fragile

I wrote these words two months ago, but the events of the past weeks in regards to Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles drew me to revisit them today and finally post this…

I take a seat at the diversity training the way I usually do: leaned forward and legs crossed. I nod at a few familiar faces (didn’t I see you at the last workshop?) and settle in for three hours of pair-shares, somber documentary clips, and a zoom through the social justice lexicon. I’m a race vet, fingers stained with ink and eyes hyper-vigilant.

The PowerPoint presentation flickers into being, and I enter the trenches of race education once more.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve attended trainings, seminars, workshops, conferences, and lectures about racism and oppression. It started in college when my brown-black self was still waking up to the words that began to build frameworks around my experiences, around the early moments that prickled because of some then-unknown source. The moments where I felt…off and didn’t understand why. I went to my first race talk on campus as a freshman, and suddenly those sensations took on names.

Microaggressions. Internalized racism. Whiteness. Assimilation.

Learning those words, saturating myself in my country’s history of racial discrimination held a quaint sort of tragedy: it liberated me from the belief that the summary of my past experiences amounted to little more than paranoia. It also clamped hard on my heart when I realized that I have always been an alienated body. Few people named the reality for me, so until that moment in the college auditorium when other students shared their stories, the moments of feeling inferior fell through my fingers–unacknowledged.

I know now there are no stages of grief. There are also no stages for waking up and realizing how black you are. Words were given to me that clarified colors once blurred, so I understood why being the only brown girl in my elementary school class made me self-conscious in crowds, why being praised as “exotic” by strangers raised this gilded fence around my self-image so I was approached as special but also less than normal. Why I lied when my cool Latina classmate in middle school mocked me for getting straight As, and I told her I got a C because only the white kids flaunted their high grades and honors classes. Why my fingers twitched when my white friends reached to twist their fingers in my hair. Why I divided myself into percentages when asked the question triggered by my skin: What are you? 

Why I carry the memory of Amadou Diallo’s face years after I saw his story play out on the news when I was a 7. He haunts me still.

Once I had words, sieves to contain and interpret these feelings, these experiences, I craved more. For so long I felt denied from experiencing the weight of all this, these sins done against the communities tied to me by shared story and shared blood. Now I wanted to know all our stories and hear them affirmed again and again and again so the fire ignited in me would never dare die.

But knowing is one thing. Dealing with the cost of that knowledge, the hows and whys of your people’s suffering is another. And in my stubborn, self-righteous heart, I thought that all the interracial dialogues and real-talk had armed me for it, trained me to process my past quickly so I could march to the next battlefield. I tried not to look back, convinced that what lay there couldn’t help me. So I bound past hurts to my chest, reined in my tears, and made smiles my armor.

Then I attended what I thought would just be another diversity training, and we read the article Why I Am An Angry Black Woman by Dominique Matti out loud. These words struck me:

Because when I got married people assumed I was pregnant. Because people who know I’m married call my husband my “baby daddy.” Because my pregnancy with my son was plagued with videos of black lives being taken in cold blood. Because their murderers still walk the streets. Because the nation sent me a message that my son’s life didn’t matter. Because when Tamir Rice was murdered I curled up on the bed and sobbed, cupping my belly. Because my son heard me sobbing from the inside. Because they don’t care about us. Because when I was 7 months pregnant my neighbor asked me to help him move a dresser up a flight of stairs. Because I am not seen as a woman. Because I am not allowed to be fragile.

The moment teetered, held still for a quiet, pregnant moment, and then I dropped away into a crashing wave of everything because that’s what I felt–everything. Every childhood slight crystallized, every silencing word made louder, every murder seen, every spot of color lonely and lost in a pale world–I felt it all. Salient identity in that moment? black, black, BLACK.

The staff and students in the room kept talking, their voices passing over me like distant breezes, but I was untouched. My fingers fisted into the folds of my dress and I tugged hard on my tears, ramming them back inside that pit where Black Girls’ neglected feelings pool.

I am never prepared for those moments where it hits me all over again that I, me, not just a person on the news or in a class lecture, hurt at the hands of Racism. Not as much as others, a voice whispers, and in many ways, that is true. There is so much suffering I have never known. But as a friend reminded me, “Pain is pain,” and when the cobbled walls of a well of pain is pricked enough, with a crack it opens and all that grief floods out.

It’s not even all my pain–it’s the weight of wrong done against people who are treated with suspicion, doubt, and dismissal in my country. It’s seeing it in the news everyday, seeing our government cast blame onto black people, immigrant people, my people while simultaneously neglecting to hear their cries for justice. It’s seeing the polite apathy in too many churches because “our” issues are too political and divisive rather than daily realities.

And yet…when I leave the training shaking, it’s not because of these huge overarching issues. It’s all there in some amorphous sea of grief inside me, but in that moment, I cry for myself. I rarely cry for the little exotic brown girl and the preteen mixed kid who called herself a mutt and the anxious college student on the margins of too many places and the adult woman more comfortable discussing other people’s racial pain from an informed distance than acknowledging her own.

I don’t feel my feet as I cross over pavement because I’m pouring out, every emotion vivid in orange and red–like the dots smarting in your eyes when you look straight at the sun. It’s all there, inescapable because my walls have collapsed. I don’t even care enough that people on the sidewalk can see my tears–I don’t care.

Every thought swells to the surface, unfiltered, and I cry for myself at last.

I am fragile then, whispery cracks webbed across my body so even as I catch my breath and return to work and the day ends, I feel that any slight pressure, a glance, a brush of compassion, will undo me again. I find myself yearning to talk to someone and resisting the urge because I’m afraid that I’ll pour myself through and drown someone else. I have no energy to prop my walls; I want a cocoon where no headlines exist to catalog black tragedies.

What happens to black and brown girls when we stop being strong like the world tells us to be? 

I pray that God finds them like he finds me again and again, stumbling on blurry sidewalks, huddling silently on kitchen floors, hugging my pillow under the covers of hushed dark in my room. I have only feeble begging on my lips, but he finds me in that place where the world is too heavy for me and I have no way of handling it.

He calls me hija, quelinda, beloved one as I curl inwards, trembling from the memories he watched unfold.

I don’t ask him for the strength to fix myself and the world and feel better. I sit in my shuddering fragility and ask for Him. There is nothing there but his black and brown daughter, asking for permission not to be strong.

He says yes, and the soft silence that follows trundles me as I pour out into his waiting arms.

 

being ethnic: part I

What are you?

Human–unless aliens a la Star Trek secretly inhabit my body (sometimes I do wonder…). I also happen to be, as you see, brown of skin with curls that I am currently avoiding the impulse to drag my fingers through. I am also a loquacious nerd with an affinity for Thai curry, but somehow I don’t think that is the answer you’re looking for.

It’s an innocent enough question, one I’ve answered from age 7 onwards (basically once I had a firm grasp of reasoning and language). You’d think it would be the most innocuous getting-to-know-youism, the kind of thing that crops up in Censuses, countless work applications, and most civil conversations. And when someone poses the question, offhand, eyes eager, my responses have ranged wildly from a practiced statistical breakdown of my family genealogy to a shrugged “Mutt.”

Now I wonder if I ever owed anybody but myself the answer.

Why am I approached with this question a disproportionate number of times compared to my white friends–even some of my black and Asian-identifying friends?

Welcome to the world of the Ambiguously Brown.

There are no borders in this land, only a blurred ombre of colors shifting on their spectrum. If you reach the places where they turn opaque, you may be granted exit. But know this: this realm welcomes more people than it allows to leave, and the ticket for entry is easy to come by.

Tan/olive/light brown skin. Check.

Curly, wavy or undefinable hair texture. Check.

Eyes slanted a few degrees or more. Requires review. Additional mark if the eyes are an unusual color. 

Seeming mismatch of lips, jaw, nose, and brow. Check.

The first surveying question relegates me to Ambiguity, the Indiscernible because at first glance, I cannot be figured out (why do I need to be?). Other mixed people can easily spot me–we tend to recognize our own- but with people still unused to the reality that humans take form in millions of permutations, my body amounts to a question mark.

What are you? functions as a hypothesis, and my answer will either corroborate their theories or result in further confusion if my answer fails to fall neatly into packed categories.

I danced with a older guy a few months ago in a crowded Midtown studio, trying to follow his swiveling salsa steps when he suddenly leaned towards my ear and whispered, “So what are you mami?” Words bursting out before my mind even wrapped around the question, I said: “Dominican on my mother’s side and Black with some Chinese on my dad’s side.” His smile was instantaneous, and if his hand was not gripping mine in that moment, I was sure that he would have pointed a finger at me in triumph. “I knew it!” he crowed. “I knew there had to be something else mixed in you.”

Congratulations. You have solved my genetic puzzle.

I wish I could count on two hands how many times I’ve smiled indulgently when another person has “figured me out,” but I can’t. My features present an enigma to people who are not familiar with the combinations they can make, and there is a sense of vindication when they can confirm that I am beautiful, I am exceptional simply because I’m not “just black” or just any one thing. My face is a solvable equation, elements to be discerned and separated out.

It’s not even as if What are you? is some terrible question. It can arise out of honest curiosity, a desire to know me better, to understand, but it is all too often married to the assumption that I don’t present as something easily categorizable. The subtext of the question makes my skin prickle. In that moment, I am made aware of my deviation from some unspoken norm when a few seconds ago, I was just Joanna. Rather than representing a cause for celebration, the multiplicity in my identity contrives distance between me and my ethnic communities because I am framed in a way that sets me apart from them. I am congratulated for transcending them (see: colorism), for ascending to an aspirational plane when all I want is to be normalized (see: not exotic). I am not White, yet neither do I belong fully and wholly to another category; I am in limbo.

Those of mixed heritage or of backgrounds not conventionally realized within American spaces (I think of my friends who are Arab, Indigenous, Latinx of all shades, Mediterranean, Pacific Islander) encounter this challenge to their identity because our features render us indissoluble. Once you are known, people can access your self-hood, compute your stories and locate them within their preset schemas. When your features defy easy definition, you remain a mystery, a beautiful, uncomfortable mystery that designates your status as a Passer.

There is a reason Latinx actors have played characters from every race. Even JLo has been Italian, Mediterranean, and even, on occasion, Latina on the big screen. Those who can pass for multiple backgrounds present an opportunity for society because they can be plugged in when needed, versatile tools activated when the situation calls for it. Blended into backgrounds with ease, manipulated to fit a variety of narratives, our bodies cease to become our own. Can you belong to yourself when so many others claim you for their use?

There is power in passing–I acknowledge that. A connection is forged by the bridge of my brown arms, and I am received into communities I do not even belong to by blood. I am, strangely enough, the embodiment of Paul’s assertion to be “all things to all people.” Outside of American borders, I may even enter lands with less suspicion because brown equates to safety, alludes to the comfort of kin rather than the fear of pale imperialist conquerors. My sister visited India last summer and passed through the borders and into open arms. The residents could hardly believe her when she told them that she was not, in fact, Indian. They clothed her and fed her as one of their own anyway.

Our ambiguity can draw others to us, allow for communion amidst perceived similarity.

But with passing also comes a strain of loneliness in being the New World, an entity and category unto yourself. Strangers may exult in discovering in you what you have always known to be the everyday and banal. Those of us indigenous to this mode of existence have crafted new ways to name ourselves, be they Afro-Latina, Blasian, or Desi. Some may deride this action as pandering to identity politics; I call it valuing the diversity woven into our stories, our skin by generating more lenses through which to interpret them. We give breath to our realities and resist the gazes that cast them as perpetually foreign and novelty. 

A recognition of fluidity is vital in this endeavor since, “We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience,” as Michael Ondaatje asserts in The English Patient. I am American. I am Black. I am Afro-Latina. I am multi-ethnic. I am descended from that vast continent called Asia and that dear, distant motherland called Africa. The heartbeat of each identity becomes pronounced, drums louder depending on what space I inhabit and whose company I am in.

Inside the walls of the places I call home, all these things thrum inside my veins simultaneously. There is no division there, no fractions concerning my grandparents and great-grandparents to work out. Then I step out my door and board the 1 train to downtown Manhattan, watching the mosaic of faces around me shift colors, and somewhere along the rail, amidst the shaking and rattling through neighborhoods, I become Ambiguously Brown. I become what the Seventeen magazines I used to read as a teen call “ethnic.” I feel then the weight of others’ gazes, cemented from over two decades of probing questions. Though devoid of green skin and Klingon brow ridges and spiked antennae, I become alien–again.