At twelve years old, I found myself as the new kid in a Catholic school. My parents heard whispers that there was drug use at the public school and moved me to a private school located in a neighboring city. I was in seventh grade the first time I heard the word Mulatto. A nun (a sister) point blank asked me, “Are you Mulatto?” I had no idea what she was referring to. I thought it had to do something with my horribly bleached sun-in orange hair. I asked my friends, and they didn’t know either. Eventually, I asked enough people and found out that it was a person of mixed race. Decades later, I looked it up and it is a Spanish word describing a person of both Black African roots and White European ancestry.
I always thought of myself as a brown girl. My mother and her family were often asked about their DNA.
Dads best friend recounts the story of how he turned his small-town of Paynesville Minnesota upside down for bringing a ‘Semite’ from Detroit. ‘Is she Jewish?’ they asked. My mother, her father and siblings could pass for just about anything. Italian, Middle Eastern or Hispanic and in fact, the next time I was asked to explain my ethnicity, it was by my fiancé’s family, ‘What are you?’ they asked. Later he told me, they guessed Polynesian. My Mom, both Polish and German celebrated my brown skin and encouraged it. I was always out in the sun drenched in sweet smelling coconut oil. I always felt different than the rest of the kids in school and it wasn’t until many years later that I understood that where I lived was a predominantly Protestant Scandinavian culture.
Minnesota. Ahhh, this explains all the Johnsons, Andersons, and Petersons!
My first year in high school was 1983, and that also happened to be the year the movie ‘Flash Dance’ made its debut in theaters. Almost immediately, I was being told, ‘You look just like her!’ My typing teacher nicknamed me Flash and people frequently stopped me in public to tell me I looked just like Jennifer Beals. I was 17, she was 19. Of course, at 17, it was a very flattering comparison, so I got my hands on as many magazines as I could and discovered that she was indeed bi-racial. Her mother was Irish American, and her father was African American. I honestly didn’t know what to do with this identity of ‘colorism’ and It seems there was a turning point in my mind about people and their pigment; at exactly the age of emancipation, I decided I must see more, learn more and meet more people.
When I was 19, I met Roohi of Pakistan and then Vlad of Columbia, D from Nicaragua and then the cultural dominos kept tipping until my friends spanned from Ethiopia to Cuba, from Romania to Jamaica. The one thing I noticed was that we never talked about race; we never discussed our pigment, instead we discussed culture, music, food, ideas, fashion (THE NEON 80’s!) and, of course, current events.
My first up close and personal experience with racism happened when I was working the night shift in a cosmetic factory. My aunt was a big wig there and helped me land a midnight shift factory job. I was twenty-one and a bubbly, happy, outgoing young person. It was my job to rotate from placing shampoo bottles on the line to filling them. There was a supervisor who decided day one she did not like me. I could sense it; the tension was like a powerful electrical field that heated up as she approached me. My regular effervescent style did not work with her, so I just kept my head down and did my work. I was making 10 dollars an hour in 1989; that was triple the minimum wage at the time; I had big plans for my money, and I wasn’t going to mess this up. One night during our 30-minute shift break, the angry supervisor blurted out something I have never forgotten. She said, “We’ve been talking about you and I’m convinced there was a ________ under the stairs.” Blink. Silence. Blink. Confusion. Walk away.
This. Was. Racism.
I was in shock and called my new husband crying from a pay phone in the front lobby. He couldn’t believe it either because we both knew I was white.
I am white.
Recently I took a DNA test, and it did indeed reveal Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish origins lightly sprinkled over my English, German and Polish roots. The idea of race is still a perplexing one to me; my scientific mind understands that its pigment, plain and scientifically simple. I’ve often questioned, why is this so hard to understand? When my kids were young and would ask me about it, I would say to them, look at the birds in the sky, the flowers, and the autumn leaves on the earth; in nature, everything has a wide variety of colors, even a mother cat can have kittens that are striped, solid, or calico.