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March 5th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Opinion: Do we define ourselves by 'nature' or 'nurture?'

Editor's Note: Michael Sidney Fosberg is a writer and actor and director who turned his memoir, "Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self Discovery" into a one-man stage play.

By Michael Sidney Fosberg, Special to CNN

(CNN) - In 1991, my biological mother of Armenian descent abruptly filed for divorce from my Swedish stepfather – who after marrying my mother, adopted me when I was four.  I was thirty-two at the time, and although an adult living on the west coast, the event turned my world upside-down.  Up to that point I had lived a fairly common existence, having grown up in a working-class town just north of Chicago.  But the consequence of this seismic shift in my family order was the reconstitution of a dormant desire to search for my biological father.

Armed solely with his name and the city where he had last lived, I set out for the library.  Copying down several near identical listings, I raced home and nervously dialed the first number on the list.  Miraculously, I discovered I had found my biological father in that first phone call.  After several self-conscious moments of awkwardly nervous conversation, he suggested there were "a couple of things I'm sure your mother never told you."  Since she had told me nothing much beyond his name, he could have been referring to almost anything!  First he told me that he loved me and had thought of me often.  Then inserting a wedge of silence as if to heighten the drama, he told me he was African-American.  I thought, “Who/what am I now?!"

At the time of that first call, upon hearing the words "African-American", I remember catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror across my tiny room.  Had I changed suddenly?  Was I now black?   Would I be pulled over for “driving while black”?  If only I had known before I filled out applications for college!  Did this explain the 'fro in high school?  Or the outrageous outfits of platform shoes, multicolored rayon shirts, wide purple pants, topped off with the kinky hair and the wide-brim hat?  Is this why a high school girlfriend's parents questioned my nationality upon first meeting?  Was this the reason for owning the entire James Brown catalogue on vinyl?  Or my obsession with Richard Pryor?  How many other stereotypical traits might I conclude from this race-altering discovery?  What was nature, and what was nurture?

More importantly, why hadn't my mother told me?!

This anger-filled, heritage-deprived question was surreptitiously answered via a random call from one of the many friends who now claimed, "We always knew you were black!"  An old friend I shared the news with innocently asked me to imagine what it must have been like for my mother back then, to imagine the shame her family made her feel.  Suddenly I was painfully aware of the difficulties in navigating the American color-line during the late '50's.  The insurmountable obstacles facing a 20-year old, first-generation Armenian girl who'd been disowned by her parents for living in the projects of Roxbury Boston with a black man.  She had attempted to straddle a racial divide with a mixed-race child long before the existence of our current mixed-race society.

This was further complicated by the fact that I was two when we suddenly left my father and returned home to live with my mother's parents, a move only made possible by the lightness of my skin tone.  At what age could she have told me of my complicated racial composition, and at what age could I have really comprehended the identity shift?  What would we have done if my skin had been darker?

Following my race-changing discovery, I journeyed across the country interviewing family members both black and white.  In my families, I discover the historical record is long and impressive: an Armenian grandfather who survived the Turkish massacre of his people and his country, his wife who as a small child was almost denied entry to this country due to pink-eye during the mass exodus from their homeland, a great-great grandfather who was a member of the 54th regiment of the colored infantry during the Civil War, a great grandfather who was an all-star pitcher in the Negro Leagues, my paternal grandfather for whom the Science and Engineering building at Norfolk State University is named.  This is the foundation I stand on, the footsteps in which I now travel, affectionately referring to myself as “AAA,” or African-American-Armenian.

But am I "African"-American, and what does that term really mean?  Can I claim an identity, a "race," an experience, a family I did not grow up with?  What makes me who I am? The color of my skin?  My heritage?  My culture?  Is it the way I was raised by my stepfather, a man whose DNA I do not share but with whom I share many traits?  Is it possible our identities are defined differently for each and every one of us?  Even amongst races/ethnicities?

My black family has been all embracing.  Most families of color recognize the multitude of shades and mixings that inhabit the black community. However, it took my white family a good deal of time to process the discovery.  Their confusion lies in several areas: my need to search for a biological parent, my unabashed willingness to present my story – our family's history – to the general public, and a now somewhat awkward dialogue for us to traverse... a dialogue about race.  This is a conversation most white families like ours avoid, simply because race is not a daily part of our lives like it is for families of color.

Being a writer and actor, I transformed this personal journey into both a memoir, Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self Discovery, and a one-man play, which I have toured to high schools, colleges, performing arts centers, corporations, government agencies, and military bases across the country.  Following each show, I engage audiences in meaningful dialogue about who we are and how we see other.   As you can only imagine, biracial people seek me out like a magnet, as do adoptees and people who don't know a birth parent(s).  However, a fascinating thing happens for all during the course of the show.  Time and again audience members begin to reflect on their own journeys to discover self.  How have they arrived at their definitions of self?  In what ways do they judge others?  How much do we really understand about each other's lives, cultures, heritages, and ethnicities?

The way I have arrived at my “AAA” status is different from how others arrive at their identities.  The warmth with which I embrace my black and white families and their respective heritages is unique to me.  The words I use to describe myself may not jive with how others now perceive me.  However, it is MY identity and what I have learned over ten years of performing the show and conducting dialogues is that each of us get to lay claim for how WE see, feel, and express ourselves and who WE are.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Sidney Fosberg.

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Filed under: Black in America • Ethnicity • Family • Race • Who we are
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Juanita

    I'm surprised a black person never told you that are a part of the family. We can always tell.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. bl4ck0utsUn

    Nurture vs Nature. It's amazing at the arguements that can arise from this question. Some would argue it's all in our DNA. Our physical potential certainly seems to be, but only potential. So many variables stemming from nurture can effect that potential, from the food we eat, to the bad or good habits we pickup, to the illnesses and eviromental toxins we become exposed to. One amazing example I personally recall; My daughter had never met her biological father, but some how she had inherrited a particular habbit of his, the way he poised his arm when scratching his abdomen. She did this in the same unusual way he did it. No one I met or she had ever been exposed to did this action in this manner. Such a benign thing but so telling about what we actually inherrit. Interestingly, I rescently read an article that some genetisists think some of the genes previously thought of as junk, are now believed to carry a form of inherrited memory. This was once thought only to occur in animals what is called instincts. Reguardless of what defines us, until we are able to look through our surface differences such as skin tone and cultural we will never reach our full human potential.

    March 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. peekandseek

    An excellent read....what a history.... thanks for sharing. Since researching for my family tree, I discovered many whites in my family from long ago. I embrace them all with love.

    March 6, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  4. kachadurianlit1

    Michael you continue to amaze me with your writing, you are the best of many worlds like the Hughes Brothers, writers/directors of such great movies: Book of Eli, Dead Presidents, From Hell, etc,
    Keep up the writing as it is from the heart and we enjoy it so much.
    God Bless
    Vanessa Kachadurian

    March 6, 2012 at 5:57 am | Report abuse |
  5. Taryn

    You are not alone just be yourself! End of story.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  6. URYIMOK

    Okay, the man is of two races-white and black. So what. People who are biracial(one parent of a different race) should acknowledge and embrace both races because they are both races.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SueEllen

    Great black people infiltrating our communities in new ways

    March 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jay

    Why are most African and middle eastern countries always the worst?

    March 5, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TruthExplorer

    But I did enjoy the article to a point. I look forward to the day when we in America can get over our racial hangups - people have been mixing for 1000s of years, and we need to get past defined color lines. There is no "purity" to preserve.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. TruthExplorer

    But the father has a LOT of white blood too - why does he have to ignore the white side of his heritage? Fosberg has more white features than anything. He has a drop or two of black blood - so what.

    March 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cheona

      I don't see it as him ignoring his white heritage. As a whole, it is widely know (as expressed in this article) that race in white households is not something that is discussed as openly as in homes of color. Of course we should be able to move past the issue and idea of race, but unfortunately this is something that will never be. You have to admit though, the shock he felt in finding out he was more that what he thought is what propelled him to dive deeper into the complexity of the situation. It's not always black or white, it's both...he celebrates all of who he is...it's just, now there is more to celebrate...

      March 5, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
      • TruthExplorer

        And maybe there's a reason why white families don't consider race as important - because there are more important things to worry about. If someone is 1/32 Italian, it doesn't make the entire person Italian - but if someone is 1/32 black, some blacks consider someone black. That's ridiculous and over time, race will be irrelevant because race is a false notion - it's not a color line, but a continuous fade as most people actually have a so-called multiracial heritage. Countries have been changing boundaries from conquests and wars. This is not a new phenomenon, and eventually America is going to wake up.

        March 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
      • TruthExplorer

        And in case there's any question about what is important by which to measure someone by - it's education and culture. No one is worse or better than someone because of what they happen to be born looking like.

        March 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
      • dcase

        TruthExplorer: You write "If someone is 1/32 Italian, it doesn't make the entire person Italian – but if someone is 1/32 black, some blacks consider someone black. That's ridiculous..." Black people did not make this up. This was the law – termed the "one-drop rule" – in most states until 60's and 70's and the social norm that all people lived by until the last couple of decades or so. The goal of such rules were aimed at maintaining "white purity" as there was a considerable amount of race mixing going on throughout US history. It is only relatively recent in history that many white Americans would consider Irish, Jewish, Italian and other Southern and Eastern European people as white.

        March 6, 2012 at 6:50 am | Report abuse |
      • TruthExplorer

        Yes, that was a law...an antiquated law...made up by people with an agenda...that doesn't reflect the actual truth of biology. And?

        March 6, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Cheona

      Normally, I may be inclined to agree with you, but from my own life experiences, I have to disagree. I have two bi-racial children and no matter how fair-skinned they are, society will always tell them and treat them as black people. Society negates the fact that they were perceived as white and will immediately and without fail treat them as blacks. There are still many today that will look at someone and treat them differently because of their skin color. It may determine jobs, social status, and even whom they date. Black as a whole, whether used as just the color or as a race in general is still synonymous with dirty, evil, mean, bad, and many other negative adjectives. That has never and probably will never change. In the home, we teach them that they are no better than anyone else, but just as good as everyone. We also tell them that not everyone thinks about them the way we do. We have to prepare them for the ignorance and racism that they will inevitably come in contact with. Pretending color lines don't exist is not only foolish, but it can prove fatal in some instances. I refuse to leave my children susceptible to an unnecessary culture shock by allowing them to live in a perfect little box where everyone thinks, feels, and acts, in a manor that is conducive to equality. They are proud of themselves because we, their parents, have given them a firm grasp of who they are, based on their cultures, and personal characteristics. In this society, you can not have one without the other. It is sad and unfair, but it is just the way it is.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
  11. Cheona

    We are defined and shaped by both nature and nurture. As you grow up, you are shaped by what you are taught, what you see, and who you are told you are. (Nurture) In the event you search your ancestry, as most of us are now fascinated with, you will undoubtedly uncover information about yourself and your family that you had no previous knowledge of. That information, in turn, will alter how you perceive yourself. You are still everything you thought you were, now you have a bit of icing on your cake. Finding out he was African American did not change the rich Armenian culture the author grew up with, it gave him another level of himself that allowed him to reach deeper into himself and add another layer of rich culture and heritage. I really enjoyed this article and his willingness to share.

    March 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      African is a culture like European is a culture. Which is to say not at all.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marquise

      Well written and I couldn't agree more.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
  12. CriticalThinkingRequired

    I find his journey fascinating and interesting... We have so many open questions about our heritage, and we're completely open to wherever the road may lead. I think that is the only sad part about this whole story – that even after the "dsicovery" of his heritage, that race is STILL an issue for some, and was, on some level, for him. I am thrilled that I was not raised in that vacuum. I cannot wait to discover the diversity that may (or may not) be in my heritage. Who really cares the color? It's the experience and the culture and the language and the family and more that are so much more important. Sad that his family couldn't just, with their whole true beings, say: "Oh, that's cool! You found your Dad! And your background is cool! Look at your heritage on both sides, WOW!" Shame on them. Life is COOL! Embrace it!

    March 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan

      I think you are close to where we should all be – but you lost me when you say, "who really cares about color..." Statements like that pre-suppose that there is a good color, a bad color, or that color does not come with rich history and heritage. Color does matter a great deal, and it should. Wiping it away and making everyone grey is not the answer. But when we can get to the "oh hey, that's cool" for ALL colors, not just some – that's when we will have made some progress against this last vestige of prejudice that is buried deep within most of us, still. Give it a generation or two and I think we will have this closer to nailed.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. layne Arnold

    thoughts of nature verse nurture are pointless complications. It is sufficient to just act in accordance with what you are.

    March 5, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
  14. twinnie

    I think being bi-racial is a beautiful thing, nothing at all to be ashamed of. Yes, the 50s and even 60s were conservative, prejudice and racist, but that was our parents. Those of us who grew up then (boomers) were more open minded and had less tolerance for prejudice.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  15. b

    It's all about the genes, that's why you should always get them analyzed. That alone tells you more about yourself than anything. Nothing like DNA based molecular medicine, that you way you know, that your probability of getting cancer is too low to worry about, and that most diseases simply are not there for you. DNA screening is ideal.

    March 5, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • MashaSobaka

      Genes may influence certain parts of our development, but they certainly don't determine everything about us. Try again.

      March 5, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |