Wait, am I black?

I’m sitting on my bed one day before I find out about the NOLS Gateway Partnership freaking out.  I’m biting my nails–which totally isn’t my thing. I’m all gassed up–which totally is my thing, and I have butterflies in my entire torso. I also applied for a Fellowship and I found myself on their website again. I seriously can’t seem to stay off. Looking over the requirements brought me back to an issue that frequently pops up in the world of equity work; Ethnic vs. Racial Identity.  Let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with NOLS.  They’re great. My issue stems from the systemic oppression surrounding race and ethnicity in the United States of America. The Fellowship requirements are:

  • At least 21 years old, with some exceptions on a case-by-case basis
  • NOLS graduate
  • Clean driving record
  • U.S. citizen
  • Ethnically American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or multiracial (categories defined by the EEOC, U.S. Census Bureau).
  • High level of initiative, attention to detail, flexibility, self-motivation, sense of humor and tolerance.
  • Punctual, dependable and excellent “expedition behavior” in a communal living environment.
  • Competence with Apple computers as well as MS Word and Excel.
  • Excellent critical thinking and communication skills
  • Ability to work well in a dynamic environment and adjust priorities quickly
  • Understanding and passion for the NOLS mission
  • Physically able to bend, stoop, crouch, lift (up to 40 lbs.), frequent walk, and stand for extended periods of time.

Here’s the thing. Though I often find myself living the African American Experience, I’m not African American. I am however, Black.  I refused to fill out the Census in 2010 because I problematized their adoption of “Negro” as an option.  I also problematized the Black OR African American word choices.  It’s not an either or situation.  It’s like saying are you Asian, or Pacific Islander, are you Tall, or a Woman, are you Eating, or are you digesting, are you a Rectangle, or a square.

One can be both.

Because I look like this:Image

I have encountered the same racial inequalities as someone who identifies as an African American. But, I’m West Indian. My mother is from The Virgin Islands and my father is from Jamaica. Like born and raised there, from there. They came to the states for college. My brother and I were born here.  I identify as Black because of the way the world treats me as a result of how I look.  An old woman in a care unit where I worked when I was 18 tried to kick me in the face and call me a nigger no more than 5 hours after I signed the new employee paperwork.  People making off-handed, not all disparaging, references to my ethnicity ALWAYS allocate my existence into the African American box, initially.  It’s not until after I correct them and explain that they understand the difference.

My battle against the homogenization of the African Diaspora is important to me because it’s the root cellar where my good childhood memories live.  I remember living in Jamaica. When I return to that home I can see images of my childhood painted on my surroundings like holographic images.  Ackee and sal’fish, green banana, breadfruit, yellow yam, jerk chicken, curry goat, curry chicken…all of it resonates inside me like a tympani drum.  I spoke Patois fluently in my youth. I stopped when the kids, of all races and ethnic identities here in the States, made fun of me and pointed out that I was different.  When I discarded my language I shaved off an identifier.  When I went to boarding school, I stepped into another realm. It wasn’t until my twenties that I realized how much of myself was tied up in my ethnic culture.  I’d soaked in the acid of American assimilation and became, through visual identification African American. I’d lost myself.

I don’t mind being connected with my genetically, tinted brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.  We are connected, regardless, because we live in a society that has colonized us. My visit to the Virgin Islands at 21 taught me that all of U.S.V.I. was purchased by the US government for 25 million dollars. Our economy is fully reliant upon tourism… upon the extravagant expenditures of the privileged. We share a common bond in that tint of our skin and the pain of our experience.  We are united in the endeavor to celebrate our intelligence, talent, and resiliency. My desire to own my ethnicity and resist the convenient markings of the Census Bureau is oppositional by action and not intent. I am merely showing you that your antiquated boxes based on convenient observations have no place in my world.  I am Black, but I am not African American. I am West Indian.

Related: I had no idea this was happening, but it sure as hell is related
The First African-American Spokeswoman for DNC Isn’t Black Enough, Says Idiot White Guy

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