Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The day snuck up on me. Like, I didn’t even know it was happening until yesterday. Little did I know the effect this day would have one me.
I’ve been thinking about race a lot lately. I do background work on TV shows in between PA gigs. I get booked a lot because I am racially ambiguous and can pass for a number of type categories. As an actor, I am constantly being summed up in a matter of seconds by casting directors. I’ve been cast as “hispanic”, “caucasian”, “middle eastern” – you name it, I’ve been mistaken for it. When people meet me for the first time, they are often curious as to my ethnicity. I remember in high school, the Armenian kids adopted me. Weren’t they disappointed when they found out I wasn’t one of them. The same thing happened in college with a group of Jewish students. They not-so-tactfully explained that because I had a large nose and frizzy hair, they assumed I was Israeli. When someone asks me “What are you?” I never answer them. I asked them what they think I am instead. No one has ever been right. The usually say, “Latina, but from somewhere like Spain or Brazil”. When I shake my head no, they say “Armenian? Middle Eastern?, Greek?”. The last suggested origin is said with the most hesitation… “Are you mixed?”. I shake my head no, with a peculiar feeling of regret. We both know what “mixed” means.
Every race I hear supposed amuses me – except the last one. When someone asks me if I am half-black, I feel pride, I feel sad, and I feel a longing. I wish I could more accurately communicate my emotional response because I think it’s more than that… but for now – that’s all I’ve got.
That’s the context for the story I’m about to tell you.
Recently, I had the honor of working alongside Lena Dunham on an HBO pilot called Max. It’s a 30 minute comedy about a plucky white girl living in New York City: 1963. I was a wardrobe PA, helping my talented union friends dress over 300 extras in period costumes. The first two days, we dressed tiny, fair folks in sherbet colors for a country club scene, and shaggy haired SoHo types who were prepared to expose their breasts and burn their bras in advocation for women’s rights. During the afternoon of Day 3, we were scheduled to dress “the crew” of a black character on the show. As soon as 2pm hit, the room was filled with our entirely white crew, a large group of black actresses – and me.
I came into the room after running an errand to find that the vibe felt very different than the other fittings. It was tense. My coworkers, who were usually warm, but assertive with their actors, where suddenly stuck with an obvious douse of insecurity and stuttering. I sensed the change in the room and felt like I had walked into a cloud of “uncomfortable”; but when I saw the black women in the room – I felt immediately safe and happy.
I was embarrassed by the dorky grin on my face. I smile a lot when I’m excited. I started to check everyone in and give my spiel about where they should go and what they should provide during their appointment. My voice was higher pitched and I acted like I do when I’m star-struck. I took note of my behavior and willed myself to chill out. I was failing. Then I had an interaction with a woman that I will never forget.
I happened to be wearing a sweatshirt from H&M that day that said “Brooklyn” across the shoulders and chest. I have a weird obsession with tops that advertise New York. A woman with pale black skin and a tribal hairstyle sat next to me while she waited for her costumer to find her a piece. She asked me in a friendly tone if I was from New York. I said no, but my Mom was, and I had spent time living there during my summers in college. I then disclosed that my family spawns from a collection of Italian immigrants who came over to Ellis Island to live the American Dream, and that we are about as stereotypically Italian as they come. Lol! She told me she was from New York and then looked me right in the eye and said, “Girl, back home – you and me are family. In LA, it’s not like that. People are scared of each other here, but you and me – we’re sisters. We understand each other.”
I have never wanted to hug a stranger more than in that moment of my life.
I looked her dead in the eye too and said, “You. Are. Right.”
And then I said “Thank you.”
In high school, I cast myself as one of the Muses from Hercules. In the same showcase, I also cast myself as Maria from West Side Story. In neither case did anyone mention me looking out of place. A few years later I auditioned for Oklahoma! and I did not get cast. Of course, that could have been for a number of reasons – but if I were casting the show, I certainly wouldn’t have cast me as a “Midwestern-er”. My brothers both look very white. Standing next to them, I often feel out of place. They always joke that I got hit hard with the Italian stick. My friends in Portland affectionately called me an “eggplant” – a term used in the midcentury for Italians. Black on the outside, white on the inside. A friend once asked who the black girl was in a family picture from the 80’s. She was delighted when I told her it was me and showed her mom the picture. Her mother told me, “Honey, Sicily is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the mother country. You probably have African in you somewhere.” When she told me that I was filled with so much pride…and understood a little better why I sound like Ella when I sing sometimes. And why she makes me cry.
I would never EVER state that I identify as black. I am not black (as far as I know), and to identify as such would be grossly disrespectful. As I look back at what I’ve written just now, and recall the experiences I’ve had in regard to race and being assumed black – I do not know how to sum it all up… I feel like processing this should have led me to some conclusion, or taught me valuable life lesson, or given me something to preach about…But beyond sharing my feelings, I have nothing to say. I guess what writing this down has shown me is that how people perceive you affects your life.
I have felt out of place for much of my life. I know my confusing features have contributed to that sense of not-belonging. My own people recognize me when they see me, and I can easily pick out my kin as well… but how odd it is when the majority of the world can’t place you. I wonder how dramatically my “perceived ethnicity” has altered my life. I wonder if my life would look different if I looked more like my siblings. I have learned over the years that many people don’t assume “white female” when they meet me. They say they see me more as a “Jasmine” not a “Belle”, though Belle lives next store to my country of origin. Ironically, I am Italian-Irish-Polish. I’m only half Italian! The other half of my ethnicity is whiter than snow! But what I actually am affects my life far less than what I am perceived as by others. This gives me great pause.
What would be different about my life if I had more caucasian features? The fact is I don’t know. I have speculations, but all of them make me sound like a victim. And that is not what I am. Also, is it okay that my favorite musical is Dreamgirls? That I am more moved by Jazz and Gospel music than any other genre? That when I spend time with a black friend, I sometimes feel like they understand me better than my white friends? That part of me wishes so deeply that I were more like them than I am? I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I only know what it feels like to be perceived as black – sometimes. And when I am, it makes me proud.
Make of this what you will. I had no intentions other than to share my experience. I hope you can glean something from it – and I don’t assume to know what that should be.