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What Are You? Ethnicity — How to Discuss It and Why It Matters

“What are you?” After spending my summer days in the pool and sun, it was a question that I heard at the beginning of almost every school year. Waiting in line, a classmate would grab my wrist and hold up her pale forearm next to my tanned brown one. Inevitably, the awkward ethnicity question came, “What are you?” I never knew how to answer. When I brought the question home to my parents, I was told simply, “You’re a girl.” But that answer never seemed to satisfy the other kids. And it always left me with more questions than confidence.

ethnicity what are you children discussions Nashville Moms BlogMy mother is Hispanic and my father is white, but my brother and I were both raised as white. As in, my parents never acknowledged our Hispanic heritage or even discussed it. We weren’t close to my mother’s side of the family. In fact, we rarely saw them. But I knew they called me “Gringita.” (Little white girl.) And I remembered how they introduced me to sopapillas with honey as much as I remembered my Dad’s side of the family established my love for bratwursts with Polka.

At the age of twenty-nine, I became the adoptive mother of a Black son. I knew that I wanted my son’s culture to be a major part of our lives. And we have intentionally cultivated a lifestyle that reflects that. As much as I encourage my son to celebrate his African-American heritage, I wasn’t doing him any favors by ignoring my own cultural background. Four years later, we received the call about our match with our adopted daughter. We learned of her African-American and Mexican descent. That brought on the realization of how much I wanted to claim my own heritage as well.

It’s a funny thing to suddenly own your ethnicity in your thirties. Prior to my daughter’s birth, I had been pretty casual about my background. I acknowledged it when asked. But in that moment? I felt all the weight of representing a minority. And given my upbringing, I also felt like a fraud. I quickly followed up with, “But I don’t speak Spanish,” minimizing my own identity and falling back into the privilege of the white majority.  

I asked my parents, “How did you decide what race and ethnicity and culture would look like for us?”

Their short answer? “We never discussed it. It didn’t matter.”  

But my son was born during the second term of the first African-American president and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. I held my two month old daughter in my arms and listened to a presidential candidate call Mexican immigrants “criminals and rapists.”

It matters to me.

And, Dear Reader, I hope that it matters to you too.

I’ve already faced some challenging comments from adults about how my daughter “looks Hispanic . . . but doesn’t look Black.” And I know all too well what it feels like to not sound/look/act “enough” for someone else’s cultural ideal or stereotype.

I want to stress how confusing that can be for a child. I remember what it felt like to have my difference pointed out and challenged. And in a society where it seems that, as adults, we are doing that more and more with each other. I hope we can teach our children to be curious and kind. I hope we can model that our lives are enriched by new languages and foods and traditions—because these wonderful things often accompany new relationships as well.

My hope is to send my children out into the world, having first introduced them to as much of it as possible within our own home. And if someday my daughter is ever asked, “What are you?” I really hope that day is Halloween.

One Response to What Are You? Ethnicity — How to Discuss It and Why It Matters

  1. Kristen Cherry March 14, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

    Well said. I work in high schools, and at my school, we have a great, simple festival/assembly to honor all the different ethnic groups represented at our school, and it’s a really beautiful moment to see them all embrace their own identity and to embrace each other in that way and to not complicate it–just celebrate it.

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