Full, round breasts of a Cameroonian princess adorn the body of this woman, comfortable anywhere in the world. Physically, her features descend from African, European and Caribbean ancestries. Thick, naturally frizzy hair crowns her petite, 5-foot frame, covered with sun-kissed, olive-colored skin. Lips of multifaceted eloquence transmit words without boundary. She is a melange of global cultures. An example, really, of gene flow.
"What are you?"
Convinced they were mocking my lack of femininity, I declare, "I'm a girl. Can't you tell?"
"That's not what I mean. I want to know what you are. Like are you Black, White, Spanish, what?"
I never really knew how to answer that question, posed to me by many a child back when I was a child myself.
"I'm Haitian", I said.
With a puzzled face and peaked curiosity, the child asks, "What is that? Where is that place?"
"Haiti is an island in the Caribbean, near Jamaica and Cuba. It is where my parents were born and raised. I am Haitian, but I was born here in the U.S."
An explanation that satisfied the curiosities of nosy children many years ago does not begin to scratch the surface of who I am. I endow an aggregated threat to blandness on mother earth. Full of colors my ancestors derived through indigenous or other means; I am everyone and one of many. My mind, body and spirit season the banality of a black and white world. My DNA is Multicultural.
Multiculturalism is that confusing expression thrown about in boardrooms and meetings in an effort to demonstrate program diversity to the already gullible public. Rarely is it seen for what it is: methodology for embracing the diverse, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual world in which we already live. Something that should come naturally to all of us is the point of contention among many.
Some believe that to emphasize cultural diversity in the schools is simply a method of reverse discrimination against the majority group. I suppose the "majority group" does not see itself as diverse or cultural or ethnic. Perhaps devoid of origin, they projected themselves to earth in supernatural fashion from the home of superior beings in outer space. Perhaps not. Culture includes African, Irish, Hispanic, Italian, German, Polish, Greek, Asian, Portuguese, Russian, and other groups. If your mother is Polish and your father is Italian, you are multicultural. That's easy to conclude. Race, however, is more difficult to define. People of Polish-Italian descent will most likely consider themselves white. In what classification does an Hispanic-African belong? Hispanic? Black? Other? This is where traditional racial categories fail us.
Multiculturalism has risen to a new level of awareness in the United States primarily because people are no longer afraid to be ethnic. There are web sites where you can view profiles of your favorite multi-cultural historical figure or movie star. Perhaps you didn't know that Keanu Reeves is Hawaiian, Chinese and English and that he was born in Beirut, Lebanon. Or maybe you'll find it interesting to know that Cameron Diaz has Cuban-American and English-German-Native American parentage, or that W.E.B. Dubois, one of the founding members of the NAACP, was French, Dutch, and African. Acknowledging the endless possible mixtures of people, census officials may have to further study their categories for racial classifications. That is where multiculturalism becomes problematic. What will we learn next? Maybe Jesus was a black man.
Multiculturalism, as a movement, encourages cultural awareness and cultural respect, which can be beneficial for all groups of people. By providing children with images, role models and history they can personally relate to, we are feeding their self-esteem and self-confidence, encouraging them to learn and thrive in the world of their future.
As a child, I didn't have the benefit of a culturally sensitive education. I had to contend with history lessons as written and told by the whitest of white people, who I secretly imagined had some color in them, somewhere in their lineage, just dying to get out. I wondered if anyone they knew looked like me. I wondered when they looked at me, what did they see? I had trouble being accepted by white children and black children alike. Photographically, my family tree resembled a portrait of representatives of the United Nations. Spiritually, we had each other so it didn't matter what others thought of us.
My educational experience encouraged me to love Columbus Day - not because of what it stood for but because it was a day off from school and freedom from the stress of not knowing where I stood in the world. I didn't know then that Columbus was an explorer who was bad at his job. He got lost quite often, and, when he did, he took his frustrations out on the indigenous cultures of the world who did not know violence and greed until it was thrust upon them by the strangers landing on their shores. Columbus was a rapist, thief and murderer. I didn't learn that in Social Studies class. I was taught that Christopher Columbus was the hero who discovered America and saved us from savagery. That is still what is being taught in schools today. We even have a national holiday to support the lessons.
In 1950, the estimated world population was 2,555,982,611. Totals are predicted to swell to 9,309,051,539 by the year 2050. In 2002, we are at 6,234,277,496 diverse people worldwide.
My maternal grandmother hailed from the tiny island of Dominica. She was the product of a Dominican seamstress and a British businessman and she married a Haitian-born man of assorted descent. My paternal grandmother was a Polish woman who married a German-Haitian-Cuban businessman. What wealth of culture has been bequeathed to me! And yet, I dig deeper, exploring my genealogy, utilizing the abundance of available resources devoted to familial research worldwide. Like a fine wine, my heritage is ever evolving, as new flavors unfold from time to time adding to its rich and spicy essence.
People of color are more typical and representative of the world population than what you see on the six o'clock news. In fact, I take offense at the way the American media uses stereotypical characters shaped by prejudice and hate, steeps them in some essence of political correctness, and puts them in our faces as a means of pacification of our need for representation. Ever notice how the camera seems to linger a little longer on the black suspect than the white one? Ever notice how during a segment on the American workforce the video highlights white suburban homeowners instead of their colorful neighbors, or during a segment on crime the video portrays Caucasians as crime fighters and people of color as criminals? That's news bias, not news reporting.
The world is not as black and white as a powerful one-percent of the population would have us believe. We are not shades of gray, but shades of brown. By the time 2050 rolls around white will be a minority race. Currently, about one-third of the population under age 18 in the U.S. is non-white. Perhaps when those children become my age, things will be different in the world. Perhaps then, brown people will have a greater presence and voice.
Gradually transforming to a multicultural society, the borders of the United States contain the largest populations of people of color. Logical, since immigration and migration occurs more easily at the fringes of a nation. These populations include African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Latinos and combinations thereof. Although concentrations inhabit the cities, the suburbs are increasingly becoming symbols of American diversity as people of color merge with Caucasians where they have lived alone for so long. Guess who's coming to dinner now?
Ethnic groups themselves are symbolic of diversification at it's best. U.S. Asians alone include Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Asian-Indian, Vietnamese, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islanders, and others. The United States population of this group is approximately 10,000,000 people. Yet it is comprised of people who do not share the same customs, languages or behaviors. It's like being Haitian. Difficult to describe what that means, the island nation is comprised of people from African, French, Spaniard, Indigenous Indian, Asian, Syrian, German, Polish and English descent, among others, who have made Haiti their home. With differences in appearance and history, we are naturally diverse, yet we adapt and join together as a single group in the name of unity, for in numbers there lies strength.
Multiculturalism has risen to a new level of awareness in the United States. Supported by US Census data, new interest over racial and ethnic categorization and the general labeling of Americans has emerged. Even old fogies can agree that multi-ethnic and multi-racial people have existed since the beginning of time. Maybe Jesus was a black man.
I am different, yet I am the same. I enjoy a good meal, much like the next person. My culinary tastes do not lean towards one specialty but rather a variety of comestibles. From lobster to sauerkraut, plantains to potato pancakes, perhaps my culinary niche is a phenotypic characteristic. It grew on me, little by little as I evolved from fetus to full-grown woman.
I put my pants on one leg at a time. I have a weakness for pretty dresses and for my husband's smile. I melt in my child's embrace, yet any group or race does not accept me.
Let's face it: if multiculturalism were a preconceived notion, it would be revered as genius. As a naturally evolving phenomenon, however, it scares some people right out of their farm boots. Biological diversity is a wonderful thing, perfectly at home in this melting pot, where we spend our time dividing, conquering and weakening each other until we are devoid of strength. We are busy at work, fighting amongst ourselves. We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. We are black, white, red, brown, and yellow. We are a nation confused about itself.
As I age, I accept myself more and I feel comfortable revealing myself to others. I relate to many, but I am viewed as a paradox because I present to others in a nondescript - yet ethnic - sort of way. They are confused, and, I respond, emerging as my many selves, savory and free. A descendant of international slaves and slave owners alike, I make many people uncomfortable. I enjoy that about myself. I look inward and I find a melange of flavors aged to delectability in enigmatic wonder. Diverse as I am, I am a mere drop in the melting pot that is America. Even more so in the melting pot of the world. So I guess I can conclude that I am not alone. There is strength in numbers.
As a child I always thought I was the one confused about my identity. As it turns out, I'm not the one with the problem. Whoever knew that "What are you?" could be such a loaded question?