I’m Afro-Norwegian

A mixed race man addresses society's need to box him in racially.

By G Smith Nov 29, 2007

Through thick glasses and what looked like many years of leisurely living, she peered at me from across the small Virginia boat club and approached.  I noticed her as she made her way towards me through plaid pants, straw hats and twitching fans until she introduced herself and we exchanged cordial greetings and small talk.  All was going smoothly with her, and then she said it,

 “And is that hair indigenous to your culture?”

I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of her question.  However, I did have to give her credit for supplying a new gem of ridiculous ideas in a litany of expressions of confusion about my ethnicity over the years.  To be fair, my green eyes, brown skin, and blond dreadlocks shroud my not so exotic upbringing in suburban St. Louis, and she at least had the decency to engage me in some sort of conversation before she started asking about my “culture.” 

But it is not only southern elderly women who want to know where I come from.  These questions come from strangers from all over the country.  For the most part the question is friendly, and the questioner feels they are asking something harmless, and that I may in fact appreciate that they noticed me as one of these kids who is not like the others. 

Sometimes the question is accusatory – the “What color are you?” with the implication that I am either not white enough, not black enough, or too much of either.  However, for the most part there is not hostility in the question, just confusion.  So why do these situations leave me unsettled and annoyed?

This desire to know the ethnicity of those around us is a curious one, and it often betrays people’s desire to order the world. You are black, and I have a box for this.  You are white, and I have a box for this.  While these boxes can create and perpetuate negative stereotypes, I do think that race and ethnicity need to be recognized.  The colorblindness mentioned in today’s enlightened society is a mistake.  That only works if we were able to press the reset button on history and culture. 

So it is not the labeling per se that makes these questions stand out in my mind as somehow wrong.  Nor is it an uncomfortable question for me to answer.  If there is one thing I learned from my mother, it is to be what I am without apology, explanation, or excuses.  I’ll tell old friends and new all about my heritage. It is somewhat unique, and I am proud of my ethnicity. 

But therein lies the problem.  I’m happy to tell people I know all about myself: where I’m from, who in my family matches my eyes, that my color fades in the winter, how I came to be the literal black sheep of my family.  But that is the rub.  I gladly talk about this with my friends, people I know. 

It is this sense of urgency, this demand, this insistence that I fess-up to strangers so they know how to categorize me before they even know my name.  Often times, I get the feeling that people are annoyed about the ambiguity of my appearance; that I’m trying to trick them; that they have a right to know about me right away.

Some pregnant friends of mine have expressed similar annoyance when strangers look at them with bug-eyes and a baby-cooing lips and land their paws on pregnant bellies. 

I want to ask these strangers when they demand to know my story, what’s your story?  Where do you come from?  How come you have that dimple on your chin? Is that your natural hair color? Are those hair plugs? 

It is people’s insistence on knowing my race before they have any interest in knowing who I am that really gets to me.  It’s offensive and starts me off not trusting that this person is going to hear anything I say after they’ve boxed me.

So to the elderly woman at this boat club, I give my canned answer, the one that I know people will accept with understanding eyes, even though I know they’ve just had to create a new box.  I say “I’m Afro-Norwegian”  and in my head I say, “Box that!”  Although in real life, I offer comfort to the confused and continue the joke, saying, “We’re a minor minority.  We meet on the first Tuesday of every month.”