Identity by ya:z
"I knew from an early age that culture, ethnicity and race were flawed and flexible concepts..."
written by ya:z, aka Brown Wasabi
More than a decade ago, I programmed my mobile’s voicemail with a multilingual greeting.
At the time, I was a twenty-something pseudo-journalist who frequently traveled to my parents’ birth country (where I grew up), as I was working on a documentary. And so, in the event I was unable to answer a call, it was imperative that family, friends, acquaintances and (potential) interviewees who weren’t fluent in English felt comfortable leaving me a voice message when they reached my recording.
As a medium brown-skinned TCK (third culture kid) who marked my upbringing in two countries and who learned to oscillate between three tongues, I am fascinated and frustrated by the interplay of complexion and language as it relates to identity (perceived and self-ascribed). And, I am especially irked when I meet strangers residing in the American North or the Deep South who desperately want to peg me into their pigment politics – meaning, folks who want to stuff me (a complex being) into a constructed and constrictive box upon noting my name, scanning my skin and digesting my generic English.
Whether I am going about my day in the Segregated States of America or visiting a foreign country in our global village, I am constantly expected – no, demanded – to pledge allegiance to one or two human-manufactured identities such as “American” or “Black” (courtesy of the hospital I was born in, my hair’s porosity and my epidermis), by individuals who fail to consider that many brown-skinned earthlings residing in America were not birthed and/or brought up in this socially underdeveloped (shithole) nation. Furthermore, for some of us, our skin does not necessarily align with America’s self-righteous, one-color-fits-all identity structure.
Even though I presently identify as race-aware, non-racial, (temporarily) non-ethnic, complexion-conscious and phenotype-conscious (welcome to the future of thought-progressive identity markers in the sacred e-mail signature), most people I meet who were strictly raised in the United States have a tough time processing my identity manifesto.
For one, these individuals did not experience daily life in a country where the majority of the population looks like me. (Unlike most of my brown- and beige-skinned peers, I was accustomed to seeing prime ministers and presidents coated in a darker hue, whereas the United States only recently elected its first brown-skinned head of state.) And second, they would have a hard time accepting how an acquaintance of mine – a beige-skinned, straight blonde-haired and blue-eyed individual born-and-based in my motherland – can rightfully claim the African marker and identify as Black without contest, by way of their birthplace, fluency in the national languages and/or ancestral lineage, rather than their skin complexion.
I knew from an early age that culture, ethnicity and race were flawed and flexible concepts, which were designed to maintain an imbalance of power in all facets of life.
So, if my acquaintance – who bears Brad Pitt’s phenotype – were to cross over to the United States, they would experience a superficial perception shift. This hypothetical country swap would undoubtedly force them to take on a “White” racial marker (providing a greater degree of perfunctory privilege not afforded to them in our home country) paired with an American identity that is alien to them just as it is to me, while effortlessly proving that (political) identities can – and often do – take shape when traversing to a new territory by land, sea, air, or even space.
In some ways, listening to voicemails articulated in the languages I was surrounded by as a child and an adult made me homesick, especially when they were delivered by my Aunt Alta.
My compassionate, faith-led and loving aunt speaks several languages, including French and Spanish. (Naturally, she pronounces the “y” in my first name as though it were a “j.” C’est la vie, as they say.) Being the nerd that I am, I recently opted to download and analyze a message she left me two years ago, which iPhone’s Visual Voicemail was “unable to transcribe.” #globalizationprobs
In this 51-second sermon dedicated to me in French, I counted less than 10 English expressions spoken by my aunt: Hi, Okay, I love you and Bye, bye.
While peers, colleagues, and strangers readily pin arbitrary societal ethnoracial markers onto my personhood that I do not subscribe to (blame it on biology), my aunt’s enthusiastic mixed-language message essentially served to retell me that, if home is where the heart is, then my core identity is not entrenched in the top layer of my skin or fixed in my fluid citizenship; rather, my identity is rooted at the intersection where my Soul serendipitously meets my Spirit.
When I’m hanging out in my homeland with my aunties, uncles and cousins who, in our mother tongues passionately share jokes, folktales, prayers and proverbs, or silently convey a wealth of information through visual cues and gestures, I am emotionally and profoundly reminded by these life-giving moments that as a pigmented U.S. citizen, I am only American – or Black – on paper.