Burning My Cardboard Cutout

posted in: Essays | 0

I have seen the world from a broad range of perspectives, but the world’s view of me never seems to change. It has taken me several years to understand my ethnic background, and still I do not fully know the origins of my own last name. And it seems, somehow, that everyone knows more about myself than I do. Apparently, they MUST know who I can and can’t be, because of the color of my skin and where I’ve grown up. Society has given me a character to shadow, for the sake of their hilarity.

At first glance, I am but an ordinary, white boy, who, with a fresh pair of square spectacles, would be the perfect paradigm of the classic nerd. I am the b*** of that joke constantly. Fair enough. I like to dress with sophistication, because, for me, “casual” wear is uncomfortable and sloppy. I prefer to speak intellectually, enunciating with fluency and using my known higher vocabulary with silly grandiloquence, because stupid, lazy drivel builds a reputation that I would find hard to demolish. Those, I can help. However, because I have lighter skin, it seems to be more than acceptable. It’s genetics. Simple. But, the problem always starts when I introduce my parents into the conversation, one I oddly find myself dragged into too frequently. “I’m mixed.” Heads belonging to complete strangers turn. My listener, to whom I was intentionally speaking, raises an eyebrow. To keep things concise, I say without awkward hesitation, “My mom is black. My dad is white.” To my embarrassment, I am flooded with irritating questions. “Is your mom really black?” “Are you adopted?” “Can you show me a picture of her?” “You’re lying.” “You’re not black.” Nevertheless, I am still attracted to these questions, and their askers, because I am intrigued and curious. I never said I was BLACK-black, but because that is what people hear, that is almost immediately what they conclude. Besides, why does it matter so much? Why is it so hard for people to believe me? What is so interesting about a white-skinned geek having a black mom? To others outside of my closest friends, the pieces don’t fit. The picture is blurry. They cannot compute. And now, after so many years of asking myself these questions, I know the answer.

I’ve been a military child and a Third Culture Kid for my entire sixteen (seventeen not too far) years of life. Eleven of these years have been lived overseas. Nine of these eleven have been lived in Europe. I do not know the States, and I would not consider it “home.” But, when I returned to the States for a little less than a year, somewhere in Alexandria, Virginia, I finally had the chance to meet America. I don’t think I was welcomed well. I was teased in school for my “hand-speak,” courtesy of five years in Italy, and teased for my inclination to be possibly the only kid in the class to raise his hand for every question, except those regarding the United States itself, of course. I made only a few friends. I despised my teacher. And I wanted to go back to warm, sunny Italy. Then, I got to see my family. That was the highlight of the year. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my youngest aunt and uncle, all on my mother’s side, came to visit for a while. I tried to be the friendly little nephew and wanted to play with my aunt and uncle. Only being a few years older than me, it wasn’t too embarrassing for them. However, the longer we were together, the more I began to understand the confusion about the “mixed” situation. My aunt and uncle acted very different than my mom and the rest of my family. They spoke differently. They watched different videos. They played different sports and games. They dressed differently. They even walked differently. How could I be related to them? It was in Germany, our next stop, that I was informed. I was shut down. I couldn’t possibly be half-black if I didn’t act black. What did that even mean? This is my question. What does it mean to act black? To act white? To act Asian? Or Indian? Or Mexican? Or anything?

Over millennia now, society has churned with the acculturation of hundreds of different ethnicities and their cultures, with their own distinct languages and their faiths and their ideas about the world. I have now seen the world from the eyes of many of these different people. It seems that they all have very similar concluded assumptions about one another. Back to me, for example. All I can say right now is that my father is of German descent and my mother is of black heritage. Both have kept certain traditions from their ancestors and such, but they are themselves. How does the world appear to see it? I’m German, therefore I am stolid, I have no sense of humor, I’m already guzzling beer, and I’m always wearing LEDERHOSEN. But wait, I’m also “African-American,” therefore I must crave fried chicken, watermelon, and grape soda, I love to play basketball, I’m super tall, I’m a thug, and apparently I’m now given permission to say the “N-word.” Look at my hypothetical friend over there! He’s from South Korea, therefore he must be taking five AP classes, killing it in Math, he’s playing piano and at least three different string instruments, and he’s either taking taekwondo or kung-fu, maybe both at once. He’s Asian, therefore he must not speak very good English and his language probably sounds like two pots and pans clanging together. And he probably can’t escape his Asian community because then he will be a dishonor to his ancestors. Oh! Do you see my other hypothetical friend just down the street? She’s from Mexico. Therefore, her family MUST live off of welfare, her “cousins” are all a part of a gang, she always eats tacos and burritos, she wears a sombrero while beating a piñata, her family’s favorite pastime, and she’s freshly crossed the border. I use “therefore” in this context with the upmost enmity. Do you not hear how wrong this sounds? Do you know how demeaning, crude, and increasingly racist these assumptions are?

I do not have to be a “thug” to follow my mom’s side. She wasn’t, and she never will be. I do not have to dance around in leather straps with a stone-cold expression on my face to make my dad’s family proud. I refuse to follow these images, because then I encourage these humiliating stereotypes. I turn away their flimsy expectations. I am just me. I am going to burn my cardboard cutout, a deceitful, inappropriate illustration drawn up by the wrongly confident who see me based on assumptions that were MEANINGFULLY hurtful well in our past. Many of these stereotypes have not lost their sting. I think it’s time that the world mature and realize that people change all the time. An African-American should be able to go Harvard without a raised eyebrow, and “congratulated” on his supposed break from the ghetto. A Chinese woman should be able to marry the American love of her life without their families shaking heads. A woman living in the United States who happens to be of Mexican descent should not be shunned by society as a mere PROLE and pushed underwater by the hand of “rationale” because she allegedly crossed the border illegally. It is up to the people not to live by these standards and silhouette their cutout perfectly, but instead choose their own, independent, respectable paths in life, regardless of who the world says they are.

By Christian Gann, 17, SAHS, South Korea


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Creative writer, published freelance photographer and journalist, creative cinematographer -- "The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell." ~ Ben Okri

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