June 30, 2013

A Post about Racial Background

This is an article I wrote I while ago, after reading this other article on xojane.com by Kristin Booker.

I understand this has nothing to do with fashion or beauty, truth is I tried to pitch it to xojane.com and have them publish it, not necessarily as a response to that first article, but maybe as a different point of view. Except they never published it, nor did they ever answer me back (I guess they must have thought my article sucked!)

So I wrote it and saved it. Until today, when I accidentally found it again and thought to myself: I do have an outlet where I can publish it, even if xojane thinks it sucks! ;)

So here it is, for your reading pleasure, and if you have a little extra time in your hands, read Kristin's article first, then mine. And then feel free to add your own comments.

Want to Know about my Racial Background? Sure! How much time you got?

I felt I wanted to write something about my racial background after reading Kristin’s article.

I wanted to write another side of the story, because not only I didn’t identify with her feelings, but mine were actually quite the opposite: go ahead, ask me where I’m from and I’ll be happy to tell you.

I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m a new transplant to the US with still strong ties to my roots: I left Italy only 20 years ago after being born and raised there well into my teens. Of course I love Italy! And of course I’ll tell you about it, if you are willing to listen.

While it was never an issue in Italy, because nobody there asks you about your background, since mostly everyone is from the same place, it is obviously an issue here in America. But I think it’s a normal issue, especially in places like New York. There are millions of people here, all from different places, all looking a little different from each other, and if you don’t notice all these little differences, then you are pretending to be blind.

So if we notice all these differences, why is so terrible to ask about them? Unless the person asking is obviously trying to either poke fun or insult, I have never felt there was anything wrong in asking about someone’s background. I'll be honest: I can't distinguish a Chinese person from a Japanese nor from a Korean person (my friend tells me he can. I think he's bullshitting me.) And so before I can ask you if you know of any good Mandarin classes around the neighborhood, I need to find out if you are Chinese first, and that’s one of the occasions when I will ask about your background.

Other times I might ask just out of a genetic curiosity, like when I meet someone with unusual features. And it’s always done with the purest of intentions. Never with a negative connotation as in “Who did your mother sleep with?”

But I also understand that there are probably a lot of people asking these same questions with not so innocent intents, but that’s the world, and there are good people and there are bad people. And at times we, the good people, get the heat because of the bad people.

At this point you might say that I don’t know about race issues because I am a white girl. Well, let me tell you, I know enough about being racially judged. I come from Sicily, the southernmost part of Italy, and ever since I can remember there was always a North/South debate going on in Italy, and us Sicilians were always looked down by Northern Italians. Sometimes subtly, sometimes openly as it still happens with a political party that wants to split Italy in two, specifically the north away from the south. They call Sicilians the derogatory term “Terroni”, as in “people that work the land”, ignorant and without culture.

And here in America, Italy prompts so many comments about Mafia, the Jersey Shore and Guidos that it makes my head spin. So I have been racially profiled plenty of times, but none of these comments have ever made me less proud of being who I am.

As for anybody questioning (or assuming) my background here in the US, I have a few tales for you:

One of the first questions came from a grocery store attendant when I had been here only a few weeks: she asked me if I were Hebrew. Back then the question left me a bit confused, because I couldn’t understand what made her come to that conclusion. Years later, with the added knowledge and experience that comes from living here, I realized that it was my looks, and especially my nose that made people assume I could be Jewish.

Once, in Union Square Park, I was surrounded by four guys all dressed in black with black hats ready to test my Jewishness (I still don’t know exactly what they were going to do to me). For the first few seconds I just froze and felt dumbfounded, until my then boyfriend stepped in front of me and told them I wasn’t Jewish and those guys disappeared just as fast as they had appeared. The experience didn’t bother me. I didn’t care that they thought I was Jewish and at this point I knew it probably was because of my nose. So what?

Then there was the time when my husband first introduced me to his family, and they later asked him if I was oriental because of my slanted eyes. I love my eyes, they are MY eyes (I would have loved them even more if I had a crease that would have helped with eye shadow application, but what can I do?)

But the strongest claim came from this big black guy, at a job interview nonetheless. Upon learning I was Sicilian, on his face appeared this big grin and while trying to fist bump me, he said: You know you have black blood in you, don’t you? He was referring to the Moorish invasion of Sicily about 1000 years ago. I smiled and responded to his fist bump. And then I lifted my sleeve to show him a morbidly pale arm and replied: Well if I do, it’s having a hard time showing through. And I gave him a big grin back.

Supposedly then, I have a Jewish nose, Chinese eyes and Black blood. Now ask me if any of these comments have ever stopped me from sleeping at night. No, they haven’t. And does it bother me when people ask me about my background even if more times than not they get it wrong? Absolutely not. I understand why people ask these questions, I understand what’s behind their curiosity, because I’ve been there, too. I’ve felt their curiosity as well. I don’t think it’s a big deal. And when I need to, I correct them and tell them about my Italian background, because I don’t mind talking about my roots; actually I enjoy it very much.


Daisy said...

You have written a thoughtful and insightful article. Due to a terribaly (can't spell)erratic sleep pattern. I can barely think straight. I will respond you your treatise to when my poor worn out brains recovers again I wake up at 3 AM- This makes me tired all day.

I have another question, despite my poor sleep pattern. I beban to love stuff! Jewelry, Brand Name Purses, Holy Cow, I'd like to have enough to eat and feed Lily Belle. This may an exaggeration. But I've NEVER been like this. Is it emotional emotional emptiness creating such a need for cosumer goods. It's possible that a recent unhappy family situation and the loss of a male man who is of high quality and or principled had left, leaving me bereft.

Am I indulging in retail therapy? I've never done so before. I

Any thoughts from Spender and anyone else? Your insight is appreciated.

I need some perspective - that I do not need the costly products, I need a more filled life. This I'm happy I am participating.

No more Retail Therapy.


NY Spender said...

Oh yes Daisy, that's why it's called retail "therapy".
I know a few people, I've heard a few stories, and I've indulged myself in it.
Let me sum it up for you: it doesn't work. It's a quick fix that helps temporarily, but that calls for another fix shortly after the first one. And so on...
I mean, shopping is fun and nice and I love doing it, but to use it to try and find respite from problems that are afflicting us in real life, well, think about it... how could that help?
How can buying an expensive bag fill the void left by a real person? It will never.
You need to face whatever is bothering you and take real measures to cope. Lots of thinking. Understanding. Soul searching. Talking with anybody involved, or someone to vent to. Taking care of yourself, not just fashionably ;)
but emotionally.
We all go through bad times and we all try to rush through the emotions so that we won't suffer too much, but I've learned that you can't rush healing. It takes time (and ok, maybe a few trips to the mall)
Feel better Daisy.

Daisy said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I still stayed away all night. But as time times I will better. It's a good thing that I possess to realize that I was using shopping to substitute for emotional pain. The fact is, I did not want any of the luxury items. I rarely, if aver buy serious jewelry. Fortunately I was able to return most of them.

Luca, now 120lbs. And Lily Belle with some envy issues snaps towards who drowns her with kisses, He is absolutely not allowed to sleep on my bed. Dogs do brighten our lives.

Daisy said...

I enjoyed your article. I am one of those people who at times can distinguish differences between Koreans, Chinese, etc. - I'm only partially shitting you. I have been mistaken for a Latina, to my delight. One time a woman thought I must be of Japanese ancestry. I told her I am not. She was incredulous and would not accept the answer. What the heck, I imagine myself a ravishing geisha. A Chinese-American gal blends well in a big city.

I'm appalled by your near attack and am relieved you are all right. It is sad when one is negatively judged by one's background. Having an optimistic attitude is a step above ignorance.


ahhhsoNeo said...

I'm from a small African country called Botswana. Although I have lived here many years, I have not attained citizenship. Sometimes it bugs me when people assume that I am african-american... sometimes it doesn't. I've been in the US less than 20 years. to me, Africa is still "home".