What would make you more comfortable?

Erica Shindler Fuller Briggs
North Charleston, SC

What are you? I get asked this question so often I’ve started charging people for the information. It’s my retirement plan. What I charge is determined by timing: at what point in the conversation did they ask the question? If it’s within the first few minutes of the conversation, I charge no less than $1 per minute; the fee for insult and time wasted catering to shallow character.

When I state the cost of ignorance, most people are either appalled or entertained by the notion that there is a value to knowing the answer to this identifying question. I know there’s no real value in knowing my race, and thus my point in charging: How much are people willing to pay to know something of so little value? Some feign understanding. “It’s not that important, I was just curious.” Not important? Then why ask? You didn’t ask me my shoe size. Why? Because it’s not important. My shoe size does not provide any relevant information about who I am. Race, on the other hand, offers the illusion of knowing, and illusions are more readily accepted than truth; what is true is not often comfortable.

Knowing, however, is comfortable. For many, the unknown is terrifying, and learning what is unknown takes too much time. I’ve determined this is why people ask my race. Knowing liberates people from the insecurity of being uncertain. Racial stereotypes create the illusion of knowing. They are convenient; easily acquired and standardized to avoid any need for critical thought. When the illusion disintegrates, people are forced to deal with their ignorance. Nobody likes looking stupid.

In New York City, the owner of a shoe store became exasperated when he learned I didn’t speak Spanish. “How can you not know your own language?” When I told him I wasn’t Spanish, he was confounded. He dismissed me as if I had offended him.

A corner store clerk refused to believe me when I told him I was Black. “No, you’re too pretty to be Black.” This was said in the presence of my visibly black friend from New Jersey. Managing the conflict that resulted from that comment stays in my mind as a warning when deciding how to answer the “What are you” question.

At 42, I am weary of this question. I tire of acting as hostess to other people’s comfort zones. Yet, there is no relief. This is my question. It belongs to me until I’m too old to matter anymore. Too old to be a threat. Too old to bear children that would carry the blood of my ancestors. Too old be an exotic toy for display. Until then, when asked the question, I sigh in resignation and simply ask: “What would make you more comfortable?”
“In concrete numbers, please.”
I begin with the standard one dollar government issued identity speech.


I was torn between three 6-word stories. The first “Who gets what and how much” requires a bit of academic discussion which was too much for me to address this early in the morning. Further, I’d already outlined the thoughts in a previous article. (http://truthseekers.cultureunplugged.com/truth_seekers/2009/10/what-black-is-really.html.)

The second is more a title than a story: “Oak and Myrtle: A Tangled Peculiarity” gets to the root of my race card. (http://www.divinecaroline.com/love-sex/rooted-love-grafting-family-tree)

Finally, I settled on “What would make you more comfortable?” This is where I am now in this on-going story.

Keep the conversation going - comment and discuss with your thoughts

2 Responses to "What would make you more comfortable?"
  1. Demara says:

    “I tire of acting as hostess to other people’s comfort zones” that is a wonderful line that deserves to be posted everywhere on everything for a couple years then maybe people will understand!!

  2. Shigaya Nimurai says:

    Hi! I don’t know if I’m too late to comment this entry, but… I’m European, 28, and suffering a variation of your ‘what are you?’ that is ‘where are you from?’. It’s hard to explain to other people how one feels because of this questions. I don’t have an answer that isn’t Spanish (I’m a little shaky writing this, because when people that know me are with me when I’m asked this question they usually laugh, and I laugh too, but it really is confusing for me to be asked something like that). The thing is that my father is half italian (from greek descent) and half spanish, and my mother is half spanish (in this case celt spanish) and on the other side of her family they had french and portuguese blood, and a ? (this ‘?’ being so strong that half my family on that side is dark skinned with deep black hair, almond shaped eyes and funny noses). So, I get asked almost every two or three days where am I from, and what is funnier: spanish gypsys think I’m gypsy, romanians speak to me in romanian, and arabs speak to me in arab! People doesn’t get mad at me for saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m spanish’ but look at me suspiciously as if I am not willing to tell them the truth. And then they ask me this incredible thing: ‘Are you sure?’. Are you sure!!! I am tired of feeling bad or getting mad about this… and when I share with my friends this feelings they say I’m giving too much credit to those comments, but the thing about that question is not that I am being a racist victim, the thing about that question is that I feel that I am not welcome in my own country… I noticed that people get’s more confortable when I say ‘well, I’m half italian (wich isn’t true! just 1/4!!!)” And here goes another experience: When in Italy, I was never asked where I was from. Do you believe that? But never felt at home either, because their culture is not mine, I grew up in a completely diffent one…

    Well, this was it. Just sharing the story.

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