When I was about eight, my parents sent me to a camp that my older siblings had both gone to and loved. I did not want to go, but I did not have a choice. I was miserable at this camp and just wanted to go home. The only somewhat saving grace of this experience was that my older brother was by then a counselor at the same camp, so I would occasionally run into him during the day. We were never especially close, but he knew I didn’t like it there, and he’s a nice guy, so he would always act excited to see me.
One day, I was walking around with my group, transitioning between art and swimming, when I saw my brother. I darted away from my group to go hug him. He asked how my day was going and sent me on my way. When I rejoined my group, another camper turned to me and said, “Why were you hugging that guy?” I said, “Oh, that’s my brother.” “No he isn’t.” “What? Yes he is.” “He is not your brother.” “Yes he is!” “No he isn’t!”
* * *
Adults sometimes pick arguments with an agenda: they are angry, they want to make the other person cry. Little kids are not that nuanced. They argue because they are sure that they are right. How could she be so sure she was right that he was not my brother? Who thinks they are going to win that argument?
Ah, but wait. The crucial missing piece of information:
I come from a mixed race family. If you don’t know our parents, you will assume I am just white and that my brother is black. Neither of us looks particularly “racially ambiguous,” a term my (black) father is very fond of.
Here are the five most annoying ways you can respond to someone telling you that their ethnicity is not what you expected:
2. “You ARE?!”
3. “I never would have guessed!”
4. “But you don’t look __[insert the ethnicity you that just said you were here]__ at all!”
5. “Are you adopted?”
In my life, I have met zero white people who have not been surprised to hear that I am actually biracial (see? I wrote “actually” – the permanent surprise has become part of my syntax). Probably 95% of them have reacted in one of the five ways listed above. I have gotten so used to this surprise that I anticipate their reactions by prefacing my statement with “I know I don’t look like it but…”
On the other hand, people of color not always as surprised. One time I met a black woman at the conference and when I told her, “I’m actually half-black, weirdly enough,” she said, “Why is that weird?”
It has to do with the whole slave-ancestry thing: even in a family where both parents are brown, the children can have such a wide range of skin tones that everyone knows a light-skinned person of color who looks almost white.