Two Or More: Addressing The Question, "What are you?"

by Danielle James
I was born in New York City to a Jewish-Belgian mother and a Jamaican father. When I was little, I moved to Belgium, but spent at least two months each year with my family in New York, or Jamaica, or Israel. I have three younger brothers with whom I’m very close, but not one of us shares two of the same parents. 

Three of us are from the same father, two of us share a mother. It’s a nontraditional dynamic, more complex than the binary blended family, and I often find myself drawing intricate family trees on napkins for people who seek to understand the biological bonds that tie us together.
My brothers & me
My heritage, family structure, and ties to different cultures and places always made sense to me, but I realized early on that others were confused by it. 

People often – very often – questioned me. How could I be Jewish and Black at the same time? How was my white, redheaded brother related to me? Was I sure that I wasn’t Moroccan? Algerian? Maybe Brazilian? How come I was Jewish but didn’t believe in any god? Why did I have a Brooklyn accent if I grew up in Antwerp? And why did I grow up in Antwerp if I was born in Manhattan? This range of questions was frequently asked by classmates, teachers or people I’d just met. It didn’t stop when I moved back to New York. In fact, new ethnicities were attributed to me. Any given time, this is how a conversation might go:

Stranger on street: “Are you Dominican?”

Me: “No.”

Stranger on street: “Oh, Puerto Rican then. Yeah you’re Puerto Rican.”

Me: “No.”

Stranger on street: “Yes you are. You look Dominican.”

Me: “No, I’m not Hispanic.”

Stranger on street: “You’re Dominican.”

At this point, I probably turned a corner or jumped between the closing doors of a subway car, but these assertions happened so regularly throughout my life, that I often questioned what compelled people’s need to identify me. Some people may be genuinely interested in my background, but I had a sense that the majority of people wanted to know how I fit into their order of things. If they had to fill out a demographics survey, which category should they place me in?

I developed a resistance to this apparent need to classify people.

There can exist a great schism between who you are, and what others think you are. To the people who questioned me, it didn’t matter what I really was, or even what I thought I was; all that mattered was what they perceived me to be. Since my answer often cradled two or more categories, it was deemed incorrect, and the person would classify me in whichever bucket satisfied their preference.
My parents & me
With my nonwhite-but-too-light-to-be-Black-skin, I was expected to be whatever the person evaluating me was accustomed to, whether it be Black, Hispanic, Arabic, Sicilian or something else. 

One thing all these assumptions had in common is that I was always guessed to be one or the other. No matter what I responded, it was inconceivable that I could be one and the other, as if a person is required to be one-dimensional, as if each facet of my identity directly contradicts the other.

It doesn’t.

Make sure to check out Danielle's blog for more personal accounts.

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