My sister, Monica, is almost four years younger than I am, and our experience with how we were introduced to the concept of race and color was different. Where we stand on the subject now and how we choose to identify ourselves is very much the same. Just the other day she was sharing some information she obtained while reading a book called When She Was White by Judith Stone that traces the racial definitions of "black", "white" and "colored" back to the power struggles of the English and Dutch settlers in Africa in the 1600s.
Unlike my sister, I remember filling out forms in school where under race you would fill in the bubble with your #2 pencil. There were five color categories; "White," "Black," "Yellow," "Red" and "Brown". "White" represented, and for the most part still does, "White". "Black" represented, and kind of still does "Black." "Yellow" seems to have gone away, even though at the time it represented "Oriental". Oops! I meant, Asian. "Red" represented Native American Indians, specifically, those that were born within the borders of the United States.
Having to check the bubbles as a young student forced me to confront my own cultural identity in a way that is different today, but how different? I'm not sure. These forms I filled out as a child confused me and forced me to have conversations about race with my parents very early in life. It forced me to ask them, "What are we?" I mean seriously. I was born a blue-eyed, red-headed baby in East L.A. to parent's who barely spoke English. By the time I was filling out these bubbles, my hair had turned into a mane of tight light brown curls and my eyes had turned green. My first language was Spanish and my favorite food was umeboshi, a pickled plum stuffed into a rice ball then wrapped with sea weed, courtesy of my childhood best friends who were grandchildren of Japanese concentration camp survivors. "Well, we certainly aren't white", my father would tell me in Spanish, "and I'm sure your friends don't think they're yellow."
Even though I didn't exactly feel "brown," I knew that it was closest to the "peach" color my skin tone was, so I would usually fill in the "brown" bubble. In moments of confusion and conflict, I would sometimes fill in both the "white" and the "brown" bubbles, and as soon as it became available, I would start filling in the "other" bubble. Regardless, this process made me contemplate color and race at a young age. Still, I was lucky to understand that no matter where we all came from, we should all be people of color and I already believed that underneath our human skin, we were essentially the same. I thank my parents for that. But still, the confusion was inevitable to me. Let's start with the fact that, "white," by definition, is the absence of color, not that I fixated on that as much as the idea that "white" represented a blank page. To a child, life as a blank page without any color, patterns or figures sounded pretty awful to me.
Thus, quickly my confusion, and that of many like me, turned into conflict. The messages embedded in our school text books, the media, and on these ridiculous bubble forms forced us to choose between an identity imprinted with something, or an identity absent of any description or meaning. Disregarding our ethnicity, it was the color of our skin that guided this choice. To think that a group of people would actually choose to posses an identity that by definition omits distinction and meaning seems baffling. But this is exactly what was happening then, and in many cases is still happening now. Since then, and to this day, despite the different bubbles I have filled in with my #2 pencil, I have always identified myself as a person of color. When I say it out loud or it comes up in a conversation, it gives me a strong sense of pride, for I refuse to be marked as the "no-man" in my way of thinking or buy into the archaic and perverted notion of supremacy based on an imperialist notion of racial purity. When people aren't able to understand my identification, I let it be their problem and not mine.
I will forever remember the night of the last elections, sitting in a bar in New York City with my German-American girlfriend, Avery Schlicher, my Italian-Irish-American friend, Greg Pace, and a new friend, Natasha Best, whose mom's family is Irish and Lithuanian and whose father's family is of mixed Caribbean descent. We were surrounded by a young and enthusiastic group of very colorful people who seemed to clearly represent, not only the country, but the world. We all drank and danced to a mix of rock, hip-hop and world music playing loudly as CNN showed the results coming in on the television monitors. It occurred to us that history was potentially being made. A few moments later, the first African-American or Black, or whatever you want to call him man had become president of our country. While hugging, screaming, crying, laughing, and dancing, we knew that life in this country would be different. Politics and economics aside, we knew that life would be better from a humanistic perspective. For me, it was the first time in my life that I could see a semblance of myself in the leader of the country I was born in. After all, we are both people of color!