Mom, Me and Question 3

Three women sat in the descending gloom of the first day of daylight savings time. The hour was early but leafless trees scratched the windows to say how very late it was. Three generations sat in a circle in the sewing room, mom, daughter, granddaughter. Mom grew up in the 50’s in the mythical America of winged cars and sock hops where my dad, voted class wolf, wore greased back hair and cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. The daughter, me, was born in the years between the high of civil rights and the low of bussing in Boston. The granddaughter, my brother Andrew’s daughter Seba, was born in days of cacophonous change when homosexual became gay and lesbian and queer and trans and became a fight for equality we thought we’d nearly won.

The sewing is done and we have finished stitching out the news–how is school, and what will we do for Thanksgiving, and aren’t little brothers just the worst. Three women sat in a room: a white woman who had the great joy of a life full with family, of middle-class dreams paid for with sweat equity and houses painted with her own hands, an American experience that spawned a million MAGA fantasies; a black woman born biracial and living half a century in predominantly white spaces, dancing along the heartbreaking ridge of America’s color line; a young woman, a girl still, brave and bold, president of her school’s gays straight alliance that she helped to found, trick or treating as the gay superhero for Halloween, trailing a rainbow and trans flag behind her.

“So,” my mother begins, calling to order this unplanned meeting in her sewing room. “how are you voting on the questions,” she says in reference to Massachusetts’ three ballot questions.  Question one is hard to decide, and we talk about the arguments being put up by both sides while Seba, the granddaughter watches us ping-pong back and forth.  “I’m too young to vote,” she reminds us, free from having to figure out the complexities of mandated nurse minimums.

“And three? ” my mother asks, like a host who has finally gotten to the juicy part of the interview. We three exchange glances, pausing to see who takes sides. Question three is about recent protections the state put in place for trans people, allowing them, among other things, to use the bathroom of their choice without fear of consequence. A “no” vote would roll back protection while a “yes” vote would ensure that protections stay in place. Sometimes similar bills are dubbed bathroom bills, but the stakes for trans people aren’t contained in the stall alone.

We talk about the incidents of sexual assault resulting from someone taking advantage of gender misidentification.  There are none.  My mother seems skeptical at first but agrees that she has seen the reporting.  We talk about what a gender-neutral bathroom looks like.

We talk about sexual assault. Do you really think that sexual assault will be curtailed by this bill?  One in four women are sexually assaulted, and no one seems to care about all the places where that happens.

We talk about the false narrative of people “claiming” trans to get some mysterious benefit–what? bathroom privileges? the joy of trans discrimination?  Seba tells about her trans friends who worry about violence at school and violence at home.

“How do they know they are trans?” my mother asks. I ask her when she knew she was straight. We talk about decades of changing ideas about what “makes” someone something.

We talk about suicide rates and school bullies and trans men and trans women.  We talk about trans people we know, trans people we love and the struggles we hate to see them go through. We talk about history and the not so distant past. “We didn’t use to have trans people,” my mother says.

“Because they died.  Or they hid. It wasn’t safe, but they were always there,” I say.  We sit for a moment with the heaviness.

Seba turns our mind to ancient history and cultures that had three-four-five genders. I talk about the forties and fifties when sexual orientation and pedophilia were lumped together in the deviant sex category by a psychology field in its infancy, and how much we have learned since then about the human body and mind in our evolutionary times. This is a good debate.  We talk calmly. We work to inform each other with solid information.

Seba, with the prescience of children, sees first the rising tide of my tears.  My mother can smell my emotions, suddenly surging, threatening to flood our most civil debate.  I see myself wound tight reflected in the concern in their faces.  I did not plan to have this conversation. I can feel myself mount the bull of all the anger and sadness about racism I cage.

“You know,” I begin.  I don’t want to go on because I feel the tears and I’m fighting them because I don’t want to. I don’t want to cry and I don’t want to make this personal but it is personal and it’s too late and fuck it so with love I remind her.

“You know how hard it was.”  I don’t have to finish.  I don’t have to remind her how hard it was to grow up the only person of color in my community, my class, in my family. “And her, ” I motion to Seba. My mother sees in real time her beautiful brave rainbow butterfly emerging from her cocoon in a world that is not quite ready to love her yet.

And my mother knows.  She is a white woman who wore gloves, and saddle shoes, a Hancock girl in a tony Back Bay dorm waiting for marriage to sweep her up into her life of raising a family.  She is also a woman who whispered to me of a great grandmother’s kitchen table abortion and quest for a college degree, who loved my father–a second generation American who’s Irish father emigrated when “No Irish” signs dotted Boston’s streets, who adopted a biracial child even when others whispered about her black baby, who knit, just this month, a rainbow-colored scarf for Seba ringed with a neon green as bright as her cherished granddaughter. My mother has soothed too many tears caused by discrimination to be unfamiliar with a world of pain she may not frequent.

“And you’re a woman,” Seba reminded her.  For all my mothers many happy years, she too has never lived in a country that granted her full equality.

“In the end, there is only one question–do you believe everyone deserves the same rights?” Arguing for the rights of trans kids, I find myself arguing for my own liberation, feeling like that awkward second grader, my afro floating like a balloon amongst my all-white classmates.  I see my mother recognize the girl in me, a little girl that she would do anything to protect from discrimination.

We had exhausted the talking points, finished arguing with our heads. The argument of the heart simply and sweetly settled the debate. If you love me, you want the best for me.  If I deserve it, everyone else’s child deserves it. There is no debate.

“I know.”  My mother is unequivocal. Her answer was a vote not just for a ballot measure for trans children, but also for her own daughter and the racism she faced, and her gay granddaughter, and for herself.  Empathy is not easily compartmentalized: enough of it will spill into all areas of life,  a rising tide that lifts all boats.

“This is very different from what it used to be like,” my mother says, no nostalgia, merely observation.  We balance the weight of change between us. It is hard, we agree, to sometime wrap your mind around ideas that are different from what you have always heard. But life is this, listening, learning, shifting. It takes time, like growing the loveliest flower, to let new ways of thinking take the place of outdated dogma. Seba and I watched my mother bloom, opening up to see clearly her daughter and her granddaughter and her own self stretching towards the light,  towards justice.

So we sat, three women in a room, three generations, three different identity groups, bound together by a mix of blood and love and time.  Bound now by a renewed commitment to each other’s freedom.  Three women who loved each other dearly bound by an explicit commitment that we would none of us be free until everybody ‘s child was free, seeing each other clearly in the rapidly darkening night.

Too, Black

It always starts with the question, first in the eyes, hesitating on the way to the lips but determined to come out:  what are you?  Every mixed race person say amen.  For as long as I can remember, people have puzzled over my features, my hair, my skin color to piece together my race.  The question, and the response we arrive at together has more to do with the questioner than you may think.  And that interaction tells us more about race in America how far we’ve come and the morass ahead.

At the risk of dating myself, as little background is necessary.  I was born in November 1969– a child of the summer of love in Boston, when only a few years later the bus riots would mar forever this city’s already checkered racial history. I was adopted as a baby, but adoption then was a different animal.  A closed adoption, like mine, meant that my (now adopted) parents never met or knew anything about my birth parents–other than the fact that one was black.

Me and my three brothers
Me and my three brothers

Trans racial adoption was uncommon then, and the story is one for another time.  Suffice it to say, I grew up in a white family in towns with almost no diversity at the time I was growing up there.  Identifying my race was not as simple as hauling out the family album or even looking around at my community.  Most of the time, this is how we decide what race we are.  We look at Mom and Dad and do the math.  Simple.

Except its not so simple.  If you look like you might be walking the line between two race you have probably been asked the question on more than one occasion. From the time I was little, people asked.  The question itself is an indicator of the times:  in the 70’s the question was whispered, or more often sneered by nasty children in the playground.  in the 80’s it was asked with curiosity, or occasionally a spark of interest in the days when light skinned was in; in the 90’s when the best berries were blacker it was a test of authenticity.  And now in an era when we debate the end of race, being asked my race reminds me that race, and racism, isn’t going anywhere.

For some mixed race people the answer becomes one of complex math–a half this (which half?), a quarter that (leg piece or breast meat?)–where the family tree is examined and loyalties to each side are weighed.  Sometimes, back up family and community members are referenced to break any stalemate.  For others, embracing all parts of their lineage is the key, living as a testament to the dream of a land where all people live together, integrated fully and culturally complex.

More often than you would image, people argue with the answer you provide.    How often have people thrown the white mother card on President Obama?  Rarely is it said to spark an honest conversation of how race is constructed.  Mostly it’s said in a snarky way, or a weapon to shoot at the authenticity of his blackness.

Giuliani__Obama_Had_a_White_Mother__So_I_m_Not_a_Racist_-_First_Draft__Political_News__Now__-_NYTimes_comPeople squint their eyes and appraise your flesh–how light is white?  How much brown equals black?  but it doesn’t stop there.  They weigh your words–talking white or just educated? they judge your body–are your hips black in nature? they question your knowledge of perceived black culture.  In addition to judge they play other roles as well: now fashion blogger, now genealogist, next professor, sometimes confessor.

Free from a pedigree and family tree, I find people more likely to debate my racial identity with me.  I think this tells us that race is not just about what we think we are but is also significantly about what society says.  The conversation reveals how we divide people into racial categories: do you really think you’re black?  but you’re light skinned, so you’re not all black.  How did you decide you were black? how do you know that you’re not (insert nation here)? Do you even know what you are?  Over the years, I have been called a mulatta (stubborn mule!) a half bread, mixed, light, red, mutt, black bitch, nigger.  The names, they also are like a timeline of race in America.

When I was little–maybe 4–I was watching Bugs Bunny with a friend of mine.  We were watching the episode where Bugs is being chased by a witch doctor .  To escape Bugs put plates in his mouth to make big lips so he can blend in with the African ladies passing by.  My friend looked at at the TV  and then pointed to me.

“That’s what you are.”

I was shocked.  But I wasn’t.  I had seen the way my friend looked at me mirrored in the eyes of of other children–and adults. The easy way that my friend made a connection between the fake African stereotypes on the TV and me puzzled me.  I had been unaware of my race until then.  Later I wondered what everyone could see in me that made them know I was different when I looked so normal to me. My journey from that afternoon watching cartoons to here—not so coincidentally teaching about race and media–has been a complex conversation about race with my environment.  Through my teen angst, my reeducation into a wider historical narrative, a hundred conversations that start with the question and not a few moments years decades of deep introspection, I can tell you one thing I have never been: white.

You see, race is a social construct, and one that has only been around for a few hundred years.  Race, as a marker of identity, was created to structure power relationships–most markedly between whites and enslaved blacks, then later blacks suffering under Jim Crow, and even today blacks struggling with systemic racism in our post Obama age.  Beyond black and white, race decided who has to go to the Japanese interment camps, who was forced onto reservations when the slaughter was over. Race decided who could own property, who could marry, who could move into a neighborhood and who could go to school where.  Still today with the voting rights act being dismantled race is a factor in who can vote and who has to show their papers, please.

You may have noticed that it didn’t matter how light your skin or your lineage, race is decided in the halls of power.  The categories of race do a poor job describing the human and a great job describing the lines of power and privilege.  Ask one of the 6.5 million american who are mixed race, 1.8 million alone who identify as black and white–we are a living testament to the fuzzy lines that mark race in America. The math doesn’t make sense.  What looks like a solid divide in those check boxes on forms is a wide foggy boundary, a gray area that mixed-race people navigate every time you ask them the question.

The journey is not over.  America is marching slowly but surely to a tipping point where white will no longer be the majority. You can bet that the construct of whiteness will make us pry privilege from it’s cold dead hands.  Like all times when race was used as a tool to divide working class and poor whites and black, we see racial rhetoric and racial tension on the rise.  We see overt systemic racism in all our systems.  We see anger between people in the streets.

We African Americans with light skin, brown skin, mixed race, never-white-enough-skin walk the front lines in these battles.  We are the lie of race being a real way to divide people.  We are the truth of  the race that is human, all of us mixed from our birth in the womb of Africa.  We are victimized by systems of privilege that clearly label us non white. We are the witnesses to all the ugliness too scared to confront our darker sisters and brothers.  We sit in the rooms when they think we’re not there, forced to confront the casual racism that happens behind closed doors.  We are questioned by both sides–papers, please–as we navigate the borderland between the poles of black and white.

We, too, are black.

So for my black brothers and sisters, and others from different mothers in the struggle, don’t forget that racism is a tricky animal that takes more than one shape.  Don’t assume that life light-skinned is carefree.  We, too experience racism, which can be compounded when the people who understand that pain best won’t acknowledge it might be happening.  To dismiss our lived experiences with race is to perpetuate a divisiveness that is part of our painful past, but not bred in our blood.   Race is a recent construct, but all people of the African diaspora share deeper, older roots, roots that matter to all of us, no matter where we landed or what shade we bore.  We are family, and we need to be…..and you know, it’s never a good look when your charges of racism are summarily dismissed just because of the color of your skin.

To our white allies, respect our right to self identify.  Respect our right to be black.  Judging my blackness by my shade ignores the long and complex history of race, and my lived realities of which you are wholley unaware.  If you want to ask the question, do it with respect and listen with an open mind, not a snap answer.

Dear Starbucks, this counting exercise definitely didn’t help…like at all

And to America, race isn’t going anywhere.  Seeing systemic racism isn’t enough. We need the political and social will to make fundamental changes to how we treat each other in the halls of power, not just in the Starbucks streets.  As long as systemic practices reproduce racism, it will always be with us, no matter how many of us wish it away.  Having an uncomfortable conversation isn’t enough; We need to act in ways that dismantle racism at its core.

There are no easy answers, and there isn’t one way.  Culture is complex–ask one of us, we know.  We definitely do not have all the answers but we stand in challenge to race as usual.  We live past the coming tipping point  We don’t know what lies ahead to end racism, but those of us in the fog are finding a way to move forward, ever forward.