Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
NPR's Melisa Goh says "What are you?" is a question every American needs to answer.
NPR's Melisa Goh says "What are you?" is a question every American needs to answer. Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
My mother's family is white, about as white as Americans come. She grew up on a hilltop in Ashcamp, Ky., just west of the Virginia border. She tells me that if she had brought home a black man — or even anyone not from the Appalachian hills — her father would have reached for the shotgun.
Apparently, when she brought a Chinese guy "up the holler," my grandfather was too stunned to react. He managed to recover in time for the wedding five months later.
One of the things that make being multiracial unique is the question, "What are you?" Long ago I trained myself to answer, "I'm an American." It's a tidy little line that welcomes patriotic solidarity, while setting up a defensive perimeter should the rest of the conversation take an ugly turn.
It's a safe thing to do, because another part of being mixed is being an outsider. People don't know where you fit — like you've been given a special-access pass to a club that otherwise wouldn't let you in. I tend to "pass" for white, but there's a whole other culture that has equal claim.
So the conversation about what I am can slip fast from race to nationality. "Is your father American?" Well, yes. Yes, he is — though he didn't start that way. But I never knew him as anything else -– just as I never noticed he had an accent or didn't look like the rest of mom's family. They never treated him differently, and, in this one place, among my family, I've never been an outsider.
It wasn't until I was older that I realized the rest of the world might feel differently. I think of my mother angrily brushing her hair before going inside to lash the gas station clerk for telling my father to go back to where he came from. Go back where? This is our home. We're Americans.
I missed my extended family's reunion dinner last month, so, as usual, I called Mom for the update. Everyone looks good, by the way; no new cancer scares, though one uncle just had knee surgery. And then I practically heard her eyes roll as she told me about the bumper sticker on my cousin's car. It reads, "Somewhere in Kenya, a village is missing its idiot."
That would be the work of my cousin's husband. He's her knight in shining armor. He actually saved her life once, and you couldn't find a bigger heart or a better friend. But there's nothing he likes better than giving a poke in the liberal eye.
But this jab struck a tender spot. He sees the sticker as a purely political matter. I see it as unquestionably racial. I drew blood when I pointed this out, and our conversation took that ugly turn.
But for me, those who question President Obama's citizenship are sending me a personal message: If your father came from somewhere else and isn't white, then you may not be American enough. To them, I'll always be an outsider.
Thing is, my cousin's husband isn't one of those people. Far from it. He and my cousin have adopted three Chinese orphans. He'll never, ever tell them they're not as American as their blond, blue-eyed brother — and I wouldn't dare anyone to try.
He has heard people say his children should go back to where they came from, and he has always put a stop to it. So I don't understand what's so funny about that bumper sticker.
These days, I meet a lot of Americans from parents of different races. We're all over the place — and we're not just on the fringe. Halle Berry has won an Oscar. Tiger Woods rules professional golf. And, of course, Barack Obama is president. These were hailed as racial victories — though not the kind they are in my mind.
Turns out, "What are you?" isn't a question for just funny-looking people like me. It's a question each one of us has to answer. And that answer, for all of us, isn't black or white.
If everyone has to answer the question, then nobody's left out. And as unpleasant as that's made things for me lately, I find it strangely comforting. Multiracial people aren't outsiders anymore; we're family. I've been living in my skin for a long time, and I know who I am. Now it's time for everybody else to figure it out.