In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit at the back of the bus fifty years ago. If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be? “Black Man.”
– Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi
I recently finished Julie Lythcott-Haims’ memoir Real American. It resonated deeply with me, a bi-racial American, who like Lythcott-Haims often feels I am not “black enough” and yet am seen wholly and exclusively as black. Similar to Lythcott-Haims I have tried and try still to be “what white people valued,” well-mannered, soft-spoken, intelligent with an elite academic pedigree, well-dressed, and successful. I look around me and feel that I have to be exceptional in comparison to those around me just to be recognized as worthy: worthy of someone’s respect, time, and energy.
When I find myself upset about a racial injustice I am careful not to be labelled an “angry black woman.” It is better to operate through a mantra of kindness, extreme kindness, than to get angry. I find that it unsettles people. If a woman tells me “Jesus, you could’ve waited” when I try to put my bag in the overhead bin on an airplane and I respond with “my apologies, can I help you with your bag,” she does a double take. By the end of our cross-Atlantic flight, she’s wishing me luck with my studies. If an academic overlooks you and focuses on the male standing next to you, assert yourself through reflective and intellectual discourse quietly. Prepare a well-crafted piece of prose to stun them like a bee sting- silently but with big impact. Perhaps I am succumbing to the system by doing so. Maybe I am doing a disservice to the question of equity by failing to directly confront micro-aggressions. But, it is a form of self-preservation, a gradual process to move your way up so that you can have the impact on the communities you want to one day have. Lythcott-Haims recognizes this, though maybe she would say that waiting for that “one day” when I feel I have the agency to actively call someone out for touching my hair which is “so different,” “so cool”, actively call someone out who asks “is your hair real, are those extensions?” because to have my bi-racial hair that crosses the line between what is expected of a “black person” is unusual – maybe Lythcott-Haims thinks that day will never come if you wait for it. You’ll never be “ready” to take the risk of being labeled the ‘angry black woman’ in a public space.
So, what to do? I won’t deny that having grown up in White spaces for almost all of my life, I too have inherited certain biases. It is only recently that I have begun to ‘check myself’- to reflect on why I feel uncomfortable or comfortable in a given situation or who the people my imagination crafts are when my mother tells me she’s gone to the doctor or the grocery store or taken my sister to swim practice.
I wonder what Lythcott-Haims would say to someone like Margo Jefferson, who in her memoir Negroland which detailed living in the black upper-class wrote:
“At times I’m impatient with younger blacks who insist they were or would have been better off in black schools, at least from pre-K through middle school. They had, or would have had, a stronger racial and social identity, an identity cleansed of suspicion, subterfuge, confusion, euphemism, presumption, patronization, and disdain. I have no grounds for comparison. The only schools I ever went to were white schools with small numbers of Negroes….We were not protected from our teachers. Or our parents. We were not protected from the shocks of physical difference. “
Jefferson’s quote ties back to the idea of not being “black enough” and the feelings of alienation and isolation that might result from having a weakened racial and social identity. I can certainly relate. I think, however, that my positioning ‘betwixt and between’ is in part what has led me down the path I’m on now. Led me to a PhD where I examine the intersections of race and class in relation to scientific research and the history that underpins it. Because, I find I am painfully aware of race, of not belonging as either black or white. It is tiresome to constantly wonder whether the way you are being treated is the same treatment afforded to, say, a White male. It is even more exhausting to try and suppress these thoughts, to tell yourself that you’ve started to ‘see race everywhere’ because that is what people tell you is happening to you (e.g. a family member recently). We say that being ‘woke’ is necessary, but it is also draining and I’m am saying this coming from a position of privilege. I have a “white” name, I have access to educational privilege and economic privilege, my father is white, and I know how to navigate the dominant society (i.e. white heterosexual norms). If I didn’t have this, maybe I would be consistently angry– what other way could I make my voice heard than to shout from the rooftops my frustration, my oppression, and my fatigue?
It is a privilege to perceive a slight or insult and take it quietly and combat it with fancy words and kindness – that requires a lot of patience and lot of time, things I have a lot of living my privileged life. Those who find themselves economically or racially disempowered may not always have such freedoms.
I was recently sent a New Yorker article that ended with a woman saying:
“I think to not be optimistic is just about the most privileged thing you can be. If you can be pessimistic, you are basically deciding that there’s no hope for a whole group of people who can’t afford to think that way.”
I can be pessimistic quite often about the state of America, about the position of low-income citizens in this country, about the position of citizens of color in this country, about the position of those who are in some form or another considered an ‘outsider.’ But, I am only able to be this way because of my privilege. To hold such views when you are cast to the peripheries of society is to lose all hope/belief in a better life for you and those you love the most. In this new year, I resolve to be more optimistic when looking at both the little and the small (thank you, A). Otherwise, why do I do my work? If I don’t believe change is possible, why struggle to bring discussions of inequity to the forefront?
So, back to the title of this piece. Who is a “real American”? Is it me? You? Anyone? The answer depends on where you’re coming from. There are two very different parties when it comes to this question. One side would say the colonial settlers, the slave owners, those who fought in the Revolutionary War and their progeny, or the Confederacy. The white male living in the upper classes who has the biggest say. Whites. The other might say a “real” American is the Native American who inhabited the lands of the US before colonial settlers arrived. Or, the slave. The immigrant. The refugee. The single mother who worked to send her children to college. The indentured servants. The poor whites and poor blacks. The poor people full-stop.
The United States, where I conduct my research, is a site of immense complexity. It is where admixture (of races and, to a lesser extent, socioeconomic classes) has always, in practice, been the practice despite the continued existence of racial and class purity arguments and even when such things were illegal by law. It is a country whose name was created by those who left England and did not want to belong to the Commonwealth. Maybe that idea of belonging, or more significantly, not belonging, is what Lythcott-Haims means. As a bi-racial woman who’s been called an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) and felt on the outside of multiple circles, maybe I am, and those like me are the real Americans. Perhaps, to not belong, or to feel like you don’t belong, and to grapple with that liminal state of existence is really what being American is all about.