“Are you a volunteer here?” (8/16/12)

today i went down to spend some time with my bff:  my 94-year-old white grama.  she has been in a nursing home for the past year and a half and has recently been admitted to hospice care.  i typically just go down and sit with her these days – her sight and hearing are long gone and she has been descending into dementia for a while now.  as you can imagine, this is difficult.  but i go down there and sit next to her, hold her hand, stroke her hair, and listen to her abbreviated ramblings that give way to moments of lucidity.

today was nice, i got there before dinner and she was out in the common area so that’s where we had our visit.  i sat close with her and eventually brought her over to dinner with a couple of other residents.  there’s assigned seating so i’ve been there with grama and her table mates several times before.

it still irritated the hell out of me when her table mate asked sweetly, “are you a volunteer here?”

yes i’m a volunteer that sits close, kisses, hugs, holds hands, and is generally very tender and intimate with this one particular resident on several occasions.

the problem with not looking like your family is that people don’t assume that that’s your family, even if based on your behavior family is the most reasonable description.  i get called over, asked to put on bibs, and my attention is fought for because i must be some volunteer that’s showing this one old lady more attention than the others.

it’s not new, i’ve been in variations on this situation throughout my life.  but it’s especially not appreciated right now.

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New Style Race Talks (12/15/12)

I facilitate a group in a treatment center where we talk about culture.  I’ve had a hard time with this group because, the concept is so broad.  I think I was a little too hung up in the beginning about the theoretical stuff because my obsession with race and identity took me to write a 50 page literature review and thesis.  And right after that, I started teaching this class 🙂  Now I think I’m getting a little better grasp about more narrow topics, more universal and accessible.  Yesterday I led a discussion about stereotypes we may have developed as kids.

The conversation was kinda sterile for a while.  The women were to answer 3 questions with another person:

  • What is your definition of race?
  • When did you first notice your race?
  • What did you learn about your racial identity from your family (verbally or non-verbally)?

These women are for the most part in their 20s.  White, Black, Native, and Multiracial.  I think it’s usually pretty uncomfortable to talk about race in general.  And I don’t know whether it’s my personal observation or a phenomenon, but I think many young people think racism is over, they are very verbal about not judging people based on their race, they are aware of the browning of America and like to talk about how one day we’ll all be the same color.  Very careful, very politically correct and progressive, color-blind.  (It infuriates me.  I try not to show that.)

I could see that one of the Native women was agitated by her partner talking about how race was a label assigned by the government.  She was taking offense and kept talking about how she got what the other woman was saying, but that she was proud to be Ojibwe and that it was not just a government assigned label.  To push the conversation further, I talked about how another member had triggered my anxiety about race based on her comments that she didn’t really care about a conversation about race.  I briefly talked about the social aspects of race and belonging, noting that even though some people don’t have to think about it, race is a big social issue, very real.  I also talked to them about how the conversation about race is subjective, difficult, and emotional, how there will be no right answers, just conversations.  Here are some highlights:

  • I don’t see race because we’re all more different shades and no one is pure anymore.  I see it more as culture.
  • Race is only for the census, as a way to fill out boxes and for the government to classify us.
  • I love being “all mixed up.”  That’s what my mom called us and that’s what I say now.  I know I’m pretty.  Everyone loves my skin and my hair.  I’d like to date a White guy but I don’t know how to approach them.

Sidebar:  We had a little conversation about being biracial.  This woman talked about how she always felt very, very special.  In my research, this is common in biracial people, I experienced it myself.  It’s interesting how being biracial can make you feel superior and special, or inferior and different.  Sometimes both.

  • People used to talk about White privelege.  Like, in the 90s.
  • The first time I noticed race was when I made a Black friend in college and she got me to notice how we had a different experience shopping – she was followed.  She opened my eyes to some of the differences.
  • Is it a real thing that Black women don’t like to see Black men with White women?

My personal favorite was this one, coincidentally the same woman that triggered my anxiety about this not being an important conversation:

“I  ran into my old [white] crush.  He told me he ONLY dated Black girls!!  I was shocked!”  The group laughed.  I asked, “And why were you shocked?”  She stammered a little bit before saying, “I just didn’t know that about him…”

This is what shocks me about the new style of racial perceptions.  It’s like, people don’t even know how racist they are.  Just before this comment was made, another facilitator had come in and joined the group.  We had just finished trying to explain colorism, heirarchy of shade.  If you are suprised that a White man could have an aesthetic that prefers Black women… then what is it that you really think about Black women?  Totally caught her off guard.  And to go further, why does that White man exclusively date Black women?  Where does that come from?

I think that to me it feels like we have advanced to a place where there is a polite dialogue that is socially appropriate in talking about race.  But I am not satisfied.  So in my little space in the world, we’re going to talk about it a little deeper.

Mixed in Mpls: Author. (11/7/13)

Here is the author of this blog’s Mixed in Mpls story.

My mother is White, of Scandinavian descent, and my father is from Nigeria. I identify as both Biracial and Black, but not White. I believe that being Biracial is an experience, a mixed-race experience. Though many people look at me and know that I’m mixed, I’m aware that many people view me as Black. My identification has been fluid, and it may not always be at it is today. As I have learned about Black history and connected with more Black people, my Black identity has become stronger and more of an affirmation.

Growing up, I was raised by my mom’s side of the family only, I didn’t meet my father until I was an adult. (The story of my travels to Nigeria are chronicled earlier in this blog, for those who are interested.) This had a complex effect on my identity. Visually, phenotypically, no one was going to mistake me for White, but my family and social circle was White. This gave me a sense from a very young age of being different, outside, but also special. I felt very special growing up.

My White mother was always encouraging me to be “Blacker,” whatever that meant. To my observation of her behavior, it meant “talking Black, being loud.” That’s how she put it on and even as a child it looked like a ridiculous act to me. She made Black seem like something you could put on. I had a second family who just were who they were as a Black family. They accepted me. My sister/cousin T always tried to help me fit in with Black people, teach me somehow. But I always felt like a fraud, a terrible failure, trying to put on culture. So I kind of retreated from a young age on cultural identification.

Another part of early racial experience was the family my aunt married into, a White family of hunters, very Minnesota. I was told from a very young age that some of them were racist. I was told that my uncle’s father didn’t want me at my aunt’s wedding (I was only a year old). Yet we would share Christmas Eve with them some years and they all treated me very well. This was my first experience with tokenism. “They may not like Black people… But they love you…”

I had a couple of Mixed friends when I was a kid, but there were no other Mixed people in my immediate family. Much of my education on race was my mom’s aggressive encouragement/instruction, education at school on MLK and civil rights, National Geographic movies of saggy boobied African women in the bush, We are the World and starving children in Africa engulfed in flies. It was not positive. So I never talked about race, really. I put my thoughts and perceptions in a locked box in my heart, and stifled it until I was in my late 20s.

That’s when I began to discover research on the mixed-race experience. That blew my mind to discover that not only were other people thinking about race, but were having the same discord as me, the same problems. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t weird.

I have always been drawn to people who were “other.” From the time I was a kid, it’s interesting to look back and see the number of transracial adoptees, Asian kids, Mixed kids, freaks, outsiders that I gravitated toward. Today my closest friends still largely have an element of otherness in one way or another.

I was born and raised in South Minneapolis, and live in the Whittier neighborhood today. I love it because there are mansions, apartment buildings, condos, Eat Street, it’s a very multi-cultural and economically diverse neighborhood, so I feel comfortable. I don’t enjoy the suburbs, I don’t feel comfortable in majority White neighborhoods, and for most of my life I didn’t feel comfortable around majority Black neighborhoods. As I’ve overcome childhood hurts about not being Black enough, and made connections with Black people, communities, and culture, I have become much more comfortable in my Black identity and among Black communities. I’m increasingly uncomfortable in all White situations, it’s like I’ve become hyper-aware and a bit paranoid about perceived racist judgments. I think it’s a part of identity development. Either way, I’m most comfortable in truly diverse settings.

I love Minneapolis! It’s my home, I’ve been here all my life. I started this project, Mixed in Mpls, to try to find others who are having a neither/both experience in this city. I’m just beginning to open my eyes to the reality of Minneapolis – from segregation and disparities, to susceptibility to stereotypes based on the overall small percentage of people of color in the state. As I talk to more people, both new to Minneapolis and lifers, many observations emerge. What I know is that I want to hear more, I want to talk to more people, I want to create communities of color and interracial communities that talk to each other, learn from each other, and provide strong, holistic, real examples of who we are as people of color.

I am Black and White. This means that I need role models, strong representations of real people who are positive examples of what it means to be Black, White, Mixed, Bi-Cultural, Adopted, and Blended. I see that void in Minneapolis, the void of a community. I need all of you. And I think you need me, too. That’s why I started the Mixed in Mpls project. This is the legacy of my experience growing up Mixed here – I want to make it better for the booming population of people crossing culture, internally and externally. We need flesh and blood examples, role models, families to serve as examples of what it means to grow up healthy and whole, living fully inside our racial identities. We need to build community.

Mixed in Mpls: L.

I am a biracial (black and white) woman from the suburbs. I identify myself as mixed. Both of my biological parents were present in my upbringing, and they taught me to expect racial comments and to prove them wrong. My sister (who is also mixed) experienced more racial issues than I but she also went to a different school. I personally hold race irrelevant in my life and many of my decisions so when people choose to comment on it, i ignore it. I grew up in Mahtomedi, MN, and now live in Storm Lake, IA. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is being around a lot of racially diverse people because I grew up in the suburbs. However, I get more comfortable as time goes on. My biggest challenge is overcoming the “black” stereotype and the classification of being “too white.” but what I love is the diversity in my background, and how strong it has made me!

Mixed in Mpls: R.

R is a longtime friend to the author of this blog, and is one of the main inspirations for aligning the Mixed-Race experience with the Trans-Racial Adoptee experience. Her openness and support has been invaluable in the creation of this blog. Here is R’s Mixed in Mpls story.

I am a Colombian-Amercian. Born to a Colombian family in the 70’s and adopted and raised by a white American, Jewish family. Whew. That is a mouth full. And its never been easy for me to label myself because I have never felt like I fit into one box. It’s taken me a very long time to put Colombian, in front of American.

Being raised in a white family, I identified as white. I always knew about my adoption and the culture I was born into. But I often felt in authentic as a Colombian, because of my lack of exposure to Colombian culture growing up.

I am also a light skinned Colombian, which was very confusing for me growing up. I didn’t feel like I looked “spanish enough” and I desperately wanted to. But I also couldn’t ignore all the comments and intrusive questions I had to endure from strangers “what are you” “you look like ______” “what country are you from”, “your features are so ______” So I felt very much neither/both.

My family here in MN did a good job advocating for me as an adoptee, but the one piece they didn’t know how to help me with (and in hind sight wish they had) was the complications of being Trans cultural.

I am going back to Colombia (for the first time since my adoption as an infant), this year. And I will be meeting my Colombian family for the first time as well. I am sure my identity will expand and contract like it always does, with each major turn in my life.

Thank you for listening!!

Just Show Up (4/26/14)

In conversations about race, I believe that everyone has a place at the table.  The conversations can be very difficult to participate in, the information can land hard against the ear and the heart, but for true change and impact, there is a place for everyone at the table.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a design student who had to do a creative project by interviewing an expert about something he was interested in but in which he had no experience.  He is a White male married to a Korean-American female with a Biracial son.  He found my website and used me as an expert in order to gain information on his interest in racial identity development and worldview of Mixed Race people.

We had a really lovely conversation where I probably learned as much as he did.  Speaking to people who are interested my opinion or my work has been such a valuable experience.  It helps me to understand my own experience (including differentiating between my personal experience and what I have learned through contacts and research about Mixed people in general) and to work through difficult feelings that still sometimes cause internal friction.

Throughout the conversation he made preemptive apologies for anything ignorant he may ask.  At the end of the conversation we had a talk about how the interview went and things that came up for both of us.  In his reflection, he shared that he sometimes felt he didn’t have a place in conversations about race, that he should just sit back and learn, that he really had nothing to contribute.  I was able to share some feedback with him about how I experienced him in a positive way, that his curiosity and openness was immediately disarming, and encouraged him to continue on this journey of learning.  I told him that his participation in these conversations was incredibly important, not only for himself but for his wife and son.  I felt truly blessed by this conversation and the opportunity for us to process it together.  It was once of the best experiences I’ve had in recent history!

I’ve been thinking about this topic in a variety of ways before this conversation and certainly ever since.  There’s a lot of complex ideas involved in the way I think about it/experience it, so bear with me.

I have often heard the comment from well-meaning White people (often friends of mine) who think they have no culture, that true racism is over, that racism is a conversation for People of Color (racism is their issue to deal with that doesn’t involve the input of White people).

I think that some White people just feel uncomfortable and scared.  They may be genuinely interested in hearing the conversations about race and microaggressions and the complexity of racial identity, but truly don’t feel like they have a place within the discussion.  Part of me wants to gently invite them in and make the information easy for them to taste, savor, and digest, to ease them into the more difficult conversations, and encourage them to react and participate.

And then part of me rallies against the idea that I need to spoon feed anything to anyone, f- that!  There is an element of internalized oppression and racism when I feel I need to package my experience in a way that makes White people more comfortable.  We as People of Color need safe spaces to discuss our experiences openly, to empower ourselves in the full acknowledgement and acceptance of our experiences as truth, without the approval and/or input of White people, and serve it up on the plate as is.

Working through our experiences individually and collectively takes time; It also benefits from varying structures of conversation and feedback.  I’ve been participating in a cohort through a local agency where I get to have weekly therapeutic conversations about race, gender, sexuality, and working and learning in the mental health field.  We have discussed a lot what it means to be multicultural, inclusive, affirming, accountable, embracing… and how difficult that task is.  There is reflection and work being done within subgroups about confronting racism – both outward and internalized.

What we found is that it’s important for people to meet in larger multicultural groups (i.e. – People of Color, Caucasian. Transgender), but it is also necessary to meet in smaller, more specific subgroups.  The smallest subgroups (i.e. – Black/Latino Biracial, Asian Lesbian CIS gendered female, Black Transgender Male Identified) are a way to process things with people who are more likely to understand the nuances of the experience, possibly the “safest” place.  It’s necessary to be able to process your experiences in a safe place, to know you’re understood, to not have to educate and explain so much.

But I’m coming to understand that this is only part of the work.  And I learned that in a difficult way that made my brain jerk to a stop.  As People of Color, we were talking about how some of the White people were having their own cohort to address their racism and participation in racist structures.  We were told that sometimes they report back in a general way about what they were working on.  I, and some others, had a heated reaction, which surprised me.  I wanted to know, What they were working on, what the specifics were, what kind of difficult conversations were they having, what ugly truths were they facing?  Shouldn’t they be accountable to us for the real work they’re doing?  What’s going on in there?

But I quickly came around to the realization that I needed to examine how I would feel if the tables were turned.  How would I feel if White people demanded to be privy to my private and safe conversations with Biracial people about the impact of racism on our lives?  Like I said, part of me wants to invite others in, yet part of me needs to protect my safe spaces.

But what I think I’ve come down to is this:  The work can’t be done in a bubble.  And the bubble is quite necessary.  Both.

For real healing to occur, for the real work of undoing racism, there needs to be safe spaces to comfortably examine privately, and there also needs to be respectful, safe spaces to understand how we rub up against one another.  What is the impact of my own racial work on you?  What is the impact of yours on me?  This is done in small spaces first.  In communities of trust.  I’m so grateful to be connected to communities where the work is being done.

And so I met this White man from Atlanta, the father of a Biracial son, who felt he had no place at the table.  I respected this man very much, he followed his curiosity, he is aware that there is a part of his wife and his son’s experience that he doesn’t understand.  Even though his wife has a bi-cultural experience through living in both Korean and American communities, even she felt somewhat lacking in understanding of what her son may go through in his identity development.

In some of my feedback to him, I told him that in my opinion, as the father of a Biracial son, he has a responsibility to get into these conversations, to learn and model for his son what it looks like to explore cultures outside of himself.  I invited him to imagine how even though his son has “Korean eyes” and he feels that no one will mistake him for White, he may very well identify as White later in life… and how will you respond to that?  Racial identity is complex and fluid, challenged by the outside world, difficult to grasp and understand, heavily influenced by our families and communities.  How will you respond as a White person who “doesn’t have a place” in these conversations?  I encouraged him to find a way to take his place.

I find myself grateful today that I am finding my place at the table as well.  Yes, I know my experience.  Yes, I could be considered an expert at the things I know.  But there’s so much that I don’t know, and I have some beautiful opportunities right now to explore.  My People of Color cohort is run by an agency serving LBGTQ youth.  I’m developing relationships with many people of varying experiences and expressions of gender and sexuality.  I’ve had gay best friends since high school, I go to Pride, I’m an ally… but there’s so much I don’t know, and I’m blessed to be able to learn.  It’s uncomfortable sometimes, and I’m now in a position where I totally relate to that feeling of, Well, I better just shut up and listen because I’m here to learn and I’m not the expert.  Bullshit.  I need to show up, be present.  This is a sacred space, yes.  But I am of value here, too.  My experience, input, curiosity, compassion, and skills are respected and valued here, too.  I belong.  I need to just show up.  I may have uncomfortable feelings.  That’s fine.  I still need to be here.

I’ve also gone through some job transitioning over the past few months.  And I’ve landed at a division of the agency I started with that is doing culturally specific work with refugee populations.  I’m working alongside Hmong, Vietnamese, and Somali people who are committed to serving their communities.  It’s beautiful and I’m again presented with this space where culture is valued and knowledge is shared. I’m a beginner.  But I also have the value of the expertise of my own experience.  All I need to do is show up, be genuine, learn, teach, be.  I’m so fortunate.

So I feel like I’m in this beautiful space in my life where I’m aware of what I bring to the table, but I’m being challenged and offered the opportunity to remember what it’s like to be the beginner.  I have to face my own fears and insecurities.  I am rubbing up against that funky feeling when I try to figure out the politically correct way to ask questions and be respectful.  But I have to remember my conversation with the White dad.  I told him, Genuine curiosity from an honest and respectful place is disarming.  I love sharing my experience when I know that the person is authentically interested.  I just need to take my own advice.