One – What It Means to Be a Black Woman
The whiteness – or in this case, blackness – of Rachel Dolezal was in question last week, after what seemed like an entire season’s worth of Maury Povich exploded into the US media. As the mother of three mixed race children, whose children, despite having half a WASP-y heritage, will never be considered White. Dolezal spoke on the Today Show after this controversy broke, and I am quoting:
She said she truly began identifying as black when she received custody of one of her brothers, Izaiah, who she now considers a son.
“He said, ‘You’re my real mom.’ And he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom,” she said.
No, no, no, no. I can tell you that yes, you can be white, and can be seen as white, and having kids who are of a different racial background as you – AND you can be Chinese or Black or Latino or Bangladeshi and have children who are of a different racial background as you. You do it by dealing with people who are ignorant and don’t think that mixed race families can exist – either by heritage or adoption – and you teach your children about all parts of their heritage and you do it by teaching children about privilege. You do not need the same skin color as your children to be good parents. Josh, as our household White guy, used to get a lot of shit from people when we lived in Chicago about where Josh adopted Matthew from, because they don’t let boys out of China, you know. And when we lived in California, I remember feeling hot rage cascade over me when a woman told us that it was disgusting and not natural that we had a mixed son.
How you deal with being a mixed race parent is that you fight the assholes. You tell them, “No, you’re 100% wrong. My child is beautiful.” You tell them, “This is my son. I am his father.” Masquerading as a Black woman because you think that’s the way to parent a Black child – no, no, no.
Perhaps more infuriating than Dolezal herself is what I saw unfold in the media – this methodological analysis of what it means to be a Black woman. Over and over again, political pundits, news anchors, big talking heads, people on Twitter, Facebook – everywhere – debated about what it meant to be a Black woman. I’m sure some good conversations evolved from these discussions – but I have to say, it’s really weird seeing others who are not Black women having these discussions. Josh and I once had a heated discussion about using the word “minority” to describe a group of underrepresented people. I hate that word, I always have and I can’t imagine my opinion changing in the near future. I remember saying to him, “I totally 100% understand that it’s an accurate term to use numerically, statistically – but you’ve never been called a fucking minority before.” That’s how I feel about all the discussions that arose because of Dolezal. I get that others have opinions, but as for me, as someone who has never been a Black woman before, I am going to defer. To listen. To understand.
Two – The Whiteness in a Sea of Brown
“Mama,” Lindsey once said to me. “You never told me everyone was going to be brown here!”
Bangladesh is, indeed, a very brown country. 98.5% of the population are Bengali. We literally stand out – skin-wise, ethnicity-wise, family-wise, height-wise – from the crowds of people on the street. When we see White people now I poke Josh and say, “Dude, another white person!” This whiteness in a sea of brown – and I include myself in this and will explain why shortly – is in part why we are stared at when we are out and about. This is why when we are away from Dhaka, in other touristy areas that not a lot of “Bideshis” (foreigners in Bangla) go to, swarms of people surround us to take pictures. It takes some getting used to – developing a tunnel vision that allows you to distract yourself from being stared at.
The whiteness in a sea of brown also includes me. For the most part, I am considered white. I think I confound a lot of people – I speak English with a perfect American accent, it’s my language of choice, and the language we speak to the children in. Nevertheless, here, because foreigners most often have a white face attached, and because foreigners are usually wealthier than most, I find myself being treated as a foreigner/white faced person and am treated accordingly. I live a privileged life here and it is seemingly at the expense of my own personhood. Occasionally, when I answer that I am American, someone will press on. “But madame, you do not look like you are American.” How do you explain, that in the US, you are a full-fledged citizen if you are born anywhere within the US borders (or to US citizens even abroad)? How do you explain that your mother and her two brothers, with their mother, immigrated to the US in the late 1960s? How do you explain that even though you have “Chinese eyes”, you were born in Illinois, and lived all up and down the east coast? The short answer is, you don’t. I’ve seen this from other expats too, the lumping all expats/foreigners in together. I was in a situation once where I was actually referred to as “one of the white women,” and I didn’t say anything. I am surprised I didn’t say anything, because I am pretty good with speaking my mind, but I think I’m still in shock.
Three – From Sea to Shining Sea
My heart is sad. Incredibly sad not only for the lives of the nine in South Carolina, slain by an overtly racist young white male, but sad for my country as a whole. I did not realize how much I would miss social justice and politics until I moved far away from it. I live 8700 miles away from the closest candlelight vigil I would have hoped to attend. I live 8700 miles away from being able to hug friends who are hurting over this, from being able to bring a bottle of (legal!) wine to friends who are legitimately scared about what kind of country and community and land they are raising their Black sons and daughters in. I live so far away and so how I choose to build community, to have these hard discussions about race and racism and power and privilege is inside my computer.
On June 26th, Josh and I celebrate eleven years of marriage. One of the first things that drew me to him was his willingness to stand up for what he believed in. We had a discussion about women taking their husbands’ names after they married. I knew what I believed in at the moment and what I would do (I kept my name), and his words mirrored my own about how he felt about the practice. This is what I continue to love about him, unabashedly. We have had some hard conversations where I call him out on his privilege, as a male and as a White man, and he listens. He probably fidgets and feels uncomfortable and sad and frustrated, but by God, he listens. We don’t always agree eye to eye (see above re: conversation on the word “minority,”) but he gets it, he gets me, and he listens.
We need more people to listen. From the biggest cities (we lived in Chicago and Oakland when we experienced those specific moments of racial wtfuckery) to the small towns, we need people to listen. We are shouting out for help and in sorrow and in pain, and we need people to both shout with us, for us, both in person when candlelight vigils occur, in online spaces where people gather, and in the ballot boxes, where we vote people in who are willing and committed to making a change for the future.
Read this by my friend Liza. Made Visible – how to ally (as a verb, not as a noun!).
Also read this by my friend Jen. “not in my name is not the best I can do”
And this by Aaron Barksdale, The Huffington Post. 7 Ways to be a White Ally for Charleston and the Black Community.