I grew up in the same town for my entire life. More or less. We moved there when I was three. And it happened to be the same hometown that my dad was born in and grew up. We Flemings like to stick to what we know.
Rochester is a pretty diverse town for being in the middle of farm country. I went to high school with people who had a wide variety of ethnic background.
My race was never confused. I was always that white girl.
Until I moved to Idaho. Oh Idaho.
I remember my first semester at BYU-Idaho. I had moved into the dorms, the semester started up and took its natural course. Then all of a sudden it started happening. Multiple times. I don’t remember all of the exact details...but I was somewhere with someone. We were carrying on our conversation when there was a lull in the conversation. I noticed them looking at me and they had that look on their face. You know the one I’m talking about. They’re debating if they should say what they’re thinking. Weighing out the pros and cons, if it would be offensive or if they should just take their chances. What do you do in this situation? So I just waited....not sure what to expect.
“So...um....what...well....uh......what are you?”
What am I? What does that even mean? You mean besides human?
“You know, like, where are you from?”
“No....I mean....like....you know.....are you black?”
“I'm sorry. Am I WHAT?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love nothing more than to be able to claim some African American heritage. But have you SEEN MY SKIN? It’s white. Or my eyes? They're blue.
I brushed it off as, well I don’t even know what, I had no explanation. I was dumbfounded. Dumbfounded, I tell you.
I went to my apartment and retold the story to my roommates. All five of them.
“Guys! Get this. So I was on campus today talking to this person and all of a sudden they ask me if......”
As I finished the story I waited for their agreement of the absurdity of this question. Nothing but dead silence.
They looked at me, looked at each other.
“I could see it.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Sure. I mean you have big lips and puffy hair.”
I wrote it all off as ignorance. Clearly these people didn’t know what they were talking about.
So the semester went on. Semester after semester.
And I got asked this question AT LEAST once a semester. I finally decided that moving to Idaho must do some magic trick on your brain that causes you to not think rationally, because I was getting it from people from all over.
So I just got used to it. And when people started looking at me all confused with their furrowed eyebrows and half opened mouths I’ve just learned to say...
So after so many semesters I took a few off and went to serve a full time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Virginia.
It was one of my last weeks in the mission and I was serving in Norfolk. My companion and I were trying to find a street. So we stopped and talked to a man (who happened to be African American. You’ll see why this detail is important later) to try and get directions. He told us how to get there, we did our best to share the gospel with him and gave him a card for mormon.org
Then some chit chat started.
“Where are ya’ll from?”
“Oh. Alright. Alright. Well I know that you (pointing at my companion) you’re originally from Ireland. Because you have red hair.”
Which was only reddish. It was mostly brown. And I’m pretty sure it came from a box anyway.
“Oh yeah, um...yeah, I think I do have some ancestors form Ireland.”
Then it was my turn. (can you tell where this was going?)
“And you, I don’t even gotta ask you ‘cause I know you got some black in you.”
“Oh, no sir, I don’t. I’m just white.....”
“No. No, no, no, no, no. You got it in you...just embrace it!”
“Really, I wish I was but I....”
“No. Look at your eyes. And your nose. And that flower in your hair, that’s straight Billie Holiday!”
“All my relatives are white....I think I have some European ancestors too, you know like Ireland.”
“Well if that’s the case then there was some sneaking and creeping going on. Because you got it in you, I know you do.”
And there you go. A bona fide African American told me that I too am one.
After all, it takes one to know one. Or so I’ve been told.