One of the most important tasks for any human being in this modern world is to answer the question, “Who am I?” We tend to confront that question during adolescence and into young adulthood. For most of us though, it lingers throughout our lifetime.
Part of answering that question for people of color is the process of learning what it means to be African American or Latino or Native American or Asian (and all the subtexts of each of those). For most white Americans (unless they have strong ethnic ties) it isn’t front-and-center on the question of identity because in our culture, white is the default.
Traversing this question of identity obviously becomes more complex for what I would call the “in-betweeners.” It was the journey that, for Barack Obama, filled the pages of his book, Dreams From My Father. Due to the fact that his absent father was African and his mother/grandparents who raised him were white, his journey to a self identity on the question of race/ethnicity was unique.
But I would propose that it was exactly that journey that allowed him to speak so eloquently to the question of race in America during his 2008 speech on the topic. He was able to articulate not only the black anger that fueled Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but he also spoke with empathy to the anger many low income white people feel about the solutions we have crafted to address our country’s “original sin.”
No matter our race, class, ethnicity, etc., all of our stories are important in providing perspective on this question of race in America. But I would suggest that it is because of the complexity of that journey for the in-betweeners that they provide a unique voice. And I am not surprised then, when some of my favorite writing on the topic has come from them.
For example, back in 2008, David Swerdlick combined humor with a punch in an article titled: The Audacity of Taupe. And when Cornel West suggested that President Obama was afraid of “free black men” because of his background, Adam Sewer allowed some of his own journey to seep into his response.
For mixed people, blackness is not accepted as a fact of existence but something negotiable, a question of membership to which those whom are Truly Black may grant you access. This gives the game away of course, the reality of race as an invention, if one we have no choice but to live with.
Growing up mixed you sometimes face a kind of confusion. Those around you press you to make a choice about how much of yourself you’re willing to give up, how much you’re are willing to pretend in order to claim membership in one club or another. West demands to know why Obama isn’t sitting at the black table in the dining hall, while reminding him that he’s only welcome there by his graces. What you eventually learn is that peace is not something the “gatekeepers” have to offer and is the last thing they want you to find. Eventually you learn the rules of the game are silly and destructive, and who you are can’t be negotiated either way.
All of that is by way of an overly long introduction to something I read yesterday and highly recommend that you all read as well. It is an article by Maliq Hunsberger titled: Blue Eyes of a Black Nationalist. Malik is profoundly and compassionately telling his story of what it’s like to grow up as the blue-eyed blond “unambiguously white” son of a white mother and black father. Here’s a taste:
The way I look has allowed me to occupy a space of “accessible Blackness” to many of my white peers. In other words, I have Black blood but not Black skin, meaning I can be seen as interesting but not scary. This has also functioned as my greatest tool of influence. I often find myself in discussions around race that I know my father, brother, or anyone visibly non-white are not included in. This is because I evoke much of the white fascination directed toward Black communities without donning the Black skin that the white world has been taught to fear so strongly. In this space I am able to “be a part of” genuine conversations about cultural appropriation, white privilege, racial common sense, etc. within white spaces because I pass so easily. These conversations have become taboo in multiracial spaces for fear of upsetting the colorblind “politically correct” balance that has pushed both straightforward racism and productive conversation underground. Unfortunately I have also become the acceptable target of much of that pent up racism that can no longer be expressed explicitly to those identifiably Black. It is this constant grappling of placement, membership, and authenticity that have provided my greatest privileges and contributed to my strongest feelings of isolation.
I don’t have any profound conclusions to draw from a story like this. Only that the in-betweeners have a unique position in a world where too often stark lines are drawn and people feel bound to one side or the other. Listening to their stories, one feels compassion for their struggle. But they also disabuse us of the idea that those stark lines are real. From them, our collective story becomes the one story with different parts.