So a couple days ago, after Jane and Sarah’s departure, I’m walking Frisco trying to find postcards, stamps, batteries, other little odds and ends I need for the leg to Twin Lakes, and I’m made aware of folks looking at me. Staring. Doing a really bad job of hiding the fact that they’re staring, and not like “hey baby” staring, but confusion staring.
And then I realize that I’m pretty much the only brown person in town.
It’s not a new thing for me, not an uncommon occurrence. I grew up in predominantly white communities – I even live in one, when not hiking – so being the odd woman out, while I’m keenly aware of it, should be more normal.
I’ve been asked about my ethnicity more than once on this trip, to absolutely no one’s suprise. My hair stays under my buff unless I’m in town, my brownness is generally ambiguous, and I’m not generally one for context clues on my race; this tends to make people curious rather than making them feel it doesn’t matter, and they ask about it with varying degrees of understanding re: the can of worms they’re opening up. While I haven’t gotten the “What are you?” I’ve come to
loathe expect – such a question eliminates my humanity through the use of “what” even as it points out my “abnormality”, my difference from the (white) norm – the need to classify me, to have a box to put me in, to associate me with whatever “relevant” stereotypes are applicable, gets a little old.
So here it goes, just so no one else has to ask: I’m black.
My impression of what usually happens when I say this, based on facial expressions and “Ahs” of response, is that I’m suddenly being compared to or associated with everything the asker knows/thinks they know about blackness, and/or being evaluated on the basis of how “authentically” black I am, held up to a distorted social mirror rather than one that’d show them what they see in front of them.
As such, I’m usually found wanting in some way or another – too light-skinned, too middle-class, too suburban, “too educated”, too much or too little of something, and it often annuls my blackness.
Practically, that means I’m “not like the others”, because black people are clearly this monolithic group and “outliers” are abnormal, outside of said group rather than in the group, and therefore grouped in with whiteness more than blackness1. I am become an Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside, as I’ve been called more than once. I’m not sure if it was sometimes meant to be a compliment, but it’s a little rude, to presume that by being a badass at school, at work, or at play, that I’m being – or worse, acting – white. I just think I don’t fit any racial stereotypes particularly well, as I’d argue, most people don’t. What most people understand blackness to be doesn’t fit with what being black is.
What most people understand blackness to be doesn’t leave room for the fact that my great-great grandmother was a Blackfoot, or that my last name is English in origin2. It doesn’t take into account that the one-drop rule3 makes my white-looking father a “negro”, according to his birth certificate. And none of that, even, explains who I am.
So why does my ethnicity matter to others? I’ve never cared if friends had Scottish or Indian or whatever kind of heritage, but for some reason, we’ve decided that, in this country, where you come from before your family settled here matters, and quite frankly, I don’t know where that is, what with that whole slavery thing that happened. So while I grew up with some people who could trace their lineage back to the Mayflower, I didn’t even know the names of my grandfathers until a few years ago, and the history I have includes having seen the grave of the last slave on my father’s side of the family. I
try not to don’t begrudge people for having lush, eminently-traceable histories, or for wanting to talk about them, but when my version of that history includes a cousin dying after his house was firebombed by the KKK for registering other black folk to vote…
It’s not something I like to talk about much. Kind of a conversation killer, generally.
But still, there are stares. Evaluating stares. Judging ones. Those demanding an explanation, for my presence, my brown-blackness, my me. And not just that day in Frisco – an adorable town, where the local workers and business owners made me feel welcome – but in many places and times in the frontcountry, in life. Each of those experiences are a lot like my pack: it doesn’t feel heavy until I take it off, get some time away.
But, by now, I’m used to the fleeting ache of putting it back on.
 There’s an entire post in just this sentence. I’m already drafting it in my head.
 Ostensibly given to us by an English member of the family. Or not. I don’t know. We don’t have many family records, and getting a last name could be as easy as being given one, or choosing one.