The shortcut

Claire Gelillo, Richard MontgomeryHigh School

Claire Gelillo tackles the concept of race, and how it is often used as an umbrella term that diminishes larger stories. (Published: 2019)

My mother was born in the District of Columbia. She grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood that experienced white flight in the late 1960s, and she went to underfunded schools for the majority of her childhood. In 1973, she and her friends hopped on a bus to desegregate the all white junior high.

Blossoming where she was planted, she worked hard. She won “Best All Around” her senior year of high school. She was accepted by Harvard but went to George Washington University where she could take the bus to and from the house she lived in with her family. She worked when she could to chip in for the rent at home, and started her career when she graduated.

My dad was born in the Philippines and moved to California as a kid, and later to Washington, DC. He remembers his childhood fondly. His mom would cook and work. His dad was often away on duty for the Navy. His sister was on the poms team. Money was tight at times, but they managed. When college came around, money seemed to dry out too often. He found himself with a desire to serve his country, so he took after his dad and joined the military. When his Marine Corps days were over, he joined the workforce back home, and found a job that put him in my mother’s part of the world.

Those summaries of my parents lives, before my brother and I were born, barely scrape the surface. They have both lived meaningful, rich (not in the financial sense), and complicated lives that are no less than the American Dream. When someone looks at me, their stories should be written all over. On my face, you should see their confidence. On my skin, you should see their courage. In my eyes, you should see their hope.

But what you want to see is my race.

As people, inquiring about the world around us comes naturally. We have an overwhelming desire to figure people out: whether they like you, what they’re thinking, how they feel. If you believe that race decides those things, you’ll want to know that detail.

So, if race plays a critical role in how we characterize people, looking at me probably amounts to many questions that can be boiled down to just one.

“What are your parents?”

The desired answer to this question is not about where they grew up, the struggles they faced, their passions, their hopes or their favorite color. It is about where their ancestors were from, resulting in their features and the color of their skin. Based on that random, in significant piece of information, all of those blanks can be filled for them.

So I tell them. My mom is as white as it gets, and my dad is Filipino. Filipino is kind of confusing too, because it looks like a mix of things as well. My dad is more on the brown side.

“Oh yeah, I see that.”

It is not a problem that people want to know what my race is. I understand why the question would arise. Seeing myself in the mirror for the past 16 years has probably desensitized me to my somewhat “exotic” look, so I understand that others might be curious. The problem starts when the questions end at that.

I feel obligated as a “biracial” person to tell people that race, quite frankly, is not that deep. Race has historically been used as a device for putting people down. This must be taken seriously, and be recognized to the point of healing those wounds on all levels. However, using race as a filler for the questions that remain unasked is too much of a shortcut. We are too complex, messy, strange, and beautiful to be known solely by the color of our skin.

There is so much to learn about each and every one of us. I know who my parents are because I know their stories, not because I know that one is beige and one is brown. My sense of self is made out of what I have been through in this crazy world, not my Ancestry DNA test. Knowing a person's race does not tell you their story.

So the next time you ask who a person “is,” ask yourself, what do you really want to know?