Monday, November 14, 2011

Black Like Her

Ambiguity about my racial identity (how others perceived me specifically) has shadowed me since I was about eight or nine. In my teenage years, I found myself in a very curious dilemma. Often, many times, I was asked about my ethnicity. People seem to have a burning need to place you in a racial or ethnic box of some sort. Maybe so they can figure out what to think of you.

I was often asked if I was indeed Italian despite my very Italian first name and surname. I went by the more ethnic sounding Michela Alfano then (the name on my birth certificate). If I answered yes, the question On both sides? would inevitably follow. Yes, I responded, on both sides. A strange look followed, the wheels and cogs of their tiny minds turning, straining. I would try and allay the uncomfortable silence with a joke. You thought I was Ukrainian right? (Or some other ridiculous possibility.) No, they often asserted. Something else. Another awkward pause. But I always knew what they were thinking. And sometimes they would say, You aren’t going to be insulted are you? I thought you were part black. Sometimes this was said shamefacedly as if they felt they were dealing me a terrible blow. Sometimes it was said in a tone with a vaguely malicious tint. Why did I never just say, Why would I be insulted by that?

Yet the most frightening scenario was the one that follows (an anecdote that I recall in an essay called "My Heart of Darkness"):

At the age of nine, I often accompanied my mother to her Saturday job. She operated a stand in the Farmers Market in Hamilton where I grew up. It was a long grueling day; we usually arrived at 6.30 a.m. The back of our yellow truck, with my father’s name in the title, “Frank’s Kitchener Cheese”, emblazoned on the side in big red letters, had been retrofitted in the back to open up into a window with display cases that faced the aisle of customers in the market. We unpacked the boxes from the back of the truck and set up the blocks of cheese, the bags of olives and grated Parmesan on the shelves. We sold the goods through tiny windows on either side of the back of the truck. 

To say I “worked” there would be a laughable exaggeration. My working habits were fitful and lackadaisical. I was, admittedly, a lazy kid. The immigrant work ethic was not for me at that time. I would more likely be found wandering through the market down the aisles of fruit and flowers, meat and cheeses, looking at the produce and talking to the people that worked at the stands who came mostly from farming communities and small towns outside of Hamilton. I enjoyed the atmosphere and the freedom to wander around the market unfettered at such a young age.

I often played a game where I stopped at each stand and pretended to purchase different goods, marching along and simulating the gesture of packing the food away into my imaginary cart bulging with food. I know I played this game a number of times but once, and probably the final time, I acquired an entourage of three rather rough looking girls who were approximately my age. My memory may be skewed but I am fairly certain that two of the girls were white and one was native Indian. My eccentric, if playful behavior, attracted their attention and I became a source of interest to them. They began mimicking my gestures (which I quickly ceased doing).

As they followed me around they began to play an unnerving guessing game, trying to determine my ethnicity: going from the absurd to the possible: Maybe she’s Polish? they whispered. Maybe she’s Greek? A Chink? Or maybe a Wop? This was accompanied by snickering and laughter. I was never one who could be accused of having a poker face nor any amount of physical courage whatsoever; my fear must have been palpable. I made my way back at a much hurried pace to the stall where my mother worked, my game now forgotten, praying that I would reach it before they leapt to the logical conclusion of their guessing. I felt I had to elude them in this elaborate cat and mouse game because each guess at race or ethnicity was a shade darker than the last … I felt the urgency of having to get back to safety before they hurled the final epithet.

As I neared my mother’s stall and as I catapulted myself into the doorway of the truck, they lobbed the final blow: Maybe she’s a nigger! with such irrepressible glee that I was relieved to have escaped into the smothering closeness of the truck which doubled as a stall. I felt I had made a narrow escape. I had eluded them but just barely. I was shocked and hurt (but why was I shocked and hurt?) by their conjectures. They saw me in a way I did not see myself, in a way that my circle of friends and family saw to be pejorative and ugly. 

For me to be mistaken as black was something my mother could not wrap her head around – it was absurd and strange to her. I looked like my father. I was completely his own. He had thick, nappy hair (curlier than my own even – he resembled his own mother) with very full lips and a generous nose. He had dark olive skin and tanned very darkly. My mother could not even entertain the idea that anyone would think that of me and she was duly indignant.

In a perhaps not so odd twist of fate, I started to consciously physically emulate the type of person that I was assumed to be by some. I teased my abundantly curly hair into an enormous Afro and tamed it with Afro Sheen. It was so large that people would openly stare at me on the street, at school, at work. I wore cosmetics that were specifically designed for darker skinned women in dark browns and deep plums on my lips and cheeks.

And then I began to notice something very odd. Many times on the downtown streets of Hamilton, I would be greeted as "Lala". So convinced were the greeters that they would march right up to me and say, "What's up with you Lala? I was calling you!" This happened a number of times. Lala, it turned out, was a very light skinned black girl with an enormous Afro whom I had not met but had heard of. I never did meet the elusive Lala face to face but I think I had caught sight of her once.

My close friend Y and I were on a bus on King Street near James in the downtown core and she happened to look out the window and spotted a face in the crowd. Y turned to me and said, "She looks like you!" I turned towards the girl on the street. She did indeed look like me (with better skin and a prettier face). And I thought to myself, "So! That's her!" I had met my doppelganger.

When I heard tales of rumours that I had been here or there (and I knew that I had not indeed been here or there), I suspected that it was Lala.

Since that time, my racial identity has remained murky and when someone guesses now it is usually their own ethnicity as if they are seeking a kindred spirit: Venezuelan? West Indian? South American? Spanish?

Nope, try again. We'll get there eventually. It doesn't bother me now so much although I do often wonder: why do you need to know so badly?

Portions of this essay were originally published in an altered form in Italian Canadiana
v. 22, Nov. 2009


Christine said...

I often get asked where I was born. I answer East York. Some press; yes but where are you from? Are you Italian? Portugese? Greek? Well, I'm Macedonian. And often I get: isn't that like Greek?

Um no.

Also I sometimes get asked if I have an accent. I don't think I do...I did spend many of my childhood years in speech therapy. So it's not an accent; I think it's just the way I sound. Tough potatoes people. I was born in East York, my ethnicity is Macedonian and I sound funny. I'm also short ;)

Michelle said...

I just don't know why people push ... especially when some people don't feel like talking about it. It's like they need to put you in a box right away in order to process you.

The October Revue said...

If you filled a box with rats and closed it, they would tear each other to shreds. There is no condition that humans cannot get used to; one of the horrors of our existence. There is no animal nature we cannot mimic. Orthodox Christians (Catholics being Western Orthodox) understand the nature of Jesus to be dual but 100 % of both human and divine. Likewise, we are 100% human and 100% Homo-sapiens, one not identical with the other. Humanity is a choice; it is an election I must engage through deciding to be so. I can always revert to animal nature, again by choice. Great essay.