There’s always the checkbox. It asks me if I’m Caucasian, and I say yes. And then it asks me if I’m of Hispanic descent.
I sometimes say yes. And sometimes say no.
I am. So I’m a liar but only sometimes.
I’m fair-skinned. No, that’s an understatement. I’m paper-thin white, a lovely shade you don’t often see soaking in the sun. I do tan, which I suppose is due to my Hispanic descent, the heritage I often avoid on most official documentation.
Sometimes, I guess I just don’t feel worthy.
What would this privileged white girl know about anything like that?
The thing I remember most about my grandfather was his hands. He had part of his finger chopped off when the hood of an airplane came crashing down and smashed his fingertip. That happened when I was old enough to process it. I felt like I lost my own fingertip too.
Another thing about his hands was how brown they were. When I was young I was in love with Rudy Huxtable. I wanted nothing more in life than to be Rudy Huxtable. And I figured my grandfather was my ticket to truly embracing my African American roots. And when I discussed this with him, he just shook his head and said, “Sorry, I’m Mexican.”
That blow was as painful as losing a fingertip.
My grandfather told me a story once. When he joined the Air Force, they’d bus him from Eagle Pass, Texas (which was where he was from) all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas at the Jackson Air Force base. The first time he headed back home on that bus, he had to wait at the bus stop. He remembered walking inside, looking for a seat, and seeing two signs. One said “Whites” and the other said “Coloreds.” He told me he looked down at his hands then back at the signs and then back at his hands. He chose the sign that said “Coloreds.”
He went to sit down, and a white gentleman stopped him and said, “No son, you’re with us.”
So he went with the white man and sat with all the other white people and pretended nothing about what had just happened was the least bit confusing.
I got a nosebleed once. Well, not only once. I suppose several times in my small lifetime. But this one time, when I was five, I was watching the Miss America pageant with my grandfather and a slow red trickle of myself trailed down my lip. My grandfather told me to lie down, so I did, and he put a cold washcloth on my forehead. I watched his brown hands hover above my face—the cool feel of terrycloth against my skin—and noticed his fingers, long and whole.
It would only be a matter of time.
In the back of my grandfather’s car, I watched the world go by. We were going somewhere on the highway, my grandmother sitting in the passenger seat. We were listening to the “oldies,” the sounds of their youth, and I’d study the side glimpses of their faces, making my brain see them as maybe they once were.
And as I looked out to my left, two young white guys were shouting and throwing up their hands at my grandfather who hadn’t been doing anything wrong. But my grandfather just ignored them, staring straight ahead, and all my brain could process now was the brown of his skin.
In the sixth grade, my social studies teacher was teaching us about the ethnic makeup of the greater Houston area. We were taught that the Mexicans lived on “the other side of the tracks.” I never understood where these tracks were or how I was never aware they even existed. You would have thought I would have at least received a memo.
Later on, a cherished family member would talk about her maid, about how this maid was Mexican, and how she lived on “the other side of the tracks,” and I told her how I was part Mexican.
“Oh well, you’re a different kind,” she said, smiling reassuringly.
I don’t talk to my grandfather anymore, for reasons that I won’t go into here. I love him, I forgive him. I pray for him weekly. And losing him, I suppose, hurts much worse than losing a fingertip.
I struggle with myself sometimes, as if the two versions of me are shouldering their way to the forefront. I want to be something I am, but I don’t know the least thing about being something I’m not. How presumptuous to check a box that holds all my stories. But then my skin. How it always betrays me.
At least the One who created it never will.
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