Roughly a year ago, I wrote my first column for The News-Letter. In an attempt to “introduce myself” and this column, I unwittingly put myself into a box. I labelled myself as “the British girl” because that’s what I had already been labelled as by most people I’d met just a few weeks into my first semester here. I allowed myself to stay within that box, however, and I can only blame myself for that.
So here I am with Introduction: Take 2.
Hi. My name’s Amelia, but most of my friends call me Milly. You can’t really get too much information about me from those names and a black and white photo though, as I’ve been told recently. My last name is Isaacs, which perhaps, if you’re ~in the know~, would let on to the fact that part of my family is Jewish. It’s my dad’s side of the family that’s Jewish though, and I personally am not. I’ve been told though that I have a Jewish nose — and this was by someone who had a self-proclaimed “expert Jew-dar” and tried to convince me that I was actually Jewish, so it must be true!
My mum, on the other hand, is Catholic. You might ask where that leaves me? If I tell you that I grew up wanting to go through communion, I’m thinking of going on a Birthright trip to Israel in January and I’m currently taking a Philosophy of Religion class, hopefully that’ll give you a bit of insight.
In America when people ask me where I’m from (and when I reply saying London), I’m generally met with one of three responses; 1) Wow, that’s so cool! 2) Do you have an accent? 3) Some variation of: But where are you really from?
Now the first two responses are pretty typical, and a full year into being at Hopkins I’m not surprised by either of them anymore. I will never not be shocked, however, by the third response.
Back at home, it’s not unusual — although equally as insulting — when someone asks me this question. I’ve found that living in America generally means that people are so excited by the fact that I’m from London that they cling onto that fact about me and focus on that. That’s neither a positive nor a negative thing, really, but that’s just how it goes. People don’t generally feel the need to probe past that part of my identity to the rest of my ethnic background.
My first encounter with someone asking me this question in America was in my Cognition class freshman fall. It was a 150-person class, and I knew no one, so when a girl on my row introduced herself to me, I was really excited. The first thing she said though after hearing me speak was, “You’re from London? I would never have guessed that. You look way too exotic to be from London!”
I had absolutely no idea what to say in response. The first thing that went through my mind was that I’m a person and not a plant or an animal — I can’t be described as “exotic.” All I could manage in response though was an awkward laugh.
When I’m at home, my response really depends on how confident I’m feeling at the time. Occasionally I’ll adopt my brother’s method, which is to just get ever more specific when talking about my address until the other person realizes they simultaneously sound a bit like a stalker and someone super racially insensitive as they repeat the same question over and over with increased emphasis on the word “really.”
Sometimes, however, I’ll ask them what they mean and why they’re asking me that, given that I just told them where I’m from. People inevitably feel uncomfortable and can’t bring themselves to say that it’s because I don’t look like I’m fully white. I’m fully aware that I’m ethnically ambiguous. I know what I look like and am not shocked to look at myself in the mirror every morning and see that.
The reason I ask people to explain is not because I’m trying to make them feel uncomfortable, (even though they’ve just made me very uncomfortable) it’s to try to get them to realize how ridiculous the question they’ve just asked is.
It’s not okay to say to someone, “But where are you REALLY from?” or even, “What are you?” (yes, I’ve actually been asked that twice in the last two weeks — I’m not an alien, even if U.S border control describes me as one), or to call them “exotic” or “tropical” or “spicy.”
There’s a difference between your ethnicity and the place that you identify as being from. There’s a difference between asking either of those questions and asking someone what their heritage or their cultural/ethnic background is.
I’ve had people ask me if I’m Mexican, Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Persian, Egyptian, Malaysian, the list goes on. I’ve discovered that people generally tend to assume that I am whatever they are. I once had a woman speak to me in Spanish and get actually offended when I couldn’t reply.
Everyone is different, and I personally don’t mind when people guess my heritage. I find it so interesting to hear the different places that people guess. Some people think it’s ridiculous though and find it offensive. Equally, some people don’t necessarily get offended if you ask where they’re really from. My eldest sister, for example, doesn’t mind nearly as much as my brother and I do.
I’ve never been uncomfortable with talking about my racial or ethnic background or my heritage; it’s something that I’m genuinely proud of and a part of my identity that I love. What I am uncomfortable with, however, is people in 2018 not knowing how to broach the question and ask people (in a not completely insensitive way) about their background.
For me, it seems to be an inescapable question, and I know I am far from the only person to feel this way. No wonder I wanted to put myself into the box of being British, when all my life people have tried to put me into boxes that feel more comfortable and familiar to them.
I strongly believe that labels are great for some people, and it can be validating and empowering to be able to assign a label to the identity that they have. But not everybody wants to put a label on themselves, and it is nobody else’s right but your own to decide what that label is or isn’t. Whether that’s in terms of your gender, race, sexuality, religion — whatever it might be — it’s your choice.
Humans are not made to fit into boxes that can be ticked and crossed.
There’s no box on any form that says: “Indian/Portuguese/Scottish/English/Australian/the list goes on” on my mum’s side and “English/Born in South Africa” on my dad’s. But that’s okay, because I need to not just accept the “multiracial” box or the “British” box anymore. I need to be as outwardly proud of my identity and all of its wonderful complexities as I know I always have been inwardly.