Throughout my life, I have been asked a question countless times, often posed a typical icebreaker when meeting someone new: “What are you?”. From my understanding, this question provides an insight into a person’s culture, history, and identity, reflecting the rich cultural background that we all carry with us. Everyone is a proud bearer of a rich cultural heritage that defines their background and provides insight into their unique identity. Despite its seemingly straightforward nature, answering this question has always been surprisingly challenging for me.
Having been born and raised in the United States, I have a deep connection to American culture. Growing up, I was surrounded by American music, schooled in the American system, eating American fast food and entertained by American television shows on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network throughout my childhood. Most, if not all, of my friends growing up were also Americans. As an American, I take pride in my American identity and show my patriotism by proudly waving the American flag during the Olympic games and other sporting events like the World Cup. Based on this, it should be clear who I am, right? But when you have parents from different backgrounds, it makes your upbringing slightly more unique.
I’m sure many first-generation Americans can relate to having parents from a different culture. Both my parents were born and raised in Birmingham, England. From being surrounded by British candy such as a large Cadbury’s bar, sherbert fountains, and rolls of fruit pastilles to hearing British slang such as “Ta,” “Cuppa,” and “Quid,” British culture has basically been around me my entire life. A term like “Full English Breakfast” was just “breakfast” to me on a Sunday morning. Growing up surrounded by all British uncles and aunts as well, I even became used to the English accent over time. Though this culture has been a part of me my entire life, it feels weird to call myself “British”. Though yes, part of the culture is within me, people can clearly tell that I am not from England based on my accent alone. I’ve only ever been to the country once.
My cultural complexity doesn’t stop there. Growing up, my Jamaican heritage has always played a big role in my life. My maternal and paternal grandparents all hail from Jamaica, with roots in various locations spanning from the countryside of Clarendon to the city of Kingston. This heritage was an influential part in my upbringing. During family gatherings, we would enjoy not just traditional American burgers and hot dogs, but also delicious Jamaican dishes such as jerk chicken, curry chicken, oxtail, and Jamaican-style beef patties. I have fond memories of my grandparents listening to Jamaican reggae artists like Beres Hammond, Marcia Griffiths, and Freddie McGregor. I cannot name a road trip where there was no reggae music played. I must have most of these songs memorized, and they hold a special place in my heart.
Despite my strong connection to my Jamaican heritage, I’ve never actually visited the island. This makes me feel like simply calling myself Jamaican doesn’t fully encompass my identity. When I do call myself Jamaican, people often ask if my parents are also Jamaican, which leads to me having to explain the complex background of my heritage. My parents are British, but my grandparents were born in Jamaica. Including this information feels important to me, but it can be difficult to articulate in conversation. To add another layer of cultural diversity to my heritage, my great-grandmother on my father’s side of the family was Afro-Panamanian; however, we do not actively practice any of these traditions in our family today, so I tend to steer clear of mentioning it. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, as many people with complex identities can relate to the struggle of trying to define and articulate who they are.
As I reflected on my heritage and identity, I came to the realization that all of these cultural influences are a part of me and make me who I am. I shouldn’t have to choose just one of them or simplify my identity to fit into a single box. So, when someone asks me, “What are you?” I now understand that I am a complex mixture of Black, American, Jamaican, British, Caribbean-American, Jamaican-American, and all other combinations of these identities. Additionally, I also really want to learn more about the shared and deep history between the countries of Jamaica and Panama, as I know that is another layer of my family history waiting to be unwrapped. I have come to accept that not all questions have straightforward answers, and that’s okay. It’s essential to embrace and celebrate the unique and diverse aspects of our identities and recognize that everyone is a complex combination of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences.
This Black History Month, I think it is crucial to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity within the Black community. We come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, have unique cultural practices, and so much more that make us who we are. There’s no need to be ashamed or hide any aspect of your identity or background. Embrace every part of who you are and don’t hesitate to share it proudly. If it takes a whole essay to explain your diverse and complex identity, then go ahead and do so with confidence. Celebrating our differences and sharing our stories is what makes the Black community so rich and vibrant.