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.