"You, you . . . you AARAB," she shouted at me, her body shuddering, "GO HOME."
Two well-dressed little girls clung to the angry woman, looking frightened. Their mother screamed on and on, and people stopped to stare. I was stunned. Since when did "Arab" become a four-letter word? I am not Arab, but whatever it is she saw as she glared at me through my windshield, she was convinced that I was. I have lived here for two decades, and I am keenly aware that racism still exists in the United States (as it does everywhere else in the world). But only recently, in our post-9/11 world, have I felt that skin colors like mine (neither black nor white) are not comfortably invisible anymore.
The incident happened a few months ago at a local grocery store in the Virginia suburb of Vienna, not far from my home. I had gone shopping with my parents, who were visiting the United States at the time, and my 5-year-old son. We had just gotten into the car and I had pulled out of the parking lot. A very tall woman in her thirties, her blond hair falling loosely around her shoulders, was crossing the road with two little girls. I stopped for them, but apparently she thought I had not stopped fast enough. She gave me the finger. After they had safely crossed, I rolled down the car window and said "Lady, I was stopped. Why did you show me the finger?" And that is when she began yelling.
I did not know how to react. My son began crying; my father said "I cannot believe this happens in America, such a civilized country!" My mother, well, her reaction was culturally rooted, "You were born so fair, now you have tanned and see what people think."
I felt like getting out of the car and screaming back at her. Instead, I drove away. I feared that she would see my anger as a reflection on a culture that I did not belong to. I did not want to feed her racism.
She's not the first stranger to make assumptions about me because of the color of my skin. But most of the time, the labels people have chosen have seemed benign. A few years ago, a cop stopped me in Boston. He looked at me, then at my license and said, "Monica? Oh you must be from Mexico." I said "No." "Oh," he said, "Well you look like you are from Mexico, Brazil . . . those places."
Another time, I was shopping at a shoe store in a mall in Virginia. The shop's owner said to me, "Where are you from? You look like you are Pakistani. I am from Pakistan. Is there anything I can help you with? I am happy to help out my own country people."
After the grocery story fiasco, we headed to a Middle Eastern store. I had been commissioned by a local paper to do a piece on hookahs -- water pipes smoked in the Middle East. I hoped that the owner could guide me to a few local spots. When I asked for help, he said, "Why do you want to know about hookah bars? You don't look Arab."
Later that day, after these two episodes, my husband and I began discussing my skin color. Was it brown? My 5-year-old made my heart stop, "Mom, you don't look brown and I don't want to be brown." Before I could say anything, he added, "I want to be like coffee. What are the colors? Mocha, or caramel. Those are cool colors." Today, he is 5; I will let him be 5.
My most eye-opening experience about the color of my skin also involved a very young boy. When I was living in Lynchburg, Va., many years ago, I was babysitting for a 4-year-old. His parents were Caucasians, well educated and very kind. (Why do I bother mentioning their skin color? Because it's important to understanding the scene I'm about to describe.) When the boy first saw me, he asked, "How come she is not brown?" Apparently, the only two colors he knew were white and brown, and I did not match either. His parents explained that people come in many colors and then sheepishly left to go to dinner.
We played outside for a bit. I then turned to him and said, "Honey, you are so dirty playing in this mud, you need a bath." He came up to me and began furiously rubbing the back of my hand. "You need a bath more than I do." When my skin color did not change, he said, "Oh, it does not come off. I just thought you looked like that because you need a bath."
It would be easy enough to tell you what I am, to describe the lovely country where I was born and lived until I came here. I am proud of it. I often write about it. It's a part of me, and you would learn about it quite naturally if you got to know me.
Whenever a stranger has identified me as something I'm not, I have always felt a need to correct the misimpression, to say I'm not Arab, I'm not Brazilian, or Mexican or Pakistani (and I'm definitely not in need of a bath). Now, more and more often, I find myself resisting that temptation. Do I really need to explain what I am? Doesn't it suffice to say I am a mom, a daughter, a wife, a human being? Race exists, it always has and always will. But with so many hues, so many shades between black and white, why does skin color matter so much to the people I meet?
It occurs to me, that if I tell you what I am, I am going against my very essence. For some, their skin color defines them. For me, it sets me free -- free of boundaries, free of geography. The color of my skin allows me to belong to many countries and yet be owned by none.
I bet, as you read this, you're still wondering who I am, where I come from, what I'm not telling you. So Google me, if you like. Put my name in a search, and the answer you think you're seeking will be there.
If you do, though, I wonder . . . Now that you know, what is it that you know?
Monica Bhide lives in Northern Virginia. She writes about food, culture and their influence on our lives.