The voices of rowdy, hungry teenagers and the smell of corn, pizza and ranch dressing filled the cafeteria. I’m not sure how I managed to make it to lunch but I did, a few almost-missed bells and clumsy falls later. It was the first day of my freshman year of high school and all I wanted to do was run home and bury my face in my new Jackie O biography. The newness of my denim skirt, lime green Express top, and rope wedges had worn off, and I was ready to make friends with french fries.
I plopped my lunch tray on the table across from my best friend, and we began to exchange hilarious, borderline humiliating, stories about our first day. She introduced herself in debate and told the class that she enjoyed watching golf. (She never watched golf.) My mother brought my gym clothes in between classes and yelled “TayTay” across the main hallway. So, we basically needed to drown our feelings in cafeteria cookies and laughs for the next hour. Then it happened. The question flew through the air like a milk carton in a food fight. “What ethnicity are you?” asked one of the funniest senior guys in the school. He was looking directly at me. He couldn’t be talking to me, right? But, he was. I shrugged. I had no idea. “White?” I reluctantly responded. After I wiped the question from my face, I began to wonder, too.
As I began to turn each year like the page of a book, I noticed that others often commented on my "exotic, unique features" - my high cheek bones, square face, ocean-colored eye, and olive skin. (My melanin has lost some of its deep olive color throughout the years, or so it seems, but I always thought I looked dirty compared to others.) Because I was always the girl who sought answers, I asked questions about my background.
My mother didn’t know much about my biological father’s background, but she knew we were predominately of Native American descent with a little dash of German. That would most likely explain my olive skin and my “cubed face”, as a kid I babysat called it. It wasn’t until I met my biological father when I was fourteen that I learned more about his origins, and I was more than fascinated.
My paternal grandmother moved to the U.S. from Germany when she was 18 years old. She married my paternal grandfather when he was stationed in Germany. He was first-generation American, and his parents were from Belgium. She was smitten with his striking features, intellect and charming personality. His IQ was apparently off the charts (but so was his crazy). Settling down in Michigan, my grandmother barely spoke English and worked for $1.50 an hour at the hospital. She eventually became a nurse. She was forced to understand a new land and new way of life and the challenges were often more than she could bear. But, she did it. She survived.
Looking at the current state of things, I think we should all sit around a lunch table and ask questions. If you dig deep, you might find that you are American and you aren’t. Your descendants may have crossed mountains or fought the Red Coats for their freedom. You may have Middle Eastern descent that you didn’t know about. (But, if you believe that we all descended from Adam and Eve, then you definitely have Middle Eastern DNA.) At the end of the day, I am a mix of color and language. I am a mix of people who all wanted to ultimately be loved and live free from stereotypes and persecution. We all just want to be welcomed at the table, a table, any table, regardless of our backgrounds. So, as the sound of chatter and the smell of french fries and hot sauce fill the room, look in the eyes of the person across from you. See their color, hear their accent and welcome them as your new lunch buddy.