Wednesday, October 29, 2008

something like a Phenomenon.




There was a brief moment in my young life where I identified myself as Black.  I think it lasted for about a year, around the age of 18.  I was either just finishing high school, or just beginning college, and was coming to understand myself as a racialized ego within a raced body.  By the end of my first semester of university, though, I came to the conclusion that if Black was what all those Black kids were saying Black was, I must not be Black, because I certainly wasn't that.  At the same time, it was evermore apparent to me that I was not and could never be White.  It was a strange position to be in, and I began seeing a therapist.  I think he might have helped save my life.

Last night Mara asked me about my parents, and if I ever wondered how their respective racial identities affect my interpretations of my intimate relationships through a racial lens.  Like, if it was my mom who was black instead of my dad, and if my dad was white, would I feel so lost in whiteness when I date a white girl?  Would I feel so un-black when I date a black girl?  I realized, with sad surprise, that it was something I had never considered before -- my parents' role in my racial-sexual formation.  If my dad was the white one, would I be the queer gender-variant of color who writes before you today?  If my mom had been black, would I have felt more grounded in my black girlness, felt less of a need to gravitate toward a black boyness, felt less of a desire for the love and affection of white females, felt less comraderie with and patience for black men?  

I recall the days when identifying myself as "mixed race" felt new and exciting, a bold and rebellious act, like calling myself a Womanist in the seventies.  Gradually, I came to settle in it, so that it is comfortable and familiar and poses a challenge for me to remember anything different.  When Michelle Posadas and I performed consuming culture (a multimedia performance about mixed race identity and the global food crisis) in Durham, NC, a friend in the crowd asked us if we believed that in five years we would still feel this confusion, this internal opposition in regards to our respective identities.  I told him that I do not feel confused, it is everyone else that seems to be confused by and opposed to me.  And I don't imagine that that will be any different in five years, because it hasn't been any different in the past 24.  It is wearisome to imagine the future in this way, but I feel better prepared for it than ever.

The work that I make is gravitating more and more towards the idea of whiteness as a neutralizing force of erasure, one that we can and do dress up in.  At the same time, it is the drag in which we play at otherness.  I remember six months ago, sitting in the living room of my Philadelphia home, talking with my mixed-race/Indigenous/immigrant/genderqueer housemate about how to possibly access an identity that has been commodified by U.S.-style capitalist imperialism.  Like, what does it mean for them to call themself Indigenous in a country that barely recognizes them as Peruvian (versus Latino), let alone understand the diversity of ethnicities within that singular geo-political identity?  How do they themself even know what 'Indigenous' is after having lived in this country for over a decade?  How do I know what Blackness is when I show up to college, scrappy and eighteen, fresh out of the whitewashed 'burbs, except from what I garnered from a few relatives here and there, from television, from my black friend in high school?  Who am I but a strange little mixed-race alien in a white wolf costume dressing up in black sheep clothes and tap dancing some off-beat amalgamation of the plantation shuffle and a minstrel show?  

Marianne Hirsch talks about "postmemory."  The idea that you can have the memory of an experience without ever having lived it.  When all the elder Jews evoke the nightmare of the Holocaust, you may feel that you are Jewish because in your blood runs the solemn memory of degradation.  When all the Februarys of your childhood speak to the horrors of slavery, you may understand yourself as black because you are the Descendant of Slaves and millions died before you.  Hirsch speaks of the ease at which we may appropriate our parents' stories -- when you "become your parents ... that is precisely when postmemory falsely turns into memory and reenactment."  But how do we ever know what is real and what is false, when memory is never one or the other?  Is it possible that memory can work against us, imprisoning us in impossible ideals of what we should be because of what once was?  What once was?  How do we know, except as it is mediated through Black History Month and textbooks and TV shows and fathers' meandering lectures?

When people ask me what the work I am making is about, I usually say something like: "Whiteness."  And then I stop and think for a minute.  "No, not-whiteness.  Otherness.  But as imagined through a white lens."  And then I interrupt myself -- "Whiteness dressed up in otherness feigning whiteness down with blackness."  

Everything.  Nothing.