Wednesday, December 9, 2015

But where are you really from?

I love the idea of TED nights. Each speaker brings so much excitement and passion to the table and it is so energizing I could burst! In putting together my own thoughts I ran through lists of ideas that I care about, but uncomfortably decided that I had to talk about multicultural identity.

Can you hear the drudgery already? The topic comes with so much weight that it is daunting instead of thrilling. I’m not colorblind; I don’t believe anyone truly is. I am perfectly capable of recognizing that I look slightly different than the basic white girl. Tonight I want to have a discussion about ethnicity and diversity that isn’t painful for everyone involved; so if you’ll agree to be patient and understanding I will promise to speak candidly and *maybe* (fingers crossed) we can accomplish it.

 Allow me to introduce my parents. My mother is from Colorado and my father from Brazil. And they were fierce when it came to establishing a Santos family culture. We sing happy birthday in English, Portuguese and we sing a third song that my parents learned when they were dating just for kicks. We learned to love my mom’s family by spending our summers in Colorado. There was something magical in the long anticipation of seeing our cousins again and reestablishing traditions. On the other hand we had 6 of our Brazilian cousins, our grandmother, and the occasional aunt or uncle come and live with us for months or years at a time. We are insistent that you eat with your fork in the left hand and both feet planted firmly on the ground. And if you want to win an argument you better be prepared to speak the loudest and the longest. Sweetest of all, my Brazilian father taught me to love America while maintaining a mixed culture. His favorite holiday is the fourth of July and he sings “I’m proud to be an American” with more gusto than anyone you will ever meet. He is quick to express his gratitude for the opportunities that immigrating here offered him. My mother is as patriotic as they come, but it was my dad who truly taught me to admire this country…he also taught me that we wear green and yellow and cheer exclusively for Brazil during the World Cup. It was a different home life and I knew that, but I had no reason to believe that my different was stranger than any other families’ different and in my mind all of these differences still belonged under the great big umbrella of “normal.”

The fun part of growing up is that your ideas must be challenged. Enter senior year of high school. My 17-year-old self was sitting in the lunchroom one day when an unknown teacher approached me while speaking Spanish. I didn’t speak Spanish at the time so I said something back in English; and then the conversation took an awkward turn—she said, “wow, you speak English so well!” In a few words my whole world came crashing down. Why was she surprised that I spoke English so well? Do I speak English with an accent? Does she think I look like I shouldn’t speak English? I came home that day and told my mom “I don’t think people think I’m white!” What I was trying to articulate was I don’t think people perceive me as American, or normal, or equal. It stung. I felt robbed of an identity that I loved. My only consolation came from a Mean Girls quote, “you can’t just ask someone why they’re white.” And it’s true. Sadly nobody cares if you’re white, why you’re white, or where your whiteness comes from. The privilege of being fully white is that this apathy makes room for other things, like identifying people by their interests, their goals, their traditions or a myriad of other filters. Even though I am half white, and despite my parents’ best efforts to create a blended culture I was forced to face the one-drop rule—the rule that children of blended ethnicities take on the identity of the parent of color, in my case Brazilian.

That experience has been followed up with all kinds of uninformed remarks like “do you feel inferior to the other kids because you come from a biracial family?” “Are you adopted?” or “this is my friend Jari, she’s Brazilian.”  Because we’re all close friends here I’ll let you know the answers to all those questions. I don’t feel inferior at all, but hearing that question lets me know when others view me as such. Just because I am not what you expect the daughter of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned woman to look like does NOT mean that I am adopted. And it is never appropriate to use my genealogy to make it seem like you run in interesting or exotic crowds. I am not your trinket. To those of my friends who think that my mixed culture makes me interesting or special, I appreciate your kindness. But please know that labeling me as Brazilian comes with a host of assumptions that I may not identify with. I am not a great dancer, or fluent in Portuguese or an expert on Brazilian foods. Please do not pigeonhole me before I even have a chance to establish who I am on my terms.

The most frustrating part is that this dance of not being American enough is played out with equal force on my Brazilian half. When I landed in Brazil I felt like I belonged. I loved the music, the food, and the unrestrained affection. A piece of my heart had always belonged to that country and it felt at home upon my arrival. However, after my first day of school I heard “your last name is Santos and you look like us, but your Portuguese is terrible.” There was a constant focus on my accent, or American culture, or explaining why I hadn’t been properly taught to understand Brazilian culture. And on we went again. Regardless of country I have always experienced one-degree of separation, making it hard to truly belong to an individual country’s culture.

No matter how many times I hear things like this it never hurts less. The joy and heartbreak of being biracial is that I will never be Brazilian enough and I will never be American enough. No matter how hard I try I will still leave someone disappointed with my partial “otherness.” What I’m left with is the choice to develop my own identity.

If you ask me, I’m Jari. I’m an American who is half Brazilian and half Danish (if you’re interested in my mother’s bloodline). I also believe in a two-parts nutella to one-part toast ratio. I am developing a fondness for camping and hiking. I feel most like myself when I take spontaneous trips. Teasing is one of my favorite love languages. I’m obsessed with continual self-improvement. And I am probably a hufflepuff. I can’t speak for all halfsies or any other “others,” but I can suggest that maybe I’m not the only one who would like you to get to know me for me rather than asking “but where are you really from?”