Defining myself outside the box

I am multiethnic. I am a man of color. Many people see me as a "light-skinned" African-American, but I don't want an ethnic label put on me.

Many people neither understand nor like this. I don't want to fear others' wrath or lack of understanding over how I define my heritage. But at the same time, I don't want to be seen as a "sell-out" or "race traitor." Most important to me is my right to define myself ethnically.

When the Census 2000 form came in the mail last year, I checked no box for race. That question persists in addressing color, when the point, in my mind, is to get past physical appearance.

I am in my late 20s, and have lived in the downtown area of Minneapolis for several years. I studied film history for four years at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and, later, film production at a community college. I have worked as a receptionist for two years at US Bank, waiting to divine my life's calling.

In the words of Maria P.P. Root, who wrote the 1992 book "Racially Mixed People in America," I have "the right not to justify my existence in this world ... not to be responsible for people's discomfort with my physical ambiguity."

Some in the African-American community refuse to accept my choice. Mine is a relatively new struggle in the public's consciousness. While I can be hurt by white people's racism, my focus is on the socio-political reasons for many African-Americans looking askance at my choice.

I vividly remember encountering an African-American man last year insisting that I was confused and needed therapy to return me to reality and my roots. He had approached me in downtown Minneapolis, addressing me as a fellow African-American. When I told him I didn't identify that way, he donned a look of suspicion. Further, when I declared that I was multicultural, he augmented his suspicion with disgust.

Others in the African-American community think I'm just indecisive - or even delusional. When faced with others' expectations of how I must identify relative to my color and features, I have to muster my defenses and bolster myself. In the past, I wasn't so courageous. In 1995, when I met a younger woman on the bus who spoke of identifying herself by her standards alone, I was too insecure to think anything but that she was deluding herself, considering the inevitable peer pressure.

But a year later, I changed. I saw a PBS documentary on people identifying as multiethnic, among them a man with whom I could rejoicedly identify. His confidence, style, and articulation called to me. Subconsciously, I appropriated what I so admired in this man of my age. It was then that I began sowing the seeds of assuredness in my multicultural determination. This has been a long road.

When people ask me, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" I mostly say, "multiethnic" or a variant, and "Minneapolis - all my life," respectively.

A Russian-American courier, delivering something to my desk, recently told me he couldn't "figure out where" I came from. Smiling, I told him, "Good!" I rarely speak of the specifics of how my heritage breaks down. Some people press the issue, though, and it's just plain painful. What really inflames me is the mostly middle-aged, white members of Congress who feel the need to pigeonhole everyone by race or ethnicity through the census.

I can't say whether identifying myself as multicultural in Minneapolis is particularly easy or difficult, as I was born and raised here. I suspect that there's just as much racism here as elsewhere, though there are fewer minorities here than, say, in Chicago. I imagine that my bouts with people's ignorance and idiocy are typical. I work my darndest never to give them control over my attitude.

I know who I am, and I only have the energy to live my life by my standards. So I choose to focus on the positive, not the pain.

William Hickstein is a freelance writer who has hosted provocative interview specials on local Minneapolis radio. Until four years ago, he defined himself as African-American.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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