Black and White and Read All Over

If you're mixed-race, they never stop asking 'What are you?'

Twenty-four hours later, back at the airport, there has been a change of staff. Nobody thinks I look Moroccan today. In fact, a flirtatious airline employee puts me in the best available seat on the plane while proclaiming how beloved black women are in Italy. My flight attendant is an African American woman, and she smiles at me warmly. My perception of a bond between us fades as she pleasantly asks me, as part of her job, whether I speak Italian or English. For when I say, "English," she replies cheerily, "Oh, you could have fooled me! You look straight-up Italian. I thought for sure you were."

I sigh, more bemused than exasper-ated. The great thinker W.E.B. DuBois spilled much ink explaining what he called "the strange meaning of being black" and the implications of falling to one side of the "color-line" or the other. It seems to me that at the dawning of the 21st century, it is every bit as strange to be racially ambiguous. And that the so-called color-line is far from clear-cut.

Tracy Chapman! Whitney Houston! No, it's Naomi Pabst.
photo: Robin Holland
Tracy Chapman! Whitney Houston! No, it's Naomi Pabst.

Naomi Pabst is a professor in the African American studies and American studies departments at Yale University.

« Previous Page