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When Dementia Hits Home

In two days, I board a plane to visit my 86-year-old grandma in Washington State. She’ll be 87 two days after I land. My grandma is slowly succumbing to dementia, which, thanks to the fate of her older sisters, she knew would be her fate as well. Everyone lives long in my family, at least on that side, but they begin to lose their ability to reason, remember and be fully present in the world long before they take their last breaths.

While much of me is excited to visit my grandma, I’m also scared. I’m visiting her in part because she’s slowly drifting away from us. She’s as healthy as a lion, but her mind is becoming frail.

GrandmaMy grandma was my mother for much of my life. Her home was my home for more years than it wasn’t. I watched her run a business, chat up strangers with ease, and manage a household all by herself. She taught me how to parallel park, how to downshift and upshift on windy roads, and how to value my writing just as she valued hers.

In my late teens and early 20s, I devoured her bookshelves of hard cover classics, many of which I’ve since inherited. It was she who taught me the beauty of the written word, and she who made discussing dictionary definitions part of a frequent ritual at the dinner table. Not as a way to flaunt our knowledge, but as a way to continually revel in the beauty of the English language.

My grandma always wanted to write her life story. I remember her writing group gathering around the dining room table and sharing pages from their latest works. The women around the table took their writing seriously, and I knew it was my destiny to follow suit. My grandma, through her own lived reality, presented me with a reality I could visualize. I grew up, became the head of my (single person) household, and use words to convey my deepest thoughts and emotions, and even to pay my bills.

My grandma will never get to write her life story. Her mind is too far gone now to string together memories of a long gone past. While I mourn for her inability to realize her dream, the mourning adds momentum to my own literary projects. My grandma sacrificed a lot to care for those she loved. She raised a handful of children–some her own and some who needed a structured place to stay. By the time she was through raising others, she was too far separated from her own past to put it to paper.

A year ago my grandma and I shared a hotel room at my cousin’s wedding, and we giggled like little girls as we talked into the night. That memory is so sweet that I don’t want to lose it — I don’t want it to be replaced by something more complicated and upsetting. I watched my father slowly lose control over his faculties, and I don’t want to watch my grandma lose control of hers. True, my dad was much farther gone by the time I saw him, and he only had about two weeks left, while my grandma might still have many years. But the grandma I know, the one who raised me, is hidden behind a wall of confusion and anxiety. Grandma can’t read anymore, partly due to the dementia and partly due to her macular degeneration. She needs 24-hour care and often can’t plan five minutes into the future or remember 5 hours into the past.

About ten years ago when I was living in Washington myself, my aunt called to let me know my grandma’s heart had suddenly began fluttering out of control. I sped to her retirement home and arrived as paramedics circled her bed. One gave her a shot of something to restore her heart back to a normal rhythm. As the medicine coursed its way through her, she let out what can only be described as a flutter of sensation–a verbal “whooo” at the strange feeling that had overcome her. I hardly ever cry when things happen, but instead usually remain stoic until I can process it at a later time. However, in that moment, tears suddenly welled in my eyes as my rock appeared helpless and vulnerable. It was a moment I don’t care to relive, but I know such moments are inevitable with the continued passing of time.

My aunt finds little scraps of paper with scribbles of my grandma’s thoughts about the past. All tangible evidences of her still strong desire to get her life down before it’s too late. This is all she has left of her dream… Solitary snippets that will probably never be read by anyone.

I’ll continue to pour my heart out onto the page, and to live the life my grandma created for me through her never ending passion for truth in storytelling. And on Monday I’ll give my rock a gigantic hug and revel in her presence for a full seven days. I’ll do my best to capture those moments and hold onto them for the rest of my life.

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A Yellow Bone’s Analysis of Beyonce’s Formation

 

I just tried out Medium.com for the first time. Here’s the beginning of my essay with a link to the rest below:

Like most of Black America, I watched Beyonce’s “Formation” video yesterday in wonder. And like most of America (not just Black America) I’ve had dozens of opinions flash across my newsfeed. As a fellow “yellow bone,” I’d like to weigh in and suggest that Beyoncé’s lyrics are revolutionary not because they express a unique viewpoint, but because this viewpoint was expressed by one of the most salient Black women in America. I also argue that Beyoncé uses the sometimes “-shallow” lyricism of traditional Pop and R&B songs to dismantle, or at least disrupt, the very genre itself…

Read the rest here.

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Back When I Was a Backseat Girl (or, Jubilee, Revisited)

Yesterday I watched the most recent episode of The Bachelor on Hulu, and I’m sorry if this is going to ruin the anticipation for anyone, but Jubilee got sent home in the middle of the cocktail party.

I’ve watched The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchise off and on for years. When I start a season, I always continue until the end, but I’m not drawn to it every season. This season, however, will be the first one that I end abruptly, and I’m not sure if I ever want to watch the show again.

The Bachelor and Bachelorette had always been a fun diversion — a way to witness interactions between people, root for favorite contestants, and wince at relationships between houseguests or between men and women that go extremely sour.

This season was different though, because of Jubilee (which I wrote about here). I’ve always felt a bit removed from the show. I’ve always been intimately aware that my life differs greatly from any of the girls who vie for the guy’s hearts (and I’m usually not much into the guy’s heart anyway). But with Jubilee’s date with Ben, I finally saw myself in a contestant. Not just because she was Black, but because she was Black with very similar struggles as my own.

I kind of knew when Ben put Jubilee on a pedestal that she would inevitably come crashing down. Not because she’d do anything wrong, but because pedestals are very lonely and unsteady places to be. Jubilee was for Ben what many Black women are to men — and sadly not just to White men like Ben.

After Ben said goodbye to Jubilee, with the same expression and many of the same words that I’ve heard during my own breakups, I said goodbye to The Bachelor. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I also remembered something I’d written when I was about 21, and I dug it up to share with my readers.

This essay is a very hard one to share, because it touches on things that are very personal, and I wrote it completely stream of consciousness at the height of emotion. Though it’s a bit exposing, I think it’s important to share with my readers because I’m guessing at least one of you feels now the way I did then. The family relationships I’ve mentioned in the essay have now been strengthened, I now know certain struggles aren’t so black and white, and those romantic relationships are a thing of the past. That last line of the essay? It’s where I am now.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s what I wrote back in 1998.

New Yorker picture
A picture I cut out of the New Yorker a couple years ago.

Back Seat Girl

It happened to me again today. Sarah* was with me, getting milk. Chad* and Adam* were in the electronics department. I have learned to like Sarah, to become her friend. But then, as she tells me she won’t be home when her parents call, she says, “Oh, they’ll understand, because they know about Chad.” I respond, “Oh, are you guys dating or something?” (I say this quite calmly, but in my mind I am screaming, because I am once again on the outside of the circle.)

“Well, I don’t know,” she replies. “I don’t really know what’s going on.” She also says this calmly, and adds emphasis by shrugging her shoulders as if tossing the idea out of her uninterested mind. But I know inside, she is bursting to know if they will in fact have a romance. I drop the subject. I realize that I am always in the back, while she is always in the front. Does she get the front seat because her father is a missionary? Because she is a prize? I see them talk. I see him express concern to her about missing her parents’ call because of the outing I have requested.

I am taken back to Southern California, to the long freeway drive to Disneyland, to David* and Patricia* in the front seat, to me, in the back of the van (the extra, invisible guest). I am taken back to observing them from my place in the back, to watching them flirt, to seeing her get out of her seat and kneel in the middle so that he could put his arm around her. I remember the tears. I remember the desperation I felt. I remember the pain, and the pain returns, and it runs down my cheeks in a salty stream. The pain is a little girl, watching her mommy flirt with a man who would rule her life, a man who would separate her from her mother’s protective love, a man who would place this little girl on the outside of the circle.

I remember driving Daniel* and Kim* around. I remember how when I moved away, Daniel got a truck and Kim was the one to be the front seat girl. I remember the agony I felt as she told me about their minute-long kiss in this front seat. My boyfriend and my best friend. “You thought you were so special,” a voice inside me said. “But remember your place.”

I remember the community group of my church. I remember sitting in that wealthy house, I remember sitting in that circle, sharing about our lives. I remember the man I thought attractive. The man who pursued another girl after the meeting. A girl who had spoken of her father, who was known in the Christian circle. “So that man is really your father?” the young man asks. “Yes,” she replies, with pride. The man thinks her a prize. The man asks her if she needs a ride home. “No,” she replies. (She has a father, remember? A father who provides for her needs.) To him, I am invisible. The man does not ask me to be a front seat girl. My father was a prisoner. Does that make him lacking in love for his daughter? Does that make me any less of a prize? Does that mean I am destined to be a backseat girl?

I remember home. I remember the house in Santa Cruz that I called home. I remember the house that I called home, but wasn’t. I remember the loving arms that held me for a moment, only to let me go. Those arms in which I was not allowed to get comfortable. Those arms of my grandmother who said, “You are special, but you do not belong here.”

I remember the holidays. I remember all the families coming together to form a whole. All of those immediate families that I was not a part of. I remember all of the families grouping together, in order to introduce us to a new relative. But where do I go? Where is my “mother,” my “father,” my “sister,” my “brother”? I see the new man’s eyes scan his relations. I see his eyes come to me. They are puzzled, perplexed, these eyes of his. As if he is seeing a rose among poppies. “She is not in the circle,” his eyes say. I smile, pretending that I do not know my difference. Pretending that I am indeed a poppy among poppies.

I feel like a girl in a candy store. I feel like a black girl in a candy store. I feel like a black girl in a candy store in the segregated South. I stand there, my mouth watering as I look at the delicious candy. I see the girls line up, one after the other, buying their chocolate. I approach the man behind the counter. No, his face tells me in a cold stare. This is not your place. This is not for you. I watch, my heart growing hard.

The man takes me into the back and whispers in my ear, “You can have the chocolate if you work for it.” I reluctantly agree. I feel cheated that I have to work for my chocolate, and the other girls merely pay with the coins given them by their fathers.

I pick up a broom, and I sweep. I pick up a mop, and I scrub. I am proud of my good deeds. I approach the man behind the counter, but he is not satisfied, so I give some more of my hard labor. “It will pay off,” I say to myself. “Soon I will have the best chocolate in the world. It will turn around and I will be the girl buying chocolate at the counter.”

Hours turn into days. My circle of friends disappear. They are upset that I spend all of my time working at the store. But they don’t understand—Just a couple more chores and it will all turn around. Just a couple more hours and I will be the girl buying chocolate at the counter.

Each day I work, I watch the white girls go up to the counter. I see them buy their chocolate. I become dismayed. I feel angry. I feel cheated. I feel second-class. I long for the man behind the counter to give me my candy, but he never does.

A backseat girl. But that is not my destiny. 

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

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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.

IMG_0543
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.

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Ambushed on the Airwaves: When Black Nationalists Dictate Black Identity

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Soon after my For Harriet article was published, two women who’d just published a book on what it means to be Biracial contacted me to thank me for writing it. Almost immediately I became friends with Sarah and Bryony, and in October they asked me to collaborate with them on an academic book.

As new authors do, Sarah and Bryony are doing everything they can to promote their book. In addition to hitting social media heavily, they do interviews for radio and podcasts.

Sarah and I had the following harrowing experience on a radio show last week. The blog post will transition back and forth between our two voices:

 Sarah

I was really excited for the interview, because I first interviewed with this program in October and the host Marcus* asked me to return.

 The show focuses on race and I was the first Biracial person to ever be interviewed. So naturally I was thrilled when I learned it went well and they wanted me back. This second interview, I was asked to sit on a panel and discuss race. Again, I would be the lone Biracial representative.

 On the night of the broadcast I was informed that nobody from panel had shown up. I asked the woman whose name we never got, so we’ll call her Telephone Operator, if Shannon could to be on the program with me. “Sure! Why not!”

 Despite being so light complected, I vacillate between self-identifying as Black and Biracial, which depends on the current situation.

 My mom was Black and Japanese and my dad was White. Things were pretty different when I was raised. With Jim Crow laws still in effect in much of the U.S., it was pretty normal for interracial couples to raise their children to be Black. Of course today more of us have the freedom to self identify as Biracial.

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Sarah and her father, George Orick, in 1967.

 Almost immediately after Marcus introduces us, a woman who called herself something bizarre like Lady Self Pleasure came out swinging and declared, “nah, Sarah ain’t even Black.”

 As if on queue, Marcus immediately explained that it was his birthday and despite the fact that nobody showed up but Shannon and me, he promised it would be an unforgettable broadcast.

After, I introduced Shannon: Black father, White mother; academic writer and I tell them about her article.

Shannon

Both Marcus and the callers seemed insistent on defining me, often disregarding how I define myself. Instead, they used my answers to their questions as evidence of their definitions, which seemed to change every few minutes over the hour and a half interview.

First I was labeled Black, not Biracial, because my father is Black. An unnamed male caller asked if I immerse myself in Black arts and someone else asked whether I’m married to a Black man. I was also asked which race I would choose if I were forced to. Each of these questions felt like an interrogation that was meant to gauge my level of Blackness.

The listeners seemed more satisfied with my answers than Sarah’s, even though Sarah was raised to be Black and self-identifies that way more often than I do. The aforementioned Self Pleasure disregarded Sarah’s story and insisted that the way one is raised doesn’t determine one’s ethnicity.

When the conversation came back to me, “Telephone Operator” began discussing the one-drop rule as the “law of the country,” which in her mind determined my Blackness despite my upbringing. However, having been frustrated by the listeners’ dismissal of Sarah, I confronted her, as I thought she was she who had insisted that Sarah wasn’t Black. “Wait,” I asked, “If the one drop rule is law, how can I be Black but Sarah isn’t?” Marcus jumped in and quickly cut to a commercial break.

Sarah

 “Because,” says Self Pleasure, “Look at her. She’s White! She’s not Black. I’m Black!”

 “So you must not have heard what my racial makeup is or why I I self-identify as Black, did you?” I asked Self Pleasure.

 “I did and because your father is White, that makes you White,” she replied.

 “Huh?” I asked. “Where do you get that nonsense? I guess that made Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington White.”

 Things went downhill from there with Self Pleasure, Telephone Operator and the unnamed man attacking me. Despite how I was raised, because I had never been DWBd, never been racial profiled or turned down for a job because of my race (as if any of them knows my life story), in their limited view of the world, I am not Black.

Hoping Marcus would actually moderate, he instead added his two cents by using mitochondrial DNA as proof for why I’m not Black. Now this went from insulting to downright idiotic.

Shannon

By this point, Marcus and the listeners emphatically listed reasons why Sarah and I were misidentifying ourselves. Everyone, including Marcus, seemed to subscribe to essentialist thinking that left no room for cross cultural understanding or blurred lines. But even with their “evidence,” the reasoning seemed to fall short of true clear-cut definitions.

We were told that race comes biologically through the father, which made Sarah White and me Black. Self Pleasure said she and the others weren’t “feeling” Sarah, and Sarah therefore wasn’t part of the Black tribe. Marcus insisted that he could speak with authority since he had been racially profiled. Various speakers referenced a Black “curriculum” that was necessary for true Blackness but couldn’t define what this curriculum was. We were told that if races were separated on two sides of a room, Marcus would be one side and we would be on the other. Even though they had first decided that I was Black, not Biracial, my allegiance to Sarah had evidently changed their minds.

In my final attempt to stand up for Sarah and me, I questioned how four people could decide who was part of an entire race. I asked how I, as the daughter of a black man who worked for the NAACP, could be considered not Black. Loud guffaws emerged at this statement, as the listeners said no true black person would reference the NAACP.

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My father and me when he worked for the NAACP, in approximately 1987.

At this point, I decided that it would be best for Sarah and me to leave the conversation. I needed to work in order to eat the next day, which took precedence over convincing someone that I was part of his or her “tribe.” As Sarah and I hung up, wishing the moderator a happy birthday and politely excusing ourselves, we felt confirmation in the necessity of our voices. Even though halfway through the radio show I had expressed frustration over the comments on my For Harriet article being largely focused on how I should self-identify, the moderators and listeners fell victim to the same narrow focus.

It occurred to Sarah and me that we were dealing with Black Nationalists.

Sarah’s Take on Black Nationalism

 Although it would seem a logical reaction to the obvious lack of equanimity in the U.S. between the two races to embrace Black Nationalism, in reality it is actually illogical. Separating Blacks from Whites in an effort to create a strong Black economy, thus making Blacks more autonomous and creating more Black wealth, while romantic for those who live in big cities with heavier concentrations, is to forget that the U.S. is actually vast. Large swaths of the country have almost no Black presence—now what?

 And given the fact that Blacks comprise only 13 percent of the country’s population, it’s inevitable that when stuff continues to hit the fan, riots like Baltimore’s will become more commonplace, and Blacks are outnumbered. If Black Nationalists think they alone can elevate the status of Blacks in the U.S. without the help of other racial groups, in particular Whites, who hold the economic power, they’re living in a fantasyland.

 With a couple of days to let the whole thing soak in, it’s becoming clear that I was ambushed. That I brought Shannon along made things sweeter for them. Telephone Operator told Shannon and me that all members of the panel canceled at the last minute. However the next day when I was thinking more clearly, I checked the radio program’s Facebook page and Lady Self Pleasure became a co-host of Marcus’s two weeks after I was interviewed the first time.

 Our guess is that she worked on Marcus for weeks about how he went against the Black Nationalist code by giving me an opportunity to promote inclusiveness and my (our) belief that we can all get along and work toward one race … the human race.

Shannon

There was so much that could have been discussed on the radio show. We could have come together in understanding and discussed real issues that are present in the Black community. Instead, Sarah and I were roasted because of our mixed race identity, disenabling us from being able to discuss real Black matters.

Sarah

 However, with four days to think and do more digging into them, it’s becoming clearer to me why Marcus, Self Pleasure, Telephone Operator and Unnamed Man have no real interest in discussing real issues that could lead to healing and inclusiveness.

 I couldn’t wrap my head around what these three things have in common:

  1. The one-drop rule being the so-called law of the country
  2. One’s race being determined not by upbringing and the race of both parents but only taking into account race passing from father to child
  3. Mitochondrial DNA

 And what I unearthed throws insulting and idiotic out the window. What we’re dealing with is deeply disturbing.

 Stay Tuned.

 

*The name of the radio program has purposely been redacted and names of people have been changed.