I am constantly questioned about my ethnic and racial identity. Apparently, I do not resemble "America."
It was at its strongest during college. Various people would ask me, point-blank, "What are you?" As you can imagine, this took me by surprise. I thought, what the hell does that mean, and why do you think you can ask me that when you don't even know me?
One girl in particular infuriated me. I had one class with her--Psychology 101. At lunch one day, she saw me eating on campus with a male friend who was from Zimbabwe. She came up to us and asked me, "Is this your dad?" My friend and I were both mortified. First of all, my friend is a student, and second, I'm not black! I later found out that this same girl had described me to her friend as "that cute dark-skinned girl." I chalked this whole experience up to the girl probably never having met a real black person in her life.
Besides asking me, "What are you?", I also get, "Where are you from?" The latter question was posed to me last week at an interview. The woman seemed confused when I answered, "Madison, Wisconsin." I was half expected her to clarify (as some have done) by saying, "No, I mean, where are you originally from?" When I lived in Italy, the Italians often thought I had been born there, and many of them would ask me for directions around Rome. It was pretty awesome. I finally felt like I fit in somewhere.
Honestly, I don't have a problem with people in America thinking I'm a non-white foreigner. However, I do find their blatant questions to be problematic. It displays their privilege in the matter, and their supposed need to "figure" me out.
Because of these experiences, claiming the identity of American Italian has been significant to me. I claim this identity, because people often "other" me based on my outward appearance. People I meet often mistake me for Hispanic, or “mixed” (black and white). This has been interesting to me, but also frustrating, as I can’t claim these cultural/racial identities. As I stated earlier, I am often asked, “What are you?” This question is frustrating, but I tend to reply with, “I am Italian,” because I know this will satisfy them, and leave me be. If I were to say the full truth, “I’m part Italian, part Danish, and part French,” more questions would be asked. I am not 100% Italian, but I claim identity of American Italian, because I feel that it represents who I am, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. As Italian American poet, Rachel Guido deVries writes,
I come from centuries of Calabrese women heads hard as stone I am shaped by Calabrese women who breathed near the sea who are in me what is in me
My Calabrese ancestry shapes me. I also claim this identity, because my full name is Italian. My first name translates from Italian to “the female Christ,” which I think is fitting, not because I am "Christ-like,” but because I am a strong, feminist woman. My last name means “Greek person” in Italian. I used to dislike my name. People misspell my first name, often, which I still struggle with. The issue I have with the misspelling and mis-capitalizing of my name is that, by writing "LaChrista" or "La Christa," it removes my ethnicity and identity. I am not "LaChrista" or "La Christa." These names do not match who I am. These names erase my cultural identity.
I enjoy looking the way I do, and I also get a kick out of confusing people, because I think it's all so silly. What is the point? Why must you "figure" me out? What does it do for you? Will you treat me differently when you hear the answer? All I can say is, you really shouldn't ask people "What are you?" or "Where are you from...originally?" unless you're actually friends with said person. Otherwise, you will just create a super awkward situation for both parties, and nobody wants that. Nobody.
Remember to think before you speak.