Often I’m asked “What are you?”
Racial and ethnic identity still inform so much in our culture. The question asked really is a question of identity. “What are you?” masks the underlying question, “Who are you?”
When I was young I was black. My father, Neal Hemachandra, was black. His mother, Leathe Wade Colvert, was black. Her mother, Martha Pleasant, came from Virginia and slave plantations. She was black.
I was black even as I carried an Asian Indian name and just as much ethnic heritage: my father’s father, Balatunga Hemachandra, emigrated from Sri Lanka. I was black even as I was Jewish: my blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jewish mother’s family were immigrants from eastern Europe, and much of their family died in the Holocaust. I was black even as American Indian and black Dutch genes contributed to my father’s ancestral lines.
American history and family history confirmed this identity. One drop. My parent’s mixed marriage: they were married in New York City, where they both were born, by a prominent NYC African American judge, Hubert Delany, brother of the Delany sisters who became famous decades later. My parents’ marriage was reported in the black press in several papers up and down the East Coast.
(Click on the circles for the full photos with captions.)
Racial definitions from the government, schools, and organizations reinforced my black identity. When my mixed-marriage parents moved into their then nearly all-white neighborhood, the neighborhood where I grew up on Long Island, they snuck in during the night. A petition was circulated to create a restrictive covenant.
I grew up with darker skin than my peers, the occasional racial epithet being hurled my way by other children, and a sense of otherness most accessible as blackness in the common culture.
It wasn’t even a question to me: I was black.
That is, I was black racially. I was also Jewish ethnically: born to a Jewish mother, which is how Judaism transfers, and growing up in an area of New York where Jewish culture was well-represented.
That combination wasn’t a contradiction for me, even if it was for others. It was just who I was, and it made sense to me in terms of who my parents were, my most local of cultures.
Still, the racism in the area was endemic, as it was to the time. Non-specific to me, whenever there was a schoolyard fight children would gather around and rhythmically chant over and over again:
Fight, fight, dynamite,
Who’s the nigger?
Who’s the white?
I remember elementary-school teachers and principals breaking up fights, but never objecting to the chant or trying to stop it.
When I went to college and graduate school I participated in black organizations, including participating in CIC (Big Ten plus the University of Chicago, where I did graduate work) minority conferences at different schools and in a mentoring program. I never questioned my identity here; others never questioned it, either.
Still, my perception of how people saw me expanded: When I lived in D.C. attending Georgetown and then in Chicago, especially, out in the community people would frequently start speaking to me in different languages: Spanish, often — I really should have taken Spanish instead of French in high school and college — but also Greek or Italian or tongues unknown. Asian Indians, noting my surname, would often inquire if I was from India.
And as I moved away from cities — to Bellingham, Washington, for a dozen years and then in 2006 to Asheville, North Carolina, where race and blackness are seen through an entirely different regional prism that’s still largely inaccessible to me as a concept or even a feeling — my identity of blackness became increasingly a claim of blackness that was sometimes received skeptically or critically.
I still had the “otherness” thing. It was just an undefined otherness.
In addition to the change of locations, which continues to be consequential, during the past decade the concepts and tags multiethnic, multiracial, and transracial have been increasingly introduced and become increasingly influential across the culture.
Multiracial didn’t exist on the checkbox forms when I was growing up or when I went to college, nor did it exist much as a functional idea. In the United States, anti-miscegenation laws weren’t even deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until the Loving vs. Virginia decision in 1967, the year I was born; 16 states still enforced such laws until that unanimous court verdict. At best, melting pot meant living side by side, or at least in nearby neighborhoods, rather than intermarriage or interchildren.
But now the categories of multiethnic and multiracial, unknown when I was younger, are everywhere. I’m mostly glad for that change and for what it says about a progressing reality and, I hope over time, an increasingly generalized embrace of it. I check the “multi” box when offered.
Still, what you call me matters. I can check that box without questioning my blackness, but doing so likely takes away the legitimacy of my blackness to you, fraying and distorting the identity I’ve had for most of my life. While not trivializing what’s gained, that loss is consequential.
The power of naming has been on my mind lately, as my son ages. Nicholas is 13 and autistic.
Here’s the change I’ve made:
Parents of autistic children and professionals overwhelmingly prefer what’s called person-first language: “My child has autism”; “She is a person with autism”; “There are more and more children with autism.” Autistic adults overwhelming choose what I’ve recently learned is called identity-first language: “He is an autistic man”; “I am autistic” or “My friend is autistic”; “Autistic adults form a growing population demanding not just acceptance but also respect.”
The former construction, a language long fought for by parents and some professionals, says my child is a person first, and autism is just one part of who he is. It’s not the defining aspect of his personhood.
The latter insists autism is essential to identity. Proponents of identity-first language say you would not call a black woman “a woman with blackness.” That doesn’t mean being black is the woman’s only quality, nor does it mean the adjective “black” is relevant to every discussion about the woman and always needs to be used, but being black nonetheless is a quality essential to her identity: so, too, with autism, autistics say.
I now use identity-first language because it seems to me a community should be able to name itself — autistics get to name autistics, regardless of the opinion of autism professionals or parents of autistics — and I have yet to meet an autistic adult who doesn’t prefer identity-first language (even as some are not overly concerned about it). You can read a fuller exploration of this issue by Lydia Brown of Autistic Hoya here or a short, seminal indictment of person-first language by Jim Sinclair here.
My son, Nicholas, has a lot of labels already. He is autistic. He has diagnoses of OCD and severe mixed expressive/receptive communication disorder. He is multiracial and multiethnic, with the diverse heritage from me I described and a Cree-Blackfoot mother, although it’s common for someone to check the “white” box for him without asking, with his relatively fair skin and the gray-blue eyes he shares with my late mother. And, of course, his most obvious labels are that he’s strikingly sweet, gentle, and loving.
Which he’ll just have to accept as part of his identity.
Nicholas is autistic, prominently and essentially. Autism has shaped and guided who he is, how he engages the world and himself, his relationships, how he learns, where we live, how we spend our time, and how we structure our lives in so many ways. I would like him to be proud of his autistic identity, to embrace who he is and not to think of his autism as something to hide or to overcome.
I hope he’ll come to know that being autistic is a blessing that has enriched his life, as well as mine. If you take away the autism, you’d have a different child. I don’t want a different child. I hope he doesn’t want to be different in such an essential way, even as he gets to have his own life and his own emotions around that life.
And I wonder, too, if someday a few decades from now acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity might become so common, that a prescriptive goal of neurotypicality might become so outdated and slow-witted, that the term autistic starts to outlive its usefulness and the autistic identity starts to fray.
We know the loss would be consequential even as we aspire toward that day.
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- Accept or Reject: part 1 of a 6-part series on autism (with links to the other five pieces)
- Top 10 List: Things to Remember When Working with Autistic Children or Other Children with Special Needs
- The Egg Chair
- Autism and Grief
- Nicholas Thurman Jackson Hemachandra: the puzzle known as Superman
- The Autistic Spectacle
- Roads Not Taken: Lessons in Autism, Inclusion, and Life
You might also like to read another very personal piece on race and identity:
Thank you very much for your interest and engagement. I truly appreciate it.