Updated: Sep 22, 2018
I had the strangest experience yesterday. The new receptionist came to me about a person she was trying to help on the phone. The caller asked if we provided culturally relevant services for African Americans, and the receptionist had been told by our clinical director that these services should be routed to me. The caller wanted my name and credentials and the receptionist came back to check with me about whether she could give that information and then also checking with me about how I felt about the referral, saying, "I didn't know how you identified... I hope that's not offensive."
I raised an eyebrow (internally if not externally) in amusement at her discomfort and told her it was not. I explained it was fine to give the caller my name and credentials.
Later I came back to the receptionist and told her, "Thank you for asking about my identity. I identify as both Mixed and African American. Actually my father is Nigerian, but I was raised here..." She thought this was very cool. I continued, "It's complicated. I wasn't raised with my dad and was brought up by my White family here. But I do identify as African American. Mixed primarily but still African American."
She expanded on the cool thing by stating, "Yeah, identity is so complicated, you never know. I could identify as Native, but I don't. Like I identify with Latina... like Hispanic culture since I'm bilingual and I've traveled so much. I mean, my heritage is like mostly [list of European countries], Asian - I mean, European. But I just really identify with Latinas..."
I just kinda gave a baffled smile and let the conversation drop. But as she left my office, I got really confused. She just put her foot way down in her throat about appropriating Latina identity. But she did it in response to my saying that as a person of Nigerian and Scandinavian descent, that I still identify as African American. Did she just try to bond with me over that shit?
Did she just call me Rachel Dolezal?
The more I sat with it, the more disturbed I was. Granted, she's a White person, and she's just culturally aware enough to think she can make some assumptions. But still, it hit a nerve for me.
With my ethnic makeup and heritage, my family actually does not have direct roots to the slave trade in the United States. My mom is about 3rd or 4th generation by way of Norway, Sweden, and Germany. My dad was born in Nigeria. My family doesn't have a long history in the US. Still. I was born here in brown skin and African hair. I'm Black. And I do actually identify as Black, not African American, just because of the PCness and more of a tie to Pan-Africanism.
Identity is super complex. I have purposely stayed away from this Rachel business because I am going through some things in re-negotiating my identity after a couple of trips to Nigeria this year and the death of my father. This morning I was thinking of that phrase, negotiating identity. That's what it is for me as a Mixed person, and it's looking to me like I will have a lifetime of re-negotiations.
A pretty significant chunk of the first part of my life was negotiating Blackness. When you don't wear the cultural markers in language and socialization, it's easy to be susceptible to the idea of not being Black enough. However, a few years ago, I came to my peace with the fact that my phenotype gives me a social and cultural American experience of being seen and treated as Black. And that makes me Black. The experience of growing up and moving around in the world in this skin and this hair makes me Black. All our history goes back to Africa, whether by 1 generation or 12, and that makes me Black. Living in racialized American where Black people are systematically and historically devalued where racism doesn't give a shit if my dad is from Alabama or Lagos, that makes me Black. This is what it is, and it's part of my identity.
So a White girl identifying with Latina checks in with me about whether I'm competent to provide culturally specific services to African Americans and pushed me off my square for a minute yesterday. Still a little leftover voice makes me question myself again... Am I posing as an African American? It's an honest question.
The re-negotiation never ends.