Tiffany B. Brown

01 November 2008

When “American” is not enough

While in Morocco with S., the one question neither of us could escape was "Where are you from?" Our answer was always "the United States."

Waiting for my henna to dry

But that answer wasn’t always the most satisfying one for the asker. You see, I am black, but my skin tone is kind of beige. I’m the same shade of golden tan as most North Africans. S. is what Brits would call Desi. She’s 100% of Indian descent, but several generations removed from Indian culture and customs. To the Moroccans we encountered, our appearance and our answers were more confusing than enlightening. And for us, it raised old questions about our own ethnic identity.

In my case, "the United States," or "American" is the shortest, truest response to the questions "Where are you from?" and "What’s your ethnicity?" I have a sense of place here. The roots of my family tree reach down at least five generations into U.S. soil. My family’s history is murky, obscured by time and slavery, but it’s American — distinctly so.

In the rest of the world, however, people have an ethnicity or a nationality, even if their nation doesn’t have its own state. When I answered "American," the follow-up question was, as often as not, "but what are you?" particularly because I looked like a long-lost cousin. I’m not even brown-skinned like the images of black people we send abroad. But "black" is as good an answer as I can give.

S.’s family history, however, is entirely clear. She knows that her great-great-great grandparents left India for Guyana as indentured servants. Her peoples are straight-up "GuyanIndian." Yet she was born in the United Kingdom, becoming a U.S. citizen when she was six. What’s murky is her ethnic and national identity. From which of India’s 14 major ethno-linguistic groups does she hail? Are her family’s traditions Indian, Guyanese, or some fusion of the two? And how accurate an answer is "American" when she’s the immigrant child of parents who emigrated to the country of her birth?

Define “black”

I remember a conversation from years ago that I had with a Malian woman named Fanta about blackness. She said "In Mali, there is no such thing as ‘black.’" In places where everyone has the same skin color, notions of ‘black’ or ‘white’ are unnecessary and non-existent (though, as with the Roma in Europe, ethnic markers still hold sway). Fanta said that when she came to the U.S., she found herself wrestling with a new set of expectations, assumptions, unspoken rules, and judgements — ‘blackness’ —that were applied to her as a dark skinned African woman in the United States.

Our conversation taught me that concepts of race, color, and ethnic identity are often fluid, culturally-dependent, and self-determined.

There are black people in Morocco, mind you: the Gnawa. The Gnawa are an oft-marginalized group descended from sub-Saharan African peoples, some of whom were slaves, some of whom were merchants along cross-dessert routes. They even have their own distinctive form of music. Y’all know that’s about as black as black gets.

But race is a culturally-specific concept, isn’t it? And I got the sense that in Morocco, race and color is almost wholly replaced by ethnic identity. The Gnawa aren’t "black" per se. They’re "Gnawa." Arabs and Berbers aren’t "white," they’re Arabs and Berbers.

So when you say "black" in Morocco, what does the listener hear and understand?

Does she/he have a concept of what "black" means in the States? Does she/he know that any African ancestor in your known family tree makes you legally black no matter what your phenotype says? Does she/he understand that blackness in the U.S.. often comes sans ethnicity? Does she/he realize that you, your parents, your grandparents, and probably your great- and great-great-grandparents grandparents come from United States and/or parts unknown?

Or does she/he view it through African eyes — eyes that think of "black" as "from the south side of the desert and a few shades darker than you?"

So you’re not Indian?

And what to make of S.? She is racially (for lack of a better way to put it) Indian, but not ethnically so. While I am wholly convinced that her peoples are descended from some long lost tribe of Indian nomads with all the continent hopping they do, S., has never been sure of how to define her ethnic identity.

I remember having mad conversations about it when we were checking boxes on our college applications. "Asian" wasn’t culturally accurate. For her, it didn’t even feel racially accurate. To this day, even calling herself Indian, she says, makes her feel like an imposter (Guyanese isn’t much better).

But because of her Indian looks (which, like mine, also look a little bit Latina depending on who’s doing the looking) she was pressed quite a few times about where she was from — you know, really from.

For both of us, "American" was not enough.

Thanks to George for inspiring the title.