But Where Were You Born?

I decided a few months ago to start messing with people’s minds.

You see, I’m the same exact color as a Snickers candy bar. I wear my super thick hair in two-strand twists which people often mistake for dreadlocks, and I speak Spanish with an accent.

But people never think I’m from the United States.

I’m from Trinidad. I’m from Haiti. I’m from Jamaica.

I even had an American woman ask me if my mother was white because if my father’s Nigerian and I have American citizenship, you know, only white people can possibly be American. In her part of the country I think that’s what it is. I had to give her the longest side eye before responding “You know fully well I’m not mixed” (i.e., refer back to skin complexion description). I need to push people more on their racial assumptions, but I don’t.

When I say I’m from the United States I get one of two reactions: 1.) People look at me like “let me keep a straight face because this heifer’s not telling the truth, but Imma try to be polite” or  2.) people look at me with flat out surprise that is always followed with a really?

Yes, really.

Then, the follow up question comes.

“But where were you born?”

They ask it like it’s a trick question.

As if I’m hiding my true history.

As if I’m a naturalized American citizen instead of someone who was born and raised there, someone who never even let the continental United States until I was twenty.

I think the question is hilarious.

“The United States,” I deadpan while watching their faces twist in all types of surprise.

Some go a step further. When they see my government ID, which has to be displayed when making all purchases, they ask about my last name for, surely, this isn’t American.

“My father’s Nigerian.”

“And your mother?”

“She’s American too.”

Then that really throws people for a loop. I’m not even a first generation American on my mother’s side?

What is going on in the world?

Usually, my introduction always goes “My name is __________. My father’s Nigerian, but my mother’s American,” because people always want to know.

Now, I just stop with “I’m American” to get people all turned around. They have to ask if they want to know. I’ve always respected a bold questioner.

What’s interesting though is how when inhabiting certain (rich) spaces people expect a certain hue.

Has anyone else ever experienced people doubting or being surprised by your nationality when traveling abroad?

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One thought on “But Where Were You Born?

  1. Hi Kelley,

    It was great to meet you this weekend at the BWB conference. I really like your site and have subscribed to it.

    Our interests seem really aligned. I’m an English, writing, and literature educator by profession. I’m somewhat obsessed with conversations on race. And I plan to teach overseas in a few years.

    I look forward to talking more about these things and ideas for collaboration.

    Your brief comment about class being associated with skintone is definitely something I’ve encountered in my research. The thing is, it’s often not just an attitude, but a reality in many societies, including the U.S.

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