Category Archives: Black and White in America

Biracial Identity: I Chose “Neither” before I chose “Both.”

My biracial identity? Black/white. As followers of this blog know, I am the product of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, who were happily married for forty-six years before my father’s death. Williamsons 1970

Today on Multiracial Media, author and founder, Sarah Sarita Ratliff poses the question to the multiracial community: How do We Self Identify? Which got me thinking … 

When I was in my thirties, my twenties, in college and younger, I faced a lot of criticism—was even attacked verbally—for identifying as biracial instead of black. This came from black people who felt I was rejecting blackness, but also from biracial people who felt I didn’t look “mixed” enough to qualify.

Evolving Biracial Identity on Campus

I remember walking across my college campus in 1987 with a white friend, chatting and minding my own business. Two black guys passed us, appearing to be deep in their own discussion. But once they were about a yard ahead of us, one threw me a glare over his shoulder, amplifying his voice:

“… except for those of us who forget what their color is.”

I had no idea what declaration had come before, only that this snatch of the conversation was directed at me. I had a white friend, meaning I had forgotten that I was brown? But my mother is white, I thought. How is white not my color too? Of course, that thought filled me with guilt. I knew the problem with claiming “whiteness” along with “blackness,” no matter how light or dark your complexion. You can’t have a biracial identify. There is no way to identify with your white side and your black side, the logic went. You have to choose, and you’d better choose black, or you’re abandoning your people. But my other people—the white, Jewish people—had also faced struggles and bigotry. The white ancestors on my mother’s side had never owned my father’s black ancestors. (Though the white ones on my father’s side–with whom I do not identify—clearly had.)

From other mixed-race people I heard: “I confuse people. No one can guess what I am.” For some, this was a badge of identity unto itself. To these multiracials, I lacked ambiguity, which meant I was not really mixed. For some of my black-and-white friends, race was a costume they could change at will. For others, blackness, not apparent to the naked eye, was an identity they had to fight to prove–just as I would have to fight to claim my mother’s heritage along with my father’s.

And here’s another twist to my identity: Since I was a ballet dancer and completely immersed in that world for so many years—from the age of seven until my late twenties—Ballet was my strongest identity. Ballet was who I was. I didn’t have time to focus on racial identity until later.

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Me in the center.

I entered college as an exile of the ballet world. I was at the university by choice, but ambivalent, missing ballet, searching everywhere for an ally who understood what I had left behind. Anyone who was unusually thin and walked with excellent posture and duck feet might be a compatriot. And yet, here was all this pressure to identify myself by race.

As I scoured my university town in vain for a halfway decent pointe class, I kept facing the question: “What are you?” more than I ever had.

The question came from blacks more than whites. White people just assumed I was black (they didn’t need my membership anyway). Blacks who asked really wanted to know: are you with us or them? Now I understand why they needed an answer. Blacks were outnumbered, talked over, dismissed, deemed undeserving of the Ivy League education we were getting. Numbers were therefore precious to the group. I was being welcomed, not challenged. Not that I understood this yet.

For me, it was simply too painful and too complicated to choose one race or the other. I loved both my parents. They loved me. They loved one another too, and had created a joint culture in our home. And now I was expected to reject this inclusiveness? Instead, I plunged myself deeper into the world of dancers and theater people, who identified first and foremost as performers.

Racially, I chose neither before I chose both. Neither allowed me to be Lisa-the-ballet-dancer. Which I still am. Which I will always be.

Today I embrace all of who I am, racially, ethnically. Awareness of being black comes first I guess, because that is how I appear, but I identify just as much with my mother’s Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. I am biracial, black/white, blanche-et-noir, both-and. To embrace my white, Jewish “side” is not a rejection of my proud black “side.” I am married to a white, Jewish man, whose heritage is similar to my mother’s. We have two children who know both sides of their history and will take both into consideration as their identities form.

Thankfully, the older I get, the less likely people are to tell me I am not identifying the way they believe I should. Or, maybe it’s simply that I take the criticisms less seriously. I know who I am. My identity is what it is: inclusive, unshakeable, me.

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Ask Lisa: Ambiguous Looks, Identity Concerns

Posting my 4th “Ask Lisa: Advice for the Multiracial Community” column.

This week, I answer questions from a white mom wondering how to prepare her ambiguous-looking children for anti-ethnic hostility, a multiracial woman facing unexpected results of a DNA test, and a black mom concerned about her multiracial tweens’ preference for their white father’s heritage.

Here is the link to the whole post on Multiracial Media.

Advice for the Multiracial Community #3

Today on my third Multiracial Media column:

  • A biracial man grapples with anger when his widowed, white father begins dating a white woman.
  • A young white woman worries about saying the wrong thing to her new black boyfriend.
  • Two American moms are alarmed and upset when their Guatemalan tween daughter rejects her culture of origin.

Click here for the whole “Ask Lisa” column.

Submit your own question on the Multiracial Media site!

“Ask Lisa” – New on Multiracial Media

I have been so busy with various new projects, I’ve neglected to share one of them here. I really meant to, as it’s relevant to my “Writings on Identity.”

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I am honored to say that several weeks ago, I was invited by Alex Barnett (the Multiracial Family Man himself) and Sarah Sarita Ratliff, publisher and writer and co-author of Being Biracial: Where our Secret Worlds Collide, to join the team at Multiracial Media. I accepted and am now run a weekly column on MRM: “Ask Lisa: Advice for the Multiracial community!”

Here is the link to the first column:

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and the second:

Though I’ve had so many ideas for blog posts here–countless ideas, going backward in time: the Women’s March, The Election, Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation and Who is entitled to Write What–I have been devoting my energies to the column, my private practice, my current novel (Oh yeah–did I mention I have a literary agent now? I have an agent now: the awesome Uwe Stender of TriadaUS!) and most of all … my family.

So, as a place holder for all those blog pieces that are swimming around in my head, I will provide a link to my Multiracial Media column each week. Please check them out and, while you’re there, check out the rest of the Multiracial Media Site, as well as Sarah’s book and Alex’s podcast. So much fascinating, thought-provoking insights for/from the Multiracial Community and beyond.

Wishing you some positive thoughts as we push ahead into the new(ish) year!

Lisa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Stories Make America Truly Great

 

If you voted for Donald Trump, we have our differences. I did not support your candidate; you did not support mine. But I do not hate you. I cannot hate you, because I don’t know your story. I’d be lying if I denied I was judging you, but my judgment is rooted in my own life’s narrative.

By the same token, if you judge me by my gender, by my speech—unmistakably Northeastern, liberal, educated—or by the brown of my skin, your judgment comes from within you. Any assumptions you make about me stem from the fact that you do not know my story, the story of my parents, the stories of my grandparents, any better than I know yours.

As a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a parent, I believe stories are the most important element of the human condition. We each come with our own and that is the magic of being human. Sharing our stories—trusting one another, listening with our whole hearts—this is also the key to reconciliation.

An acquaintance of my mother’s, who—like my mother herself—is white and Jewish, had a childhood marked by loss, struggle and misery. She and her sisters lost their parents early and grew up in an orphanage. Through enormous sacrifice, work, as well as the grace of strangers, neighbors and government programs, she and her sisters were able to get their education, including advanced degrees, find meaningful work, and in her case, a marriage that lifted her out of the middle class into affluence. Now in her late seventies, this woman owns her own Manhattan apartment, loaded with beloved books—stories, which include her own European and American history.

Several years ago, my mother shared with this woman a story—just one—about my father, whom she had already outlived.

Dad was an artist from early childhood. As a high school student, unable to make his mark as an athlete, as the other four black students in his otherwise white high school had done, my father gained fame among his peers as chief cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to receive an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and ultimately, was offered a job at a large, “Mad Men” style advertising agency in Manhattan. The date was 1964—smack in the middle of the famed television show’s timeline.

As I said, my father was offered a job at this agency. Dad was highly qualified in terms of education, experience and talent. He was also stylish, a trend-setter, who would probably have fit in well with Roger Sterling, Don Draper and their set. He was offered the job on a Wednesday, to start the following Monday.

There was a problem, however. The CEO—the big cheese, the head honcho—of this firm had been away on a business trip while the offer was being made. The subordinates had, of course, discussed my father’s candidacy with their boss over the phone, gone over Dad’s resume, raved about his qualities and exacted the director’s enthusiastic OK before offering Dad the job. The only thing they neglected to share with their boss was my father’s race. That was a detail the subordinates knew would be disqualifying, so they figured they wouldn’t mention it until Monday, when my father shook the hand of his new boss, who was, they thought, too much of a gentleman to reject him face to face. My father’s work would then speak for himself.

If you ever watched Mad Men, as I did religiously, you will remember the premiere episode of season five, where Sterling Cooper—an exclusively white agency—put out a mock ad seeking to hire blacks. While the waiting room filled with people of color, partners Roger, Don and Burt cowered inside, trying to figure out how they were going to get around this hurdle, without compromising the Old-Boy-scotch-at-ten am-sex-with-a-secretary-at-three  culture of theirs. In the end, they hired a single African American woman, Dawn, who became Don’s secretary.

And what of my father and his shot at Mad-manhood? Someone—no one knows who—squealed. Whoever it was got a message to the CEO in the lounge where he was schmoozing potential clients.

So, boss. The cracker-jack new art director you can’t wait to meet on Monday? He’s a negro.

Which, no doubt, led to the CEO sputtering on his martini, spitting the olive clear across the room.

A what?

You heard right.

That Friday evening, my father received the call. He would not be integrating the ranks of the agency after all. The man they hired, though he lacked my father’s experience and credentials, possessed one qualification my father could never aspire to. Can you guess what that was?

The epilogue to the story is bittersweet. Shortly after losing this opportunity, my father was snapped up as art director for a major publishing house. It was a wonderful fit for him, a job that introduced him to authors such as Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and even Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy). His first assignment was designing the cover for Bellow’s bestseller, Herzog. My father worked at the publishing house for most of my childhood. He resigned in the 1980’s when I was entering college, due to his failing eyesight.

Dad was replaced by a younger man who was his friend and mentee, though nowhere near as qualified. Dad vouched for this man—who was white, by the way—and trained him in the practical work as well as advising him on publishing house etiquette.  Soon after relinquishing his position, my father learned that the young man’s salary would be on par with other executives at the publishing house: four times what my father had been paid.

When I learned about this, I was already an adult and it shocked me. My father had asked for raises every year, but was denied point blank. The publishing house knew Dad wouldn’t leave. Even if he could find another house to hire him, that one wouldn’t pay him any more. My dad was highly skilled, cheap labor.

When my mother told this story to her then-friend, the woman grew indignant, but not in defense of my father.

“Why didn’t he stand up for himself?” she demanded. Her personal story had taught her that no failure was insurmountable as long as one applied sufficient elbow grease. The moral she took from my mother’s tale was that my father had been weak or lazy.

What this woman failed to understand, or did not care to learn, was the story of being black in twentieth-century America. When my mother told me about this interaction, I thought about the woman’s ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ story and the glow it cast on my father.

If I could have spoken to this woman, heard her tale first-hand, here’s how I would have responded to her:

“Try that life again—the parental loss, the orphanage, the cruel streets, the poverty—all of it. Try it again, only this time, do it while black.”

She probably wouldn’t have agreed with me that the outcome would have been different, but the discussion might have given her pause. Maybe she would have considered that going through life with black skin is quite different from ‘living while white.’ But the woman’s judgment came from her story. With all the pain she’d grown up with, she couldn’t conceive of a life harder than her own. What she lacked was curiosity about other worldviews.

One of my main criticisms of the Donald Trump Campaign was the rationale behind his slogan, Make America Great Again. Who was it great for? And when was this “great” time to which we want to return? The Jim-Crow era? The 1940’s? The era of Japanese American Internment Camps?  The late 30’s? When America turned away 900 asylum-seeking Jews aboard the SS St. Louis? I could list countless stages in our country’s past when things were less than great for many.

Trump supporters talk about opportunities that were once readily available in exchange for hard work and determination.  ‘If you applied yourself in the good old days,’ that story goes, ‘you could get ahead.’ What I question—and I am far from alone in this is—is the identity of the “you” in that statement. My father worked hard, was determined and applied himself. But blackness was a huge barrier to his success. The truth is, during the Good Old Days you could count on whiteness—the state of not being non-white—as a leg up, a handout. On the other hand, if ‘you’ were not white, you were out of luck. Pull all you like, your bootstraps would not cut the mustard.

Let’s not forget the role unions once played. Unions protected their members, increased job security and insured a living wage. Yet historically blacks were—and in some cases still are—excluded from unions.

Some things have changed in our nation. For better or for worse, the class you were born into limits your opportunities as much, in some cases more than your race. Race no longer corresponds directly to class, though frequently it does.

In any case, our multiple experiences, our pluralistic narratives—these are what will make America truly great for all of us. A first step is to listen to one another, to be eternally curious, and to challenge ourselves to exchange judgment for understanding wherever we can.

At this critical juncture in American History, we need nothing so much as an appreciation of one another’s full American stories.

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Published on Mamalode!

I am honored to say I’ve been published on Mamalode, the top-rated online magazine dedicated to the stories of mothers. My article is a slightly updated version of a post that appeared several years ago on this blog.

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

When I arrived at Parents’ Night and met Zoe’s middle school teachers for the first time, they all said, “Well, we can guess whose mother you are!”

The truth is, our faces don’t look all that much alike; her features are more Eastern European whereas mine are more African. But our skin color and hair textures are closely matched, and that is what strangers pick up on most often. Besides, our posture and builds are similar, as are our facial expressions and the shape of our foreheads and chins. In a bad, blurry profile shot, if you took a hurried look, you might mistake one of us for the other. In any case, people easily and readily place Zoe and me together. Unlike most mothers with daughters who resemble them, I don’t take this for granted.

Read More …

 

 

Privilege, White and Otherwise: When your Dignity is Affirmed at the expense of Another’s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Sunday’s Magazine section of the New York Times was an article about Alice Goffman, a young, white sociology professor. In the article, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Dr. Goffman shares a story about passing through a TSA checkpoint with a bag full of drug paraphernalia and becoming agitated—not at the thought of getting stopped—but simply because she wasn’t stopped while a man with brown skin, but nothing illegal in his possession, was apprehended. Goffman describes white privilege in this way:

“…people smiling at me, holding the door for me. You don’t think, as a white person, about how your whole day is boosted by people affirming your dignity all day long.”

Affirming your dignity. It’s such a subtle, immeasurable concept. How does any one person have the ability to affirm or deny another person’s dignity? What affirms one’s dignity in the first place? Having doors opened? Having sales people speak to you with respect? Having someone listen when you talk? Look you in the eye? Recognize that you have been waiting in line for a table? There are dozens of ways one human can show that he or she values, or does not value another. We are more or less sensitive to these positive or negative estimations, depending on subtle messages we receive from birth.

That’s not privilege, you might say. It’s it simply ordinary human treatment of other ordinary humans. But, what if an entire group of people is denied this basic respect? That’s when it becomes something out of the ordinary.

All privilege is relative. The word itself implies one who’s got it and another who is lacking—a have and a have-not.  Some tangible privileges—access to an exclusive country club, ownership of a Bentley convertible—people acquire consciously, either by invitation, gift or purchase. Others are unearned birthrights—like property, or social connections. These are conscious privileges that no one can deny.

Other privileges are unconscious—like not being followed around a store. Like never having to think about one’s ethnic, racial or gender status because it is considered mainstream. These feel like ordinary conveniences rather than true privileges. They go unnoticed—they’re only a by-product of being regular—until they are either pointed out or somehow taken away.

A few months back, I hit my head on a stone counter. Suspecting (correctly, it turned out) a concussion, I went to the local emergency room, accompanied by my husband, who happens to be white. Others waiting were people of color, like myself.

I was chatty with the receptionist at the desk who took my insurance card, self-deprecating about my mishap. I was bubbly with the nurse who took my vitals. Everyone was polite to me and seemed pleased to meet a nice, cheerful, educated woman who wasn’t bleeding, throwing up, or experiencing any devastating trauma that they had to attend to (and hence probably didn’t need to be in the ER in the first place). I was ushered through every screening in no time. The doctor (also white and about my age) lingered to schmooze with my husband and me for no particular reason, other than the appreciation of light conversation at midnight in a semi-urban emergency room. All in all, a pleasant experience, though, as we left, I noticed some of those who had been waiting when I’d arrived were still there. As we drove off, I realized that I had been on the receiving end of white-privilege-by proxy.

Fast forward: one week later. My son, then eleven, falls on an ice-skating trip and cuts his chin, requiring stitches. We wind up in the same emergency room. My (white) husband is not present. It is day time, not midnight, so the place is slightly more crowded than it was a week earlier, but not significantly. We wait longer. The receptionist and nurses are polite, but less receptive to my usual chattiness. When the attending physician arrives, she asks if I have insurance (I’d already presented my son’s card to the receptionist), then answers her own question: No, before I can respond.

Next, I ask that a plastic surgeon come to stitch up my son’s face. The doctor gives me a look and says that Medicaid won’t cover it. I am offended by her suggestion that if I have any insurance at all, it must be Medicaid, but muster my most polite (read: condescending) tone:

“That’s fine,” I say, the slightest tinge of haughtiness to my smile. “I’ll submit it to my insurance company and see what they’ll reimburse.”

The doctor gives me a dark look—I am, after all, suggesting that she is not competent to repair my son’s face—and asks to see my insurance card herself. I present it (it’s a freedom plan) and she walks off, presumably to check its validity.

When the doctor returns, she is a different person: all smiles, respectful, affirming of my dignity. A plastic surgeon appears at the snap of her fingers. (More or less.)

A year later, though you cannot see the slightest mark on my son’s chin, I am not proud of how I handled the situation. Instead of challenging racism head-on, I dodged it by falling back on my affluent-suburban-mom status. I didn’t have white privilege at my disposal, so I whipped out the class privilege card.

Change happens when people with privileges directly confront the oppression of their non-privileged counterparts. Where privilege meets discrimination—when one person’s privileges are dependent on society’s discrimination against the other—it is up to the person with the privilege to own it, acknowledge it and challenge the injustice.

For another example, as a cis-gender[1] woman, I am confident of being able to find a restroom that is designated for me, and secure in the belief that no one will challenge my presence there. By enjoying this privilege, one could argue that I am benefitting from transphobia or cis-sexism. I have the luxury of never have to consider that.

But now that I’ve written these words, I am less comfortable than I was a moment ago. I feel some guilt, some shame. Some privileges are best when you’re oblivious to them.

Think about something most people take for granted. How about legs? They’re down there beneath your hips like they were the last time you checked. Maybe you think they’re too pasty or ashy or dimpled or sticklike. But you don’t think about them when you go for a walk on a sunny day.  You have the luxury of taking them for granted—not seeing them as a privilege in any case—until you meet someone who lacks two legs. Suddenly you feel not only gratitude for your two whole, healthy legs, you also probably feel a touch of guilt for taking them for granted. As your given right.

I have the luxury not to think about my legs—unless they’re sore from a vigorous run or a ballet class—or about my gendered status if I don’t want to because I am “regular.” I have the luxury to be oblivious to the conditions of the “other” until someone brings them to my attention.

And in this way, obliviousness—to the group of people who have fewer rights, respect or resources than you—is power. If you make me aware of my own privileges, I may get defensive. I may feel shame. I may point out all the privileges I lack that you may have—all the ways in which I am not privileged. That might ease my guilt. It may not. Either way, once you have brought my privileges into the light, I will enjoy them less. At that point, I’ll have two choices: the first is to ignore them, and strive to rebuild my obliviousness. The second is to take action—to speak out against the discrimination that places me in a state of privilege in the first place.  Which might mean relinquishing them some day.

[1] Cisgender refers to the experience of identifying with the gender one was assigned at birth. Cis Is a Latin root, meaning “on this side of” as opposed to “trans” meaning, on the other side or across from.