee and karate chop you on the spot.  🙂

About the Author
In 1995, Mercedes Ramirez Johnson narrowly survived a commercial airplane crash that killed 160 people, including her parents. As one of only four survivors of this tragedy, she vowed that she would make her second chance at life count…and that she has – not only for herself, but also for the tens of thousands of people who have heard her story and her message.

Leave a Reply