I have been waiting for “What am I?” since Papatia announced it on her blog, so I have downloaded it for free as soon as the five-day promotion started.
“What am I?” is a colorful book that tells the story of a child with a black mother and a white father. Even if the children in his pre-school come from many different backgrounds, they seemingly don’t know how to classify him. Nouredine is also confused because he hadn’t paid attention to his skin color until then and doesn’t know how to react.
“What am I?” deals with the extremely interesting topic of personal identity, but I was somewhat surprised by the fact that Nouredine hadn’t been thinking about it before since my three-year-old daughter who is half Mexican and half Italian, even if she’s not attending pre-school yet, has already spontaneously classified herself and every member of our family, but maybe it depends on the child’s character, since I was even more naive than Nouredine not realizing that my father’s skin color is darker than mine until I became an adult. One day some Egyptian fruit sellers even asked him if he was Egyptian too.
Nouredine is brown. It shouldn’t be difficult to give an answer to his classmates. Also the girl who describes herself as black is brown, the only difference is that Nouredine’s skin is lighter. He could also say that he’s half black and half white, but in the USA being half or even less black is still enough to be seen as black because what matters is not only the color of your skin, but also the appearance of your face and what kind of hair you have. Unfortunately the illustrations of this book have no eyes, noses and mouths.
Just think of Japanese people: are they white? Their skin is as light as that of many Europeans, but nobody would tell they’re white. Former US President Barack Obama is as brown as many Mexicans are, but nobody would tell that Mexicans are black. I still remember my Mexican husband watching the news with a puzzled look every time Obama was being called black. “He’s not black: he’s as dark as me,” he kept repeating, but apparently skin color is not the only feature we use to classify people.
The truth is that the place where we live can influence the perception we have. Many Mexicans, for instance, will tell you that they’re white even if no European would see them as white. Most of them are the descendants of both Europeans and native people, but since white is seen as nice in Mexico, many will convince themselves to be white, while most Europeans would notice only the exotic native part of their ancestry.
Having said that, my conclusion is that “What am I?” is a good starting point for engaging thinking about our origins and the perception we have of ourselves and other people.