Updated: Aug 10
What does identity mean and what purpose does it serve? I keep thinking of the identities we give ourselves and the ones others give to us and the societies that keep us locked in them.
From 2-13, I was raised by my White adopted mother and my White stepfather. Moving from one small, White, town to another small, White, town, my stepdad, and adopted mother struggled to pay bills. We were the rural poor, living half a mile from the closest neighbors. I was the perpetual new kid. The new poor, Black kid. with frizzy curly hair and dark knees. I had kids follow me around the playground, from the monkey bars to the swings, to the field with the big tree all while chanting "Aunt Jemima" and filling me with equal parts terror and anger. I heard "nigger" often and I saw true hatred. Like in a third-grade teacher's gaze, looking me up and down with such deep disgust that even as a child I knew what her look meant, intuitively, instinctually. She placed me in the lowest reading group immediately. With one look she handed out the identity of 'dumb nigger'. I sat down obediently, even though I had been reading since I was three years old, even though 'book-reader' was a chosen identity. Because I knew the identity she gave me was not to be challenged.
The color of my skin bears no meaning until someone decides it does. And some time ago, somewhere the decision seems to have been made for all of us.
At age thirteen I moved in with my adopted father, an African-American man descended from enslaved people. His history only went back two generations before it got complicated and confusing due to slavery. We were solidly middle-class. Living in a nice neighborhood with mature trees and parks with swing sets and slides every few blocks. During this time I traveled two worlds: the predominantly white suburban middle class and the Black church, the family my father had built. I was looking forward to regularly being around people who looked like me, and to finally being accepted. I wasn't. Instead, once again I was faced with an identity I never chose. I asked my paternal grandmother why I wasn't accepted and she said "You're a high-yellow girl with a White mom and good hair who talks funny." I sat in a church pew and a fellow teenage girl leaned close behind me and said "Bitch, I will cut your hair off while you sleep." I was once again paralyzed with fear and anger but sat obediently trying to focus on the pastor. I was starting to get tired of sitting obediently.
At my suburban school, the White kids would ask me "What are you?" confused that my skin came with the White language in a White community. And a pain in my chest would open up and threaten to swallow me whole. Adopted as an infant I had no real information about my biological parents except my biological mom was White and my biological father was Black, and even that information wasn't certain. I could have said I was bi-racial, mixed, or Black, and sometimes I did. I learned bi-racial and mixed came with more uncomfortable questions in regard to nationality and history that I didn't have answers to, and Black came with either a knowing nod or a surprised "Really?", a sense of relief they found the right box to pack me away into or surprise that Black people could show up looking and acting like me in the world.
But I also knew that what was behind the question, even if they did not was "You don't fit in" "You're not like us" and most importantly "Why aren't you White?" And the frustration of that would simmer below the surface every day. My form of rebellion came when I would reply "Swedish" looking them dead in the eye and waiting for them to squirm, for them to feel the discomfort. Whether they believed me or continued to question me it was a refrain I'd keep as I shrugged "I don't know what to tell you, I'm Swedish." I felt no pity that the question of what label to stick me with was unresolved; I was instead happy to share the unease for a minute or two.
While each of these examples seems to say that White and Black people have prejudice, it is actually showing how our society's way of identifying and creating systemic practices around race produces bias and prejudice based on the criteria of Whiteness. They are just different trees from the same forest, responding to their tainted environment.
Throughout my life, I experienced W.E.B. DuBois' named double-consciousness around my racial identity, living my life understanding both my way of being and the way that being was interpreted by those around me.
Speaking without AAVE because I had never been exposed to it as an adopted child meant that I was a "sell-out"; "wanting to be White"; "Uncle Tom wannabe" and an "Oreo" to Black people. Speaking that same way around White people while being light-skinned meant I was also "not like those other Black people"; "articulate", and "unique" to White people. A perfect token to prove their open-mindedness. Both hold roots in the belief that White is the standard, White is normal. Even when raging against it, many hold the residual effects of that belief and how it has seeped into our skin.
When I was twenty-four I met my biological mother, who's Norwegian and Swedish and when I was forty-two I met my biological father, who's Nigerian, from the Yoruba tribe. And now I am swimming in the identities many grow up with. Knowing the nationality and history of my biological family brings me a sense of peace about my own identity. There's an irony, then, in realizing that while I deeply yearned for this knowledge, the absence of it caused me to create a far more meaningful identity of my own.
I'm deeply aware that the identity I chose for myself is more important than any of them. Despite our failings as humans, I have chosen to believe that we are all one and that given the right circumstances all of us are capable of doing deplorable things. And given the right circumstances, all of us are capable of doing the most glorious things.
I'm not the only person to come across this line of thought. Sadhguru has said "There is no good people or bad people. Everybody's oscillating between the two. If you create a very pleasant, wonderful atmosphere everybody behaves wonderfully. If you create an unpleasant atmosphere, a whole lot of people act nasty"
There's also a TedTalk by Dolly Chugh, "How to let go of being a "good" person - and become a better person." that speaks to this same concept - that there are good people is a fallacy. Yet, this doesn't free us from the realities of our current environments or the consequences of our actions.
I believe we are all inherently worthy of love and respect. I believe the identities others give to us affect our daily lives too much if we don't address them. And it is in evaluating your human identities that you can begin to surrender them. If we don't face them and decide which identities we believe in, and which identities matter to us, we are separating ourselves from a deep belonging with all humanity while actually trying to belong.
I feel this has often put White people at a disadvantage. For most of their lives, many of them have never had to look at their racial identity or how it affects their lives and their own self-view. While I know they have all dealt with other identities given to them that they did not choose and had no control over, the American world centered their White racial identity as a non-starter. White in America is like water to fish. To use David Foster Wallace's metaphor:
There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says:
‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’
The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks:
‘What the hell is water?’
As someone who's had lots of time to think about race and identity, it's both encouraging and frustrating to watch White society try to resolve itself of its own racial heritage. When I am drawn to my less charitable thoughts, and there are many, I remind myself that if I was born White, I would not be doing it any better, that together with identity is the need to belong. To question your identity is to question where you fit in the world. It is an emotional and difficult process.
Maya Angelou's famous quote about belonging is also tied up in identity; if we face who we truly are and not how others identify us, we are often left alone. "You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great."
So maybe my experience growing up was the greatest reward but came with a high price. But just like that, after all this work on my identity, I can read and see unspeakable violence towards Black people. Or read an article that claims mixed-race and/or light-skin Black people should not be included in Black spaces, and all over, once again, I'm undone. And I go about the work of putting together my chosen identity.
Maya Angelou addresses this as well, In an interview from 1973 with Bill Moyers, Angelou is quoted as saying this about religion "You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up in the next morning with the job still to be done. So you start all over again."
It is my spirituality that challenges me to both accept and reject my racial identity. I accept how the world sees me and how that affects the interpretation of my behavior and how I and others like me are treated. I also reject those interpretations of behaviors based on race are accurate. I also accept that work on this is not done. Tomorrow I will wake up and start all over again.
This writing is based on my personal experiences of finding my place in the areas I grew up in and how my racial identity affected that. It is NOT a historical and systemic look at how America got here in regard to race. Please read it as such. As a Black biracial person, I continue to come to terms with my racial identity, my adoption, my experience growing up in predominantly White spaces, and how that also affected the Black people closest to me. In my life I've found the racism from White people is dangerous and expansive, while the prejudice from Black people, mostly, just hurts my feelings. So I live with the tension between what I believe to be true and the realities of the oftentimes dangerous culture I live in.
RESOURCES ON RACISM IN AMERICA
SOME STUFF THAT IS IMPORTANT TO ME
I Am Not Your Negro Documentary on Netflix about James Baldwin
The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte
The Color of Water by James McBride
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
The Secret Daughter PBS documentary about June Cross
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde