Am I a Person of Color
A Samoan-American construction worker assumed we were in the, “Us,” of us being minorities while we were sweating over moving a log.
October 28, 2017
By George Lee
I am going to use the term white men. I’ll let you identify and expand that definition where it needs to go. I identity as half white and half Italian-American. I am exploring considering myself mixed race. Until now, I have always identified as a white man, but many indicators have forced me to question if this is a true statement, or a statement my parents and my community growing up wanted me to take on. Growing up in a rich, mostly white community with a white dad and an Italian mom from the Brooklyn projects I’ve realized now, at the age of 34, that no one ever encouraged me to decide what identification I wanted to attach to my light brown skin and my distinctively different Italian relatives.
My skin was olive. I remember thinking that, and telling people that when they asked. But in the summer, especially one summer after I had been working on a sailboat and the sun had been reflecting off the water onto my skin, my skin was distinctly brown. Not olive, brown like coffee with milk. I remember seeing my face in a photo with all my friends and liking how I looked. I also remember how I saw all my friends were not brown, they were white, pink, cream and freckled white.
At these points in my life, no one came to me and said, “George, do you know what a person of color is?” “Do you know Italians once were oppressed for their heritage and color of their skin?” or, “George, how do you feel about your skin color? How does that make you feel about your relationship with minorities (as people of color were called then in my community)” I bet adults all around me were thinking these things throughout my 18 years in the same school system, but no one ever talked with me about it, and now, at 34, I’m noticing this and looking back wondering is that why this or that happened?
I had a leading role in two high school musicals and was in a couple other plays. When you do theater, everyone puts on makeup. When you put on foundation, essentially a base coat of paint all over your face, I was told to match it to my skin tone. I was Frederic in the Pirates of Penzance, and Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and my best friend’s dad videotaped the shows. I remember watching one of those videos and realizing, in the words of my 18-19 year old self, “That I looked like a black person or something.”
Fast forward to 2016, a Samoan-American construction worker assumed we were in the, “Us,” of us being minorities while we were sweating over moving a log; I realize during interviews I might have been considered Asian-American; If I’m doing landscape work people think I’m Mexican-American till I start talking; I go to a party, think a cool writer guy is black, and it turns out he’s Italian; I go to my cousin’s wedding, an Italian woman and an Irish man in a catholic church, and I realize two of my dark skinned female cousins (not their brothers) are wearing skin lightening makeup; And then, in an art show about a public housing project, a mixed race friend of mine says, “George, you’re a person of color I think,” after I’ve been spilling my guts about it for a while.
So, what the hell am I? And what the hell are you?