Don't let Amy's blond hair, blue eyes and fair complexion fool you. She grew up on the ethnic streets of Chicago's south side, is fluent in Spanish and, as it happens, has a Black husband and infant baby boy.
Amy swears she is going to write a book entitled, I'm Married to a Brother, So Why Can't I Be a Sister? I assured her that following publication, she would be deluged with mail from sisters writing volumes on why wedding vows do not membership in the sisterhood make.
Amy is experiencing the loneliness of being "the other," of being excluded from conversations because she is not a "person of color," of being approached with wariness and suspicion. In short, she is finding that the world little appreciates the complex and unique person beneath her racial classification. More than a few "sisters" would be tempted — as I was — to shrug their shoulders and offer a sympathetic "welcome to the club."
That is, until they pause (again, as I did) and began to consider their own frustrations with race, of feeling unappreciated, like the "other." I realized then that her tongue-in-cheek quest to join the sisterhood is not a plea to move beyond color. She has had a taste of invisibility and found it not to her liking. Instead she wishes to move beyond race, to be free from constricting definitions that rob us of our individuality.
The world is changing faster than we are rewriting the rules of race. According to the 2000 census, the fastest-growing ethnic group in America is that of mixed-race people. If the growing number of biracial citizens were not enough, the advent of affordable DNA testing has begun to reshape the way in which many others are defining (or redefining) their racial selves. A swab of saliva has suddenly made clear that racially speaking, we all have a lot in common.
Yet, as peculiar as genetics are they don't seem nearly as important as the way in which we interact with the world and, more importantly, the way in which it interacts with us. After all, DNA doesn't mean a whit if it has no real-world impact on the way in which one traverses the cultural landscape.
I grew up with a girl that was one-fourth Native American, but looked like a Barbie doll. She could talk about being Native American all day long, however, her experience in the world more resembled that of Grace Kelly than that of Pocahontas.
Our outdated views on race and continued need for racial classifications often turn us into actors in a kind of absurdist theatre.
Amy recounts her struggle to get a young student accepted into a support and tutoring program for African American boys. In an effort to improve the success of Black male students, the school where she teaches began the Kofi program. "Kofi" is Swahili for "a handful." Amy felt that an eighth grader in one of her classes would benefit from such a program. However, the boy was denied entrance because he didn't qualify.
Although the boy was born in New Jersey, his parents are Nigerian. He was not allowed to participate in the program because he was not "African American." Amy spent the better part of the semester arguing with the Black program administrators that indeed he was African and American.
As we move further into the 21st century, the face of America is rapidly changing. Our notions of race must keep pace without tying us into convoluted knots.
Amy may never write her book, though such a tome might generate a very necessary conversation about our need to begin discarding archaic and divisive notions of race and racial authenticity in favor of an expanded definition that gives voice to the breadth of our human experience.
Joseph C. Phillips is an actor and writer based in Los Angeles.