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Grieving the Father I Never Knew

When my dad died, it didn’t feel like he went to heaven or hell, or to any other afterlife that man could imagine. Instead, it just felt like he ceased to exist. That in his last breaths, he just vanished. A man who once was and would never be again.

In the years since he’s been gone, though, I’ve felt him closer to me, even closer than he was in life. I don’t expect anyone to really understand what I mean, unless they too have lost a parent. Sure, we say things like, “He knows,” when someone wishes her father had been alive to watch her graduate from college. We say, “He’s still with you.” “He’s watching over you.” But I never could have understood the depth and truthfulness of these statements until I was the one who was experiencing them.

Things hit me now in a way they never would have previously. At the end of Flight, I broke down in tears in the middle of the movie theater. At the end of Interstellar just now, I did the same thing. I won’t give away either of the endings, for those who haven’t yet seen these amazing movies, but let’s just say that they touched a chord in ways they never would have had my father not been dead, even though I’ve been extremely sentimental my whole life.

When my dad died, I felt nothing, even though I felt like I should. I was too close to our disconnect to really appreciate and understand the man that he was. I was 24 at his funeral, which I organized and put on myself. I hardly knew the man I was saying goodbye to. Over the next 15 years, I slowly began to uncover who my dad was, largely through my mom’s memories of his memories, even though they hadn’t been together since I was three. I’ve also uncovered the man he was through his various paperwork throughout life that I’d tucked away after his death and then forgotten, probably in a way to protect myself from grief. Newspaper clippings, essays, letters to me… All artifacts that describe a life forgotten, or a life never fully known.

As each year passes, I become even more obsessed with connecting with my father, and with each passing year he feels closer to me than he did the year before. It’s almost as if I could reach out and touch him, or as if even that would be too limiting, because his presence is more palpable than anything related to skin or bone.

When I was about 11, my dad almost died of stomach cancer. After his recovery, he recounted an out-of-body experience on the operating table. He remembers the pads shocking him back to life, and he remembers watching himself from a corner of the room and wondering whether to return. My dad returned because he felt like his life was destined to be great.

My dad died on Section 8 housing and he hadn’t paid rent in about three months. His death would be swift but painful… There were only three weeks between his lung cancer diagnosis and his last breath. He died in a nursing home after reaching for his urinal which was placed a little too far away. My dad, the fighter, died after falling out of bed, just because he needed to pee.

Dad drawing
A drawing I did of my dad when he was dying (I’m no artist).

My dad never reached the greatness that he felt he was destined for. But, maybe, I was his greatness. Maybe my half-brother Robert, and my half-brother Marc, are his greatness. Maybe his greatness is in the siblings we’ll never know and the ones we don’t even know we have.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t really exist. It seems impossible somehow to really be somewhere when my dad has passed on. How can I have arms and legs and words and breath if my dad has none? How can I wake up every morning if he never can? It’s not that I think I can’t live without him. Rather, it’s that it just doesn’t make sense. If he’s not really here, how can I still be?

My dad gives me little clues that he’s still around. I won’t even mention them here, because a blog post can’t do them justice. Let’s just say he’s still looking down, not from heaven, but from love, and it’s a love that transcends words and time, and instead exists in a higher dimension.

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When Skin Privilege and Racial Belonging Collide

I’ve been thinking a lot about color / race privilege and why it’s such a hot button issue for the biracial community. In a Facebook group that I moderate, for mixed race women of African-American or African descent, members have been arguing about issues related to color privilege and mulitiracial privilege: a) whether these are separate privileges, b) whether monoracial people also have privilege, c) whether the biracial / mixed race community should shoulder privileges even though we didn’t ask for them, d) whether the black community uses color privilege and multiracial privilege as a way to silence multiracial voices.

For anyone not familiar with the recent discussion around privileges, most noticeably white privilege, this vlog is an excellent place to start.

 
To sum up the vlog, everyone has privileges that they didn’t ask for but that are undeniably real. For instance, white people are more likely to peruse items in a store without being watched. They’re more likely to see themselves represented in the media and to not have their race be at the forefront of their identity. For example, a white person is more likely to be “Roger,” instead of “my white friend Roger.”

In my opinion, both color privilege and multiracial privilege are very real. With color privilege (also referred to as light-skinned privilege), the lighter one’s skin is, the more access he or she has to both safety and representation. What separates color privilege from multicultural privilege is that the former refers to melanin, and the latter refers to racial claims to identity. In the multiracial community, skin tones vary widely, and for this reason one multiracial person may not have as much access to spaces as another. The difference between color privilege and multiracial privilege isn’t something I came to on my own, but the person in my group who brought it into the discussion was, in my mind, completely on point.

So why is it so hard for us in the multiracial community, and those with light-skinned privilege, to accept these realities without feeling defensive? Are we just reacting the same way some people do when confronted with white privilege, or does it go deeper?

I came to the realization that the struggle we have as multiracial / light-skinned individuals is that, unlike the white community, we are being judged and labeled by someone who shares part of our ethnicity. While their labeling is completely accurate, the way that it often takes place, and the rhetoric that often surrounds it, is that biracial / multiracial / light skinned people do not have claims to black experiences. This rhetoric on the one hand asserts realities about racial politics, but it also feels like rejection from our own kind.

Many women in my Facebook group feel more rejected from the black community than they do from the white one. Some seek out connections to this community while others don’t, but in general we all want to feel that we’re connected to that part of our ethnicity. However, our reality is often that we aren’t able to enter black spaces, because the black community sees us as privileged individuals. Therefore, our rejection and lack of connection tends to come more from the black community itself.

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum, and certainly not all in the black community reject multiracial / light-skinned peers. I have a handful of black friends who accept me just the way I am don’t seek to invalidate my experiences. They also know that I understand their struggles, and that I understand their struggles are often much more difficult than mine.

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Me with grad school friends, Thanksgiving 2009.

In my experience, when biracial / mixed race / light-skinned people declare and embrace their blackness, they’re not doing so to deny the discrimination of those who are more black / darker than they are. Rather, they are seeking an allegiance with a racial group while also understanding that their membership is different.

I believe it’s vitally important for black and multiracial people, and dark-skinned and lighter-skinned people, to both accept the reality of color privilege and multicultural privilege and know that we are all in this fight together. When we lower our defenses, our ears open to realities that go beyond our own.

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Going Back in Time on “The Bachelor”

Anyone who watches The Bachelor knows what happened Monday night between Jubilee and the other members of the house. For anyone not familiar with the show, allow me to fill you in.

The Bachelor, like many reality TV shows, is known for being extremely whitewashed. This season, one of the few people of color has lasted through a one-on-one date, which sadly is especially surprising since she’s Haitian and very dark-skinned. Naturally, Jubilee had a hard time opening herself up both to Bachelor Ben and then to the other women in the house.

Jubilee is a refugee and U.S. war veteran who was adopted after her entire family perished in Haiti. I’m not adopted, my family didn’t perish, and I didn’t go to war, but I still understood Jubilee’s reserve.

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Photo courtesy of The Bachelor

When Ben used words like “strong” and “genuine” to describe her on their one-on-one date, that also felt intimately familiar. These words have been used to describe me more than any others (even as men are breaking up with me). Jubilee’s date went refreshingly well, and in a way that has never felt so intimately familiar to me, as I usually feel a bit removed from the participants.

Back in the house, the women attacked Jubilee with what a friend accurately described as a “pack mentality.” They questioned what Ben could see in someone who was obviously so different from both him and themselves, with one woman telling the diary cam that Ben needed a soccer mom, not “someone like her.”

Ben stood up for her in a way bachelors rarely do on the show, but I don’t want to focus on that, because, while my instinct is to praise him, he was just acting the way any decent guy should. Instead, I’d like to share a little something I wrote when was 17, which eerily echoes many of Jubilee’s sentiments. It’s a little corny, but bear with me. I was 17, after all.

* * *

I know of a girl who is silenced. I have known her all of my life and I will know her until the end of eternity. Only I know what goes on in her mind. Only I know the untold secrets that lie at the bottom of her heart. She shares them with me and me alone. I am the only one whom she trusts unconditionally.

She is a short girl with dark skin and far darker hair. Her eyes brim over with dreams and ambitions. On her face is a look of longing and of passion. This girl has a deep desire to make a difference and to share her ideas. Yet she rarely ever voices them.

Conversation is hard for the girl. She is afraid of rejection, afraid of being laughed at. What if she opens her mouth to speak and the words that flow from her mouth are met by silent stares? What if she opens her mouth to speak and nothing comes out at all? She is a continuous ground watcher, afraid to look in the eyes of disapproval.

In seventh grade the girl was mostly alone in a crowd. She ate with a group of people whom she hardly knew. She would self-consciously eat her lunch as fast as she could get it down, trying not to draw attention to herself. A year later, a boy from the group was surprised to hear the girl say hi to him. “You never talked before,” he exclaimed. “I thought you were deaf!”

Part of what makes the girl so afraid to speak is that she knows that the physical aspect of her is different. The girl has one eye that doesn’t move properly, which makes it hard to look at people without turning her head to face them. She has a massive head of kinky, layered hair which she can never wear fully loose. The girls with straight, fine hair could never understand that.

Shannon picture

Growing up in a Caucasian society, the dark-skinned girl always stands out in a crowd. However, if she is ever around African-Americans, she never fits in there either for her skin is so light. She is too black to be white, yet too white to be black. Mostly, people don’t know what she is. Oftentimes, these differences seem to work against her instead of for her. She is constantly reminded that she sticks out in a crowd and that causes her to fold up in the attempt to be immune to hurt or criticism. 

This girl wants someone to listen to her hopes and dreams. The girl wants someone to believe in her who won’t say that her dreams are dreams and nothing more. This girl is me.

* * *

Twenty-five-year-old Jubilee mirrors this younger self. I remember vividly being invited to a game night of white acquaintances when I was about 19. All my high school friends were white, but we all held family secrets and didn’t fit into “normal” society. I drove to the apartment where the game night was hosted, parked my beat-up car, and walked up to the door. I heard the women laughing inside… laughs that seemed so carefree. Laughs that at least in my mind came from girls who had parents who called them and wished them well. Girls whose families helped them navigate the adult world instead of leaving them to their own devices. And I suspected that these girls had never felt judged, ogled or dismissed for their skin.

Now that I’m older, have developed close friendships, and have a family unit that is refreshingly intact, I look men straight in the eye and know my worth even if they don’t. I can walk confidently into a room of women and know I belong there, even though my story is likely much more intense than theirs.

I don’t mind, now, that I’m complicated. Even though the women in tonight’s episode proved that the pack mentality is not dead, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who has felt silenced for standing out in a manner I couldn’t control and now wouldn’t change. Whatever Jubilee’s path ends up being, I hope her future is filled with connections and self-love that she never thought possible. I hope she can stare that soccer mom pack down with fierce confidence.

Update 2/2/16

Spoiler alert for anyone who’s not caught up to episode 5….

Unfortunately, their end was just like mine with so many others. It’s honestly like watching myself on TV. No answers, but comforting somehow to know my personality is so closely shaped by my experiences. Here’s to bright futures with men who see us as equals instead of on a lonely pedestal. Not a pity party, just looking forward to what lies ahead!

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Gabrielle Gorman’s “Dear America”: When You Don’t Love the Skin You’re In

On December 8th, I attended the 2015 My Hero Awards, where my dear friend Kayla Briet won the Emerging Artist Award for her work in film, music and technology.

While Kayla’s work always mesmerizes me, another award recipient named Gabrielle Gorman brought me and many others to tears with her experimental film “Dear America,” for which she won the title of 2015 Student Honoree.

I just watched the live stream of Kayla’s film screening at the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami, and Gabrielle’s film screened shortly before hers. Watching it again made me question why this film touched me so personally. After all, Gabrielle’s film is about not loving herself as a dark-skinned black youth. She candidly discusses how she wanted to bleach her skin and shrink her large lips–how she wanted plastic surgery to look more like Michael Jackson. While I’d never had such desires, her film somehow resonated with me, and I wasn’t sure why.

I got to thinking, maybe it’s my white privilege that has made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe it’s the fact that I look more like Michael Jackson once he’d reached the middle of his many surgeries than when he was in the Jackson 5.

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In costume for Halloween, 2014

I knew, however, that I’d wrestled with loving my body. Then I remembered why.

Growing up, I lived in the liminal space between two races. I had olive skin and “mixed race hair.” Instead of inhabiting this space, I wanted to look more like others. But not white others. I wanted to look more black.

I loved my skin in the summer months, when the back of my hand got darker than my palm. I loved wearing braids my senior year of high school and thought that would make me less ambiguous. (It didn’t.) In my late 20s, when I started gaining weight, I happily watched myself get increasingly curvy. My happiness didn’t stem from a desire to look sexy. I was happy because the curves made me feel more black. Like most youth and young adults, I wanted to look like I fit in somewhere instead of feeling watched–a desire that Gabrielle discusses as well.

Braids picture
Me in 1993 after a trip to Indonesia.

Is my experience the same as Gabrielle’s? Definitely not. But Gabrielle doesn’t think this matters. Her video also features a mixed race youth who wears labels like “Oreo,” and Gabrielle says, “We can’t afford to say any longer […] ‘You have dealt with different struggles than me because you’re lighter skinned than me or because you’re darker skinned than me.'” And I think that’s why her video touches so many people. We all wrestle with self-acceptance, for varying reasons and in varying extremes. Gabrielle boldly speaks what many of us think but would not dare utter.

Gabrielle Gorman
Photo courtesy of Liz H Kelly, Goody PR

Thank you, Gabrielle, for being so brave. And so strong. And so beautiful. Thank you for now loving yourself just as you are, because you help all of us love ourselves a little better, too.