If you ask me where I’m from, the short version will take 30 seconds, the long one could be a 5-minute monologue. To keep it simple, I’m a multicultural third-culture kid (TCK), a person of color (POC), even if to some I don’t look like one. I sometimes say I’m a mixed kid, though the implied word “race” is a social construct and there is no mixing if we are one human race. But it’s a jab at exactly that, an acknowledgement of the space I navigate. The dilemma of my cultural identity is that the world is still not where it could be in embracing otherness.
Otherness. If you are a TCK, a POC, or anything that doesn’t fit the cis-hetero white norm, you felt that one. You know what it’s like to be othered.
I grew up in and have worked for a long time in international communities, where it’s safe and celebrated to be from anywhere and everywhere. It’s beautiful. It’s what the world should be. Step out of that bubble, and you will know if you are Other. You start to understand what the norm is.
Outside the bubble I get fun loaded questions like, “But where are you REALLY from?” “but you’re not really American, are you?” Yes, I am. This is one of the many ways Americans can look. “Du bist aber keine Deutsche.” “But you’re not a German.” Doch, actually, I am. “Aber nicht Biodeutsch.” But not…oh, the fact that this term even exists - biologically German, ethnically German, a real German? - just like the American question, reveals what the speaker is getting at. Uh-huh, ok.
I get compliments like “you’re so exotic,” like a sticker on some fruit from a mysterious far away land. Worse, like some delicious conquest abroad. Oh, can’t you take a compliment? Well it’s not one. That one always comes from creepy guys, always white. It’s not a compliment. It’s loaded with what is wrong with the world.
They can’t pinpoint where I’m from. Just not here. Never here. Just like filling out forms, I am ethnicity-check-box-Other.
I am a lot of things, and every time I am not seen as not-enough-of-one, the world gets called out on its racism, its biases. I’m American, I’m German, I’m Jewish, I’m Asian, I’m Latina. I’m everything I say I am because I carry the treasures and toils of all my family’s peoples. I carry genes and cultures, cuisines and languages. I’m mixed - because the world is still so separate.
I am hyper-aware of what I look like. You get that way when the world says hmm, there’s something not quite white about her. You get that way when you are white-passing to some and get to hear some blatantly racist things the speaker doesn’t realize include you or other POCs you protectively consider brethren. You get that way when you randomly get a stabbing glare and gesture from a skinhead marching toward you when you’re going to your university dorm minding your own dang business.
I’m white enough (and cis-hetero) to know that it is a place of privilege, to know that people in this place of privilege need to step up, listen up, stand up. If you catch yourself thinking “I don’t get it,” then try to get it. Stop, drop, and LISTEN. Don’t pretend the world is where it should be or that it will get that way by not talking about it. Hear what people of color are telling you, understand why Black Lives Matter even has to be said, hear what LGBTQ+ people go through.
Don’t turn a blind eye in whatever place of privilege you dwell in. The space I navigate shows me exactly what privilege I have, what privilege reigns in the systems in place. There’s nothing wrong with being born into privilege. There is something wrong with keeping it to yourself.
Hey, before we cut to commercial break, “I don’t see color” from a white person to a person of color sounds like “I don’t see your plight and I don’t want to.” It sounds like “that was so long ago, get over it.” It sounds like “I’m fine, you should be too.” It sounds like comfort in complacency from someone sittin’ pretty in their palace of privilege. Wash your mouth out with soap. You do see color. And it’s beautiful.
How can we dismantle systems if people won’t see them?
How can we dismantle systems alone?
The space I navigate is a special one. It sheds light on the shadows that are still there. It’s confusing but I don’t mind. I like who I am and every disparate thing that defines me. I don’t fit in a box, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the boxes.