What are you?
Human–unless aliens a la Star Trek secretly inhabit my body (sometimes I do wonder…). I also happen to be, as you see, brown of skin with curls that I am currently avoiding the impulse to drag my fingers through. I am also a loquacious nerd with an affinity for Thai curry, but somehow I don’t think that is the answer you’re looking for.
It’s an innocent enough question, one I’ve answered from age 7 onwards (basically once I had a firm grasp of reasoning and language). You’d think it would be the most innocuous getting-to-know-youism, the kind of thing that crops up in Censuses, countless work applications, and most civil conversations. And when someone poses the question, offhand, eyes eager, my responses have ranged wildly from a practiced statistical breakdown of my family genealogy to a shrugged “Mutt.”
Now I wonder if I ever owed anybody but myself the answer.
Why am I approached with this question a disproportionate number of times compared to my white friends–even some of my black and Asian-identifying friends?
Welcome to the world of the Ambiguously Brown.
There are no borders in this land, only a blurred ombre of colors shifting on their spectrum. If you reach the places where they turn opaque, you may be granted exit. But know this: this realm welcomes more people than it allows to leave, and the ticket for entry is easy to come by.
Tan/olive/light brown skin. Check.
Curly, wavy or undefinable hair texture. Check.
Eyes slanted a few degrees or more. Requires review. Additional mark if the eyes are an unusual color.
Seeming mismatch of lips, jaw, nose, and brow. Check.
The first surveying question relegates me to Ambiguity, the Indiscernible because at first glance, I cannot be figured out (why do I need to be?). Other mixed people can easily spot me–we tend to recognize our own- but with people still unused to the reality that humans take form in millions of permutations, my body amounts to a question mark.
What are you? functions as a hypothesis, and my answer will either corroborate their theories or result in further confusion if my answer fails to fall neatly into packed categories.
I danced with a older guy a few months ago in a crowded Midtown studio, trying to follow his swiveling salsa steps when he suddenly leaned towards my ear and whispered, “So what are you mami?” Words bursting out before my mind even wrapped around the question, I said: “Dominican on my mother’s side and Black with some Chinese on my dad’s side.” His smile was instantaneous, and if his hand was not gripping mine in that moment, I was sure that he would have pointed a finger at me in triumph. “I knew it!” he crowed. “I knew there had to be something else mixed in you.”
Congratulations. You have solved my genetic puzzle.
I wish I could count on two hands how many times I’ve smiled indulgently when another person has “figured me out,” but I can’t. My features present an enigma to people who are not familiar with the combinations they can make, and there is a sense of vindication when they can confirm that I am beautiful, I am exceptional simply because I’m not “just black” or just any one thing. My face is a solvable equation, elements to be discerned and separated out.
It’s not even as if What are you? is some terrible question. It can arise out of honest curiosity, a desire to know me better, to understand, but it is all too often married to the assumption that I don’t present as something easily categorizable. The subtext of the question makes my skin prickle. In that moment, I am made aware of my deviation from some unspoken norm when a few seconds ago, I was just Joanna. Rather than representing a cause for celebration, the multiplicity in my identity contrives distance between me and my ethnic communities because I am framed in a way that sets me apart from them. I am congratulated for transcending them (see: colorism), for ascending to an aspirational plane when all I want is to be normalized (see: not exotic). I am not White, yet neither do I belong fully and wholly to another category; I am in limbo.
Those of mixed heritage or of backgrounds not conventionally realized within American spaces (I think of my friends who are Arab, Indigenous, Latinx of all shades, Mediterranean, Pacific Islander) encounter this challenge to their identity because our features render us indissoluble. Once you are known, people can access your self-hood, compute your stories and locate them within their preset schemas. When your features defy easy definition, you remain a mystery, a beautiful, uncomfortable mystery that designates your status as a Passer.
There is a reason Latinx actors have played characters from every race. Even JLo has been Italian, Mediterranean, and even, on occasion, Latina on the big screen. Those who can pass for multiple backgrounds present an opportunity for society because they can be plugged in when needed, versatile tools activated when the situation calls for it. Blended into backgrounds with ease, manipulated to fit a variety of narratives, our bodies cease to become our own. Can you belong to yourself when so many others claim you for their use?
There is power in passing–I acknowledge that. A connection is forged by the bridge of my brown arms, and I am received into communities I do not even belong to by blood. I am, strangely enough, the embodiment of Paul’s assertion to be “all things to all people.” Outside of American borders, I may even enter lands with less suspicion because brown equates to safety, alludes to the comfort of kin rather than the fear of pale imperialist conquerors. My sister visited India last summer and passed through the borders and into open arms. The residents could hardly believe her when she told them that she was not, in fact, Indian. They clothed her and fed her as one of their own anyway.
Our ambiguity can draw others to us, allow for communion amidst perceived similarity.
But with passing also comes a strain of loneliness in being the New World, an entity and category unto yourself. Strangers may exult in discovering in you what you have always known to be the everyday and banal. Those of us indigenous to this mode of existence have crafted new ways to name ourselves, be they Afro-Latina, Blasian, or Desi. Some may deride this action as pandering to identity politics; I call it valuing the diversity woven into our stories, our skin by generating more lenses through which to interpret them. We give breath to our realities and resist the gazes that cast them as perpetually foreign and novelty.
A recognition of fluidity is vital in this endeavor since, “We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience,” as Michael Ondaatje asserts in The English Patient. I am American. I am Black. I am Afro-Latina. I am multi-ethnic. I am descended from that vast continent called Asia and that dear, distant motherland called Africa. The heartbeat of each identity becomes pronounced, drums louder depending on what space I inhabit and whose company I am in.
Inside the walls of the places I call home, all these things thrum inside my veins simultaneously. There is no division there, no fractions concerning my grandparents and great-grandparents to work out. Then I step out my door and board the 1 train to downtown Manhattan, watching the mosaic of faces around me shift colors, and somewhere along the rail, amidst the shaking and rattling through neighborhoods, I become Ambiguously Brown. I become what the Seventeen magazines I used to read as a teen call “ethnic.” I feel then the weight of others’ gazes, cemented from over two decades of probing questions. Though devoid of green skin and Klingon brow ridges and spiked antennae, I become alien–again.