Do you ever get asked questions about your identity?
How about me? Could you guess my ethnic background or identity? In fact, you could put your answer in the comment section and see if you aren’t alone!
There is going to be some humor in this post. Beware!
My name is Sophia. Like Sophia Loren with the big eyes, or Sofia Vergara with the big breasts. I haven’t called myself these names; I am only (vainly) conveying what people have said since childhood and in later years.
I have consistently been asked these questions: where are you from? What is your ethnicity? At some point I decided to ask the curious person what they thought. The guesses across U.S. state lines varied only slightly: Brazilian, Moroccan, and Indian were the top three guesses. Less than a handful of times someone guessed Italian, Eritrean, and Afghani (I wondered if they had been stalking me, but they just had a good eye for phenotypes).
I am a Mhaya from the Haya tribe of northwest Tanzania, west of Lake Victoria. This is the tribe of my mother and my grandmother, while my great-grandmother was from the Kingdom of Buganda. I am also Punjabi, Afghani, Eritrean, and Italian; and that only covers up to 4 grandparents & my great-grandmother Nshashwoi – I think her name is so awesome! I consider myself all those things, and I am aware of being all of them to some, and one of them to most. At this point in my life I wonder, more than anything else when it comes to this, how I feel about it all and how I identify.
It’s an ongoing question, but I know I am not alone in answering it. I think there are others who are going through the same thing, so I hope this post can help someone with today’s set of… wonderings about their identity.
Sophia in Italia
When I lived in Italy as a kid, I honestly had the best time! We played outside; I ran and ran and ran; we shouted; we had spit contests; we did our homework; we played palla a calcio, aka football or soccer; we hid from the Carabinieri driving by, as if we had done something wrong. I am still in touch with most of my neighbors and elementary school friends; they hold a special and beautiful place in my heart. There were parts of childhood that were tough and in retrospect uncertain, but overall, I think it was pretty great!
The grocers across the narrow street from our house were super nice and let me learn how to do things around the shop when I asked. I never thought anything really deep, when the husband would tease and say “O! Are you getting bananas today? You guys like them where you’re from!” with a big smile on his face. I just thought that was a stupid comment and that he was only making a joke. So I took it as that.
It wasn’t until 20 years later that it dawned on me that in our class, there were just two of us who were not “olive-skin white Italians”. I mean… our olive skin is there, but you know, mixed with some other things like… cardamom and Thai basil.
We tanned really well! No one pointed any of that out, though, and childhood went on as I wish it would for all children.
Sophia in Tanzania
When we moved back to Tanzania I learned Kiswahili and English as quickly as I could. I jumped straight into 6th grade with two-weeks’ worth of English classes, and let me tell you… it was quite the experience! From a class of 18-24 students, all speaking Italian, all friends since yay high, to a class of 90+ students, speaking in languages I didn’t understand, and looking at me like only a part of what I am ethnicity-wise. How dare they!
One girl in particular was really cool. She was African (color omission is intentional) and she knew all these cool English hip-hop songs that I heard in 6th and 7th grade. Our Cameroonian teacher would let us sing them in class. Her English sounded perfect, even though I didn’t know the meaning of all the words we were singing (now that I speak English I can say she does speak it excellently.)
As time passed and I learned to speak the local languages, people started asking me about my ethnic identity; guessing that I was Baluch, Omani, Arab, or Indian. The Somali girls would befriend me and we’d hang out quite a bit. I remember being in Form II (think sophomore year in U.S. high school) and a group of Indian girls asked if I wanted to be friends, to which I said yes. The next morning at school, the group of Indian girls and I waved from across the courtyard.
During that same morning, I met some more friends in class, and during class changes I walked with them to our next destination. Three of the Indian girls from that morning saw me with my new friends, looked at me, hugged their books tightly to their chests, and walked past us like they didn’t know me.
During recess I went to say hi to the Indian girls, and sure enough they had changed their minds about hanging out with me. The only difference that I could think of is that the friends they had seen me with looked pretty coffee-skinned.
It’s so strange to me to say Black, as Black is not a word anyone used to describe our identity; not even the darkest-looking person… unless they were really, really dark… like beautiful moon-lit nights. In this case, someone might have called them ‘of the night‘ or ‘of blackness‘, which was sometimes done in a collective jest that included the person being discussed, and at times it was used to be hurtful.. The more I say, the more wrong it sounds, but I am not here to lie to you or paint a picture that isn’t so. Back to my point, though. Africa is home to so many skin colors, physical features, and hair textures!
So it was, that from that day I chose to not say I was Indian; that included Afghani. I was Tanzanian, Eritrean, and Italian. I didn’t watch Indian movies if I could help it, I didn’t seek out anything to do with my Indian heritage at all. I still ate Indian sweets like gulam jamun because, well… it’s gulam jamun.
I came back to appreciating and happily embracing my Asiatic identity in my 20s. Of course that small group of girls was not a complete representation of all Indians, just as most small groups aren’t a complete representation of a group or an ideology or belief.
This brings us to Sophia In the United States of America, but see, that is an entirely different experience, that requires its own post.
Before I go, I would like to ask you: Did any of this resonate with you? How does it feel? You don’t have to answer that publicly, but you are free to do so.
I hope it feels reassuring or that it helps in some way.
I am a mom amongst some other titles life has fortunately given me. I love photography & the reward of someone being really happy about a photo I took of her/him. I work, I study, I try to pay attention to life. I like writing. I don't understand many things...especially why humans treat each other & other living & inanimate things so vilely sometimes. I like to be an idealist, but when most fails, I do my best to not be a pessimist: Life itself is entirely too beautiful, amazing & inspiring to forget that it is!
In August 2020, a 29-year-old African-American man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back multiple times by police, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This incident resulted in Jacob being paralyzed from the waist down. On August 25, 2020, during the protests that followed, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse left his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, and went to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Armed with an AR-15 rifle, he fatally shot two men and wounded a third. Mr. Rittenhouse and the three people he shot were all Caucasian.
During the subsequent trial, Mr. Rittenhouse and his legal team argued that he had been acting in self-defense. Now 18 years old, he has been acquitted of all charges.
I must be honest and share that I was not surprised by the “not guilty” verdict handed down to Kyle Rittenhouse. I have learned through observing numerous courts cases that Caucasian males are seen to be innocent even when they are guilty.
When the judge threw out the gun charges against Mr. Rittenhouse, I knew that he was extending to him the judicial courtesy that so many Caucasian males in his position get. The Judge wouldn’t even allow the three men to be labeled as “victims” although the terms “protester” and “rioter” were permitted.
How can you charge a person with a crime when the weapon involved in the crime basically doesn’t exist and there are no “victims”? This judicial bias that was shown to Kyle Rittenhouse rarely gets shown to non-white males. This directly reflects the fact that even though non-white males represent approximately 29% of America’s population, they represent over 57% of the incarcerated population (Morgan, Smith, 2005).
Though I wasn’t surprised by the verdict, I was still enraged by it. The interpretation of law always seems to lean in the favor of Caucasian Americans, and that same law or rule is enforced fully in the cases of any male that is non-white. According to the United State Sentencing Commission (USSC), non-white males receive, on average, prison sentences that are 20% longer than those of their Caucasian counterparts.
I am enraged that a 17-year-old could walk around with an AR-15 rifle and not be stopped or apprehended by one of the many police officers present. This demonstrates the ongoing systemic racism that continues to plague our country. How are we ever going to correct a problem when the system that governs the problem is the problem?
Morgan, K., & Smith, B.L. (2005). Victims, Punishment, and Parole: The Effect of Victim Participation on Parole Hearings. Criminology and Public Policy, 4(2), p. 355.
Uggen, C., Larson, R, & Shannon, S. (2016). 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Available at:
United States Sentencing Commission. (2016). The federal sentencing guidelines : a report on the operation of the guidelines system and short-term impacts on disparity in sentencing, use of incarceration, and prosecutorial discretion and plea bargaining. [Washington, D.C.?]: https://www.ussc.gov/guidelines/2018-guidelines-manual-annotated
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Dr. Denetria Brooks-James.
World Moms Network is an award winning website whose mission statement is "Connecting mothers; empowering women around the globe." With over 70 contributors who write from over 30 countries, the site covered the topics of motherhood, culture, human rights and social good.
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Amazon Prime released a series called “Them”. It is set in the 1950’s, and it tells the story of a Black family that moves into an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. Watching this show reminds me of the fact that my parents were the second Black family on our street. This was well before I was born but I’ve heard the story all my life.
The female neighbor next door told the other neighbor on the opposite side that since N-words lived there now she didn’t want “their” plums falling in her yard. So the other neighbor cut the plum tree in our back yard down in the middle of the night. My daddy, being who he was, burned the man’s storage shed down and cut his fig tree down. This kind of thing went on for a few years.
By the time I was born, there was another plum tree, fig tree, and storage shed. The neighbor who didn’t want the N-word’s plums in her yard ended up babysitting me after school, and her grandchildren who spent the summer with her stayed in our house and back yard most of the time. We played,fought, and got spankings together too many times to count. We even painted them black with charcoal and dog poop once and all ended up in the bathtub together.
Over the years, TWO men who originally hated one another got older and sickly, but by this time they both had spare keys to each other’s homes in case of an emergency. The man who had cut our plum tree down at one point had the pleasure of cleaning up after my dad after he had soiled himself, and he stayed there with my dad until my mom got home. He also cooked for him on dialysis days.
My dad would sometimes ride his wheelchair down to the other man’s house to take a plate of food my mom had made, or they would have a cup of coffee standing out on the property line they once cursed at each other over.
Both of those neighbors are long gone now. All I have are fond memories of them both. When my brother passed, the male neighbor was the first person to hug and kiss me and tell me he loved me. The female neighbor left me my favorite one of her tea cups that she used to use for sun-tea and allowed me to use for my after school snack. Until the male neighbor was well into his 80’s he helped my mom in any way possible without her having to even ask. His family still sends her greeting cards and gifts from time to time.
The show “Them” is a trigger for many reasons, but from a cinematic perspective, it is very suspenseful, and this can make it easy for us to forget the advice to love thy neighbor. If we all put ourselves in our neighbors’ shoes and committed to truly loving them, imagine how much greater we could become as individuals, families, and communities.
How diverse is the neighborhood you live in? Are your neighbors a big part of your family’s life?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Disha Ellis. Photo credit to the author.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about being a white Latina. It didn’t go down well. I’ve learned a lot about white privilege since then, and it’s definitely made me see things differently.
Through my erroneous view of how being a white Latina was a disadvantage, I learned just how much easier I had it than lots of other people. Being fair and nice to my long-time Andean maid wasn’t and will never be enough.
When I was young, I was an immigrant in the United States. I hardly spoke any English and my family shrunk from having tons of uncles and cousins around to just me and my mom. I never really noticed how being white made it easier to be an immigrant until I was much older. It was only when I traveled as an expat/digital nomad in my 30s that I came to terms with how my White Latina existence was actually a privilege.
I’m no longer blind to my white privilege and how it’s made things easier for me and my family to move around the world and get ahead. With my work in social media management, I’ve tried to look beyond my own existence and try to be as diverse and inclusive as possible in my language and content output.
Raising kids with awareness
As a mom, it’s my job to impart my children with the right knowledge of how and why their life is privileged. On this front, I can’t say I’m doing a great job. My kids need more first-hand experience with other realities of human existence. So, as a way to teach them about white privilege, I put together some resources to help.
Here are some tools:
Since I am a visual person, I collected infographics and illustrations to get the point across.
Here is a series of illustrations titled, A Guide to White Privilege. It simplifies the most important aspects but I feel like the biggest point is that white privilege is tied to racism in a very close-knit way. On the last slide, the artist includes suggestions on what to do with your white privilege.
Test Your Knowledge
This next video is a TEDx Talk by Lillian Medville who created a card game called Your Privilege is Showing. Her talk is a great starting point for those of us that need to learn about accepting and acknowledging privilege. Not just white privilege but also societal privileges like gender and socio-economic.
I am considering getting a copy of her card game. I’m interested in how it might help both in my work and with my kids’ relationships with all humans.
Orana is a Writer, Artist, Mother and Wife; Peruvian Expat currently living in Kyiv, Ukraine with her husband and children. She works as a writer, designer and social media manager for diverse organizations around the world.
In a blog post that I wrote for NPR’s intern edition back in 2007, I started with, “I moved to the United States four years ago, but I never felt more like a foreigner until I was back in my homeland of Taiwan last summer.” I then told a story about how I was kicked out of a taxi in Taipei because I didn’t speak a Taiwanese dialect. I ended by saying, “I don’t feel Chinese or Taiwanese and I certainly will never be a real American.”
Fourteen years have passed since that post was written. Now I feel American, 100 percent. America is home, with no doubt. Funny how things change.
One thing remain the same, though. I still feel like a foreigner when I am in my birthplace of Taiwan, or among my fellow Taiwanese.
Not that finding a place in America is easy. I have to constantly prove that I am an American, that I belong. Fourteen years ago, I tried to prove it to myself. Now, I try to prove it to everyone around me, from strangers I encounter to my fellow Asian American people.
Recently my family went hiking and as always, my little hikers got a lot of attention. In the shade of an old tree two white ladies started to talk to my 8-year-old.
“What’s your nationality?” they asked.
“I’m American,” he replied.
“No, where are you from?”
“No, how do you say ‘hello’ in your language?”
He was confused, but I knew what those people wanted to hear. So I said, “We’re American. If you’re asking about ethnicity, I was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents. The children were born in San Diego. And we try to speak Chinese at home but as you can see, they are more used to English.”
Then we moved on. My children asked me what all those questions were about. I told them that because we look different, those people assumed we were foreigners.
“How do we look different?”
“How not being white is different?”
“…Oh look at that blue butterfly!”
The kids went to chase the butterfly and soon forgot about the conversation.
On our return trip we saw those ladies again. They apologized for “not being sensitive.” I told them we got a lot of questions but we never got apologies. So I thanked them.
And I meant it. With the delicate distinction that lies between curiosity and insensitivity, we face this kind of behavior all the time—some people call it “micro aggressive.” To me, it’s a constant reminder that we still need to prove that we belong. It is uncomfortable, but nothing close to the hardest part. The truth is, racism against Asians has been there ever since, or even before, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. However, people have never talked about it as we are doing right now. Conversation is always a good thing and a sign of change. I don’t mind proving this to myself again and again, as long as it guarantees a better place in this country for my offspring.
The hard part is walking between two worlds as an Asian American. In the last year—the pandemic year— I have found myself caught between the maliciousness from different Asian groups, particularly between Chinese and Taiwanese. I contribute to a variety of Chinese and Taiwanese publishers. And to this day, the standard language in many Taiwanese newsrooms for COVID-19 is still “Wuhan virus.”
I had hard time communicating with some editors I work with that it is unbearable seeing the words “Wuhan virus” under my by-line. In my neighborhood, my children have never heard any white people using slurs against Asians, but they hear Taiwanese kids use the term “Chinese virus” a lot. My Taiwanese friends who are determined to stick with the term said it loud and clear: “Taiwanese will always be Taiwanese! Chinese will always be Chinese! Nothing changes when we move to America! And as Taiwanese we will always hate Chinese!”
Some of these people have been living in the States for decades, yet believe that they will never be American, and their determination to hate people of certain national origins is ever solidified. Identity is indeed a most curious thing.
These are the hardest things for me: explaining to my children how the hostility between different Asian American groups is deeply rooted in politics back in Asia and fueling the hate crime at home in America, and how long it will take to eliminate such hate. These conversations are just draining.
Recently I have come to the conclusion that I will be honest to my children and tell them that I do not have a good answer. But there is one thing I can assure them: we should all have empathy. Not because we are American, Chinese or Taiwanese, but because we are human beings.
And hopefully, with a little more empathy, we will get a little bit closer to a day without hate.
When I was six years old, my father’s job took us from South Africa to the United States. The year was 1976, and South Africa was reeling from the Soweto uprising, a student-led protest against the Apartheid government that ended in the deaths of at least 176 Black school students, with thousands more being injured.
Being a six-year-old child on the privileged side of Apartheid, I didn’t really know what was going on. I was vaguely aware of something big happening in the news, but I didn’t know what any of it meant. At that age, all I really understood about Apartheid was that Black people only ventured into white neighbourhoods if they happened to work there, usually as someone’s maid or gardener.
When we moved to a quiet suburb of Connecticut, things didn’t seem much different. The small town we lived in was decidedly WASP by nature. Formalized Apartheid may not have existed in Connecticut, but the segregation was just as real. If anything, I had even less contact with Black people in the United States than I ever had in South Africa.
My first week of school in Connecticut was uneventful – until the bus ride home one afternoon. What my brother and I didn’t know was that some of the other kids on the school bus were hiding rocks. As we got off the bus, these kids stood up and threw the rocks at us, taunting us for being the bad South African kids. I remember walking from the bus stop to our house under the protective arm of my brother, with blood gushing from a wound on my head.
It took many years for me to understand that as traumatic as that experience was for me, it was a curious embodiment of the privilege that I had grown up with. For us, this was an ugly isolated incident. For Black South Africans back home, being on the receiving end of attacks like that was a part of everyday life. They woke up each morning with no real certainty that they would still be alive at the end of the day.
When we returned to South Africa, I was three years older than when we had left. I was beyond the age of accepting things without question: now I was observing the world around me and asking questions about what I saw.
When my mother was driving me to school one morning shortly after our return to South Africa, we were stopped at a traffic light. As we waited, a police van drove up and parked on the shoulder, where several Black people were walking and chatting to each other. Two police officers jumped out of the van and approached the group. A few of the people showed papers to the police officers and were allowed to go on their way. The rest were forced to get into the back of the van.
“What did those people do wrong?” I asked my mother, as the van drove off, leaving a cloud of desperation in its wake.
“They didn’t do anything wrong,” said my mother. She looked immeasurably sad.
“So – why did the police take them away?”
“Because they’re not supposed to be in this area.”
When I got home from school that day, my mother offered me a fuller explanation. I got a lesson about “pass laws”, a draconian set of rules that made it illegal for Black people to be in white neighbourhoods without documented proof that they were employed by someone there. What I had seen was a typical police arrest of people who were, quite literally, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As I adjusted to being back in South Africa, I frequently saw these arrests taking place. It bothered me every time, especially in the context of other hallmarks of Apartheid South Africa. The Group Areas Act, for instance, meant that South Africans were allocated areas that they could live in. The land allocated to white people was proportionately far greater than that set aside for other races. This led to chronic overcrowding in most of the Black neighbourhoods, which in turn resulted in a shortage of resources like water and access to healthcare.
From time to time, the government would reallocate land, usually in favour of white people, and whoever was living on that land would be forcibly removed. In many cases, there would barely be time for families to gather whatever belongings they could before bulldozers moved in and destroyed their homes right in front of them.
I was too young at the time to understand anything about politics, or to question why such grave human rights abuses were being allowed to take place. My parents, like other white people of their generation, couldn’t speak out for fear of losing their jobs, and possibly their freedom. But when the wheels of change finally started turning during the 1980s, the vast majority of white South Africans were in full support of reform.
The abolition of pass laws in 1986 was a major turning point for the country. That era also saw an end to the prohibition on interracial marriage, and the desegregation of public facilities such as parks and public restrooms.
There was still a lot of work to be done, though. The fight for change was not over. My aunt, who in earlier days had lost her position as a teacher because she refused to recognize the national anthem of an oppressive government, spoke to me about complicity.
“Every white person in this country who does not contribute to change is part of the problem,” she said.
I carried these words with me to university, where student protests against Apartheid were the norm. I was not a central figure in the protests by any means. I was never the one standing up front with a megaphone and an angry message, but I was there. I was part of several crowds speaking up for reform, demanding the unbanning of Black-led political organizations, calling for equal voting rights for all.
On a hot summer’s day in 1990, when I was in my final year of university, I joined the throng of students who went to witness the release of Nelson Mandela. I couldn’t see much from where I was standing, but that didn’t matter. The intensity of the emotion of that day swept through the crowd like a wave, going back and forth and back again. Strangers clung to each other, sobbing – partly from joy, partly from the pent-up sadness and despair that had built up over decades.
To me, the true end of Apartheid happened on April 27, 1994 – the day of South Africa’s first election where people of eligible voting age from all races were allowed to cast a ballot. My parents and I stood in line for eight hours to be part of this momentous occasion.
Those were eight of the best hours of my life. No one minded being in line for so long. Impromptu barbecues sprung up here and there, and everyone was invited. Every now and then, people or groups would break out into song, or start to dance. There were no strangers that day: just millions of people nationwide who were participating in history. For that day, all that mattered was unity and healing.
But the spectre of Apartheid is still very much there. Millions of Black South Africans are still impacted by the damage done by Apartheid rules. The inequities in education will take generations to rectify. Overcrowding from the days of the pass laws persists to this day, along with the associated problems relating to healthcare and access to resources. The poorest 60% of the population, most of whom are Black, own just 7% of the wealth.
My experience growing up as a white kid in Apartheid-era South Africa impacts my life to this day. It is on my mind every time I hear about a Black person in the United States being murdered during a routine traffic stop. It was part of my visceral reaction of grief when George Floyd was murdered. The tears I shed that day were shed for George Floyd, and for the thousands of lives that were taken by Apartheid.
Most of all, it is present in my conversations with my children about race, racism, and white privilege. My husband and I are raising our kids to be agents for change and not bystanders. We encourage our boys to call out racism when they see it, to acknowledge their privilege, and above all, to keep quiet and listen to the voices that really matter – the voices of the people who have been marginalized because of the colour of their skin.
How has systemic racism shaped your view of the world? How do you talk to your children about racism?
Kirsten Doyle was born in South Africa. After completing university, she drifted for a while and finally washed up in Canada in 2000. She is Mom to two boys who have reached the stage of eating everything in sight (but still remaining skinny).
Kirsten was a computer programmer for a while before migrating into I.T. project management. Eventually she tossed in the corporate life entirely in order to be a self-employed writer and editor. She is now living her best life writing about mental health and addictions, and posting videos to two YouTube channels.
When Kirsten is not wrestling with her kids or writing up a storm, she can be seen on Toronto's streets putting many miles onto her running shoes. Every year, she runs a half-marathon to benefit children with autism, inspired by her older son who lives life on the autism spectrum.
Final piece of information: Kirsten is lucky enough to be married to the funniest guy in the world.
Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Be sure to check out her YouTube channels at My Gen X Life and Word Salad With Coffee!