What Defines You? How to Check Preconceptions at the Door
One afternoon my 3-year-old asks if we are black. “Actually, we’re brown,” I tell him, keeping my voice neutral. “What’s that?” he asks. “What’s what?” I reply, stalling. He narrows his eyes at me. “Mommy, what are you?” It’s the question I hate most, and here it is, being spoken by my toddler.
What I am is American—born in Canada, raised in Atlanta, naturalized at 14—and I signal American, too, from my Gap jeans to the upspeak that makes me sound more Valley girl than Indus Valley. And yet for 39 years, strangers have asked where I am from, and when the answer fails to satisfy— as will my answer to their inevitable follow-up, “But where were you born?”—this uglier question pops out: “What are you?” It’s the silent question animating the stranger who smells of lipstick, in line at the bank, asking how I learned such good English. The one that the dentist, his fingers in my mouth, thinks he’s answered when he tells me unprompted that he really enjoyed The Namesake.
I do not want my son to inherit my history of anger and hurt, of trying to define myself against those who cannot see me as American—especially now, when our very government cannot see it. What do I tell my boy, who will form his identity in this America?
For now I can give him only the facts. “Nani and Nana”—his grandparents— “are Indian,” I tell him. “That makes me Indian, too. And it makes you half Indian.” “Indian,” he whispers, and I see the gears turn to open up a space in his brain for this new word. It is a marvel to hear him say it, for in his mouth, it does not signify the things it did when I was young: foreigner, other, unwelcome. I send up a wish that it will never mean those things for him, though I know I can’t protect him completely. All I can do is give him a home where, in his half-brown all-Americanness, he belongs.