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One summer night, my husband and I were sitting on a picnic bench outside an ice cream shop in one of the more precious neighborhoods in Cincinnati, as our son and his buddies from Shakespeare Camp clowned around and blew off some post-performance steam. The flavor of the outing was pure vanilla. Let’s just say none of the boys would be a shoe-in for the role of Othello.
My husband said, “I don’t feel white here.”
My husband is white. Half white. He is also half Chinese.
He spent most of his childhood in North Dakota, except for a year in Pakistan. There were no Chinese kids, or other half Chinese kids, in Grand Forks, North Dakota. There were no Chinese kids, or other half Chinese kids, in Lahore, Pakistan. Of the two cities, Lahore was by far the more racially diverse.
In North Dakota, my husband-to-be was regarded as an alien. In Pakistan, he was regarded as an American. It’s hard to guess which must have felt more uncomfortable. Even back in the ‘70’s, Americans were not exactly beloved in Pakistan.
In any case, his identity as an American pretty much evaporated as soon as he returned to the good old US of A.
Chinese Americans can tell at a glance that he’s not Chinese. Just like white Americans can tell at a glance that he’s not white.
There is one state in the union where my husband blends right in. While vacationing in Hawaii, he may be offered a local discount via a top-secret hand gesture and a knowing smile. For an hour or two, he’ll be all puffed up. And then he’ll be offered a fork at a Chinese restaurant. Deflated, he’ll be forced to ask for chopsticks.
When we moved to Cincinnati, I think things got a little easier for him. (I could be dead wrong.) Race in Cincinnati is black and white. Black Cincinnatians and white Cincinnatians can all agree on one thing. My husband isn’t black. Which means, for all intents and purposes, he’s white.
That standard generally holds, unless my husband happens to be surrounded by unfamiliar white people. Then he’s not-white. And the question hovers, usually unspoken, unexpressed, except through second glances.
“What is he?”
On this vanilla flavored outing, my husband and I talked to the other Shakespeare parents about volunteer opportunities at the arts school, about an upcoming pool party at the swim and tennis club. We did not openly mock the affluent white street guitarist playing Bob Marley. Instead, we exchanged whispers and surreptitious snickers.
After our breathless son rejoined us, my husband went off to get the car. He wasn’t just being a gentleman. That particular evening, it wasn’t physically possible for me to get up and join him for the three block walk on a mild summer night.
Once my husband pulled up in front of the ice cream shop in our Element, the gig was up. It was my turn to be the outsider. I stood. My knees buckled. Our son took my arm. My knees buckled again. Once, twice, three times more before fair Hamlet got me to the car.
I, too, have a shifting identity. For me, relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) means sometimes I can walk, and sometimes I can’t.
What am I?
I am disabled. I have a placard to prove it.
What am I?
I am healthy. I can swim a lot of laps.
Once—only once—a man yelled at me as I walked or ran, I suppose with undue vigor, away from my placarded car.
“You’re not disabled.”
What does he know?
Usually, when I run from my car, I am running to the bathroom, ‘cause I have an MS bladder, and I’ve really got to pee.
Sometimes, when I see an available handicapped spot, I don’t have to pee. My legs feel just a wee bit tingly. I entertain the notion of parking further back. If there is only one empty handicapped parking space, I may just keep the placard in the glove compartment, and park somewhere less accessible. Which doesn’t always turn out to be such a smart decision. I can’t tell you how many times I have parked politely, and then felt not-so-good on my return. I have had to lean on a full shopping cart as if for dear life, my legs in excruciating pain, as I’ve pushed the cart past two, maybe three, perfectly empty handicapped parking spaces.
So much for that.
My husband doesn’t get to choose when he is perceived as white. I don’t get to choose when I am perceived as disabled.
I look disabled when I’m in my wheelchair.
I look fit when I swim my laps.
If I didn’t swim, if I didn’t persistently lift very minimal weights, I would not be at all toned. I would not be able to blend right in with all those other white parents from Shakespeare Camp, if only for a while.
Oddly enough, my husband still hasn’t gotten over caring what other people think about our parking our car in a handicapped spot. He will often run around the car, and give an ostentatious show of offering me his arm, whether I need it or not. It’s like he’s broadcasting, “See, people, my poor wife is handicapped. That’s the reason why we’re using this spot.”
He clearly feels the pressure of the unasked question.
“What is she? Is she really handicapped?”
Screw that. I’m not dead yet. Don’t put me in box.
And while you’re at, screw, “What is he?”
Race is a construction.
So is disability. All of us have an uneven distribution of abilities. These attributes will wax and wane over time. We might as well relax about affixing any labels. They all peel off eventually.
What am I?
I am.
Who are you to ask?

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