Learning To Overcome My Latent White Supremacy

Black Identity, Film, Race, Uncategorized

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Recently I was talking to a friend about a skit I’m working to film and produce. The skit features two young adult women. I have two actors in mind for this and one happens to be white and the other happens to be black. When I was describing the concept to my friend, I mentioned that I didn’t want for there to be a racial component to the story. He provided a simple solution saying, “You should only use white actors.” I was caught o off guard, it sounded racist but my friend is not racist at all. I thought about the interaction for a while and realized how easy it is to be complicit in a system of white supremacy.

I originally started sharing this as a Facebook comment to this short article about Woody Allen not hiring black actors unless the story “Requires it.” I started by writing the post like this:

Recently I was talking to a friend about a short PSA I’m working to film and produce. the skit features two women. I had two actors in mind and one is black. I said that I wanted to use the black actor but didn’t want to have a racial component in the story. He provided a simple solution saying, “You should only use white actors.” I was floored but understood how easy it is to be complicit in a system of white supremacy.

There are a few things wrong with my original words and the thinking behind them.

“I had two actors in mind and one is black.” This in a way assumes that the normal thing to be is white. I didn’t mean it that way but my brain automatically went there instead of saying that one is black and one is white.

“I wanted to use the black  actor but didn’t want to have a racial component in the story.” This is HUGELY PROBLEMATIC and I almost left it out there in a comment trying to show solidarity with a fellow black person who is an actor. It’s a problem because it places the onus of racial tension on the black person. It implies that black people are a racial problem. They are not. (We are not.)

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me,   “Race is a product of racism.” It’s a white problem. Not necessarily the problem of an individual person who is called white but of the whole system of attitudes and behaviors that have created the terms, white, and black. A system that has persisted and has continued to oppress black and brown people in sometimes very subtle and nuanced ways but also in violent and obvious ways. Obvious at least to those who are paying attention either by proximity or by intentional wakefulness.

As some of you may know, I am the son of a black mother. She denied being black for my whole childhood and came out to me as a black person when I was in my 20s. Here’s a post about some of that:  THE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF GROWING UP WITH A CONFUSED RACIAL IDENTITY

So, yeah. I’m half black and also a little bit racist. I’ve got white supremacy in my thinking. I am unintentionally compliant in this system. I promise I’m really working on this.

I carpool and work with a very thoughtful and woke white friend and we talk about systemic white supremacy every time we ride together. It’s an inexhaustible topic of conversation. I feel that we will never run out of things to say on the topic.

ConFuSing pAragrapH>>>Being a person of mixed race, I find that I have trouble with language regarding race. I don’t self-identify as a white person but when I look at things I’ve said or written I find that I only sometimes identify as a black person. I usually call black people they and sometimes call white people they, although if I look closely, I find that I imply that I share a white experience, which I do in some ways. I have been subject to various forms of white racism in my life and have been treated as other enough times to make me feel genuinely other. I don’t really look black though and I was raised by a poor single black mother who had a life riddled with violence, drug abuse, imprisonment, unfortunate police encounters, domestic abuse, and deep shame regarding her own identity as a black woman. In many of these ways, I think I share an experience that many black people have had and yet I often feel like an outsider in that group as well.

I’m doing racism sometimes and I’m really sorry about it. I think it’s important for people to come to terms with the fact that racism exists and that they probably participate in it without even knowing.

Was I writing about film? Yes. I guess so. If you’re working in film, do better. Don’t assume you’re not racist.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Growing Up With a Confused Racial Identity

Uncategorized

When I was growing up, my mom told me that I was American Indian, Chinese, German and Irish. German and Irish from my father’s side and American Indian and Chinese from her’s. When I was in school learning about the Native Americans, I would raise my hand and offer that I was Mohawk and Shinnecock. I came to identify with the history and struggles of American Indian peoples. I am comfortable saying American Indian rather than Native American because I came to learn that many refer to themselves in that way. It’s also the language my mother used to teach me of the origin of my maternal grandmother so I didn’t question it. On her father’s side, she said that she was Chinese. This was less specific but I was told of a grandfather named Wy Lee, a great aunt named Mae Ling Pang, and Chinese uncles, the names of whom escape me.

Needless to say, I believed my mother and didn’t doubt her regarding my ancestry. I was an extremely inquisitive child, often requiring answers which were far beyond the reach of my mother’s knowledge. I often asked her to tell me more about my ancestors. How do you know which tribes we have links to? What were their customs? Do I have a native American name? Are Chinese people tall like me? I have straight fingers, is this a Native American trait? Teach me a Chinese word. Well, you must know some… To be fair to my mother, inquisitive might not be strong enough a word to describe my young self. I would demand answers of her ranging on all topics. When she was not able to answer questions such as, “could there be a way to get energy from sources which are not hot or burning?” a question that I thought up when I was about 10, she would admit that she didn’t have answers for me. This led me to demand her to guess. She would go on by saying that it wouldn’t be fair to just throw out an answer, but I was persistent. Eventually, she would break down and offer up a line of reasoning to which I would immediately offer a rebuttal if I deemed her answer to be faulty in logical construction. It must have been infuriating.

To the issue of ethnic origin, she did have many answers. These answers are likely to be entirely false. I was told that I did indeed have an Indian name. It was Hiawatha. Upon reflection, I think that this is a rather good choice for fabrication because the historical Hiawatha was perhaps a leader among 16th century Mohawks, a tribe to which my grandmother supposedly belonged. Here’s where it gets tricky. I was told that my Grandmother’s maiden name was Mantancowa. This combination is egregiously false. Mantan is the name of a potential ancestor and Cowa is the name of someone else entirely. There was also a long name which my mother called herself on occasion for which I have absolutely no explanation. Kim-sita Buquita Bernadette Tickawitha Mantan Cowa Lee. Mantancowa was always said as one word and to a child, it bears a familiarity to Hiawatha which was verifiably and indisputably American Indian.

When I hit pre-adolescence, I started getting to know people from my mother’s side of the family. They were black. Sure, everyone was some combination of ethnicities which mixed black with something else i.e. Italian, black south American, Hispanic, Hawaiian, but these people were certainly not Native American. My cousin Johnny was someone who I looked up to immediately. He was an athlete and still is, competing in marathons and cycling races. He was a hero to me with unsurpassed coolness along with his sister Gia. They both grew up in the Bronx so their accents were distinctly urban and yet not ghetto or uneducated. Their mother and my mother’s sister, Margo, has a very dark complexion. She has always been lovely, intelligent, and even-tempered. She was and is unusually stable for a member of my family and this stood out.

The following is one of my favorite stories to tell. I was staying over at Johnny’s apartment in Tuckahoe. I was probably 13 years old. I drove somewhere with him in his white 80’s Toyota sports car. It was so cool that every time I see a Japanese car from the 80’s in good condition, I smile and desire it. I asked John why he refers to himself as black rather than black, American Indian and so forth. He looked at me and said, “American Indian? Who told you that? Your grandmother was as black as the night itself. You know how you can jump higher than most of your friends? Have you ever thought why that might be? Ya Black! Have you ever been at the store and saw something that you wanted but couldn’t afford? Have you ever thought of stealing something before? Ya black!” He went on and on listing embarrassingly typical racial stereotypes. He said it, of course, to make me laugh as I am laughing while I write this account.

That night I had a dream that I acquired African features; much darker skin, more pronounced lips and a nose which flared out to a greater degree than mine did. When I spoke to my cousin in the morning I told him about my dream. He said, “I understand, I cried when I found out that I was black.” He was joking, at least a little bit. I wasn’t distressed by this knowledge but I was somewhat let down by the fact that my mother had either knowingly or otherwise misled me into believing that I had American Indian ancestors.

I had, of course, asked her if we were black. Believe it or not many of my black friends growing up asked me if I was biracial. She always denied having an African American background.

A Quick Note On Race:

The human species is not subdivided into racial categories. The whole topic of race is language borrowed from a less informed time. People perpetuate attitudes and behaviors based on their perceived race or the races of others but make no mistake, there is just one race of hominids and it’s Homo Sapiens aka Humans. We’re it. Find the weirdest looking person you can think of. You’re the same race as them. (2016 update) I think it’s really obvious that the social construct of race is VERY real. People see race and identify with race. Some people benefit greatly from privileges that come along with the race that they are perceived as and other endure great suffering under the same condition. So, race is real in as much as the concept of race has real world consequences.

Having been brought up with conflicting information regarding my now debunked racial origin had its disadvantages. My mother occasionally called me White Boy. This was disconcerting because I knew of no positive context for this expression. I would complain when she called me that and she would say, you should be proud of your heritage. I call this deflection. I eventually disallowed my mother from calling me that which resulted in her coming out to me as a black person. This was when I was about 24 years old.

I have a really fond memory of hanging out with the Asian kids when I was in 7th Grade. I had just learned about Asia in my world studies class and I was eager to make friends with more of my kind. None of the kids objected to me tagging along. They didn’t ridicule me or show skepticism toward my obviously non-asian features. It was nice.

When I was in High school I didn’t have a lunch table. I was a floater. A free agent if you will. As a freshman, I spent some time with the minorities who seemed to clump together around two tables which were closest to the a la carte section of the cafeteria. I wonder if there is a joke somewhere in there? Anyway, this lasted for a short time and then I would go off to another table for a while. Being a sensitive kid who didn’t understand ironic humor made school a difficult place for me. There is much to go into on that subject which I will save for another post.

I remember some friends inviting me to a minority club. We got together, listened to rap, and ate fried chicken. I’m not even kidding. I ended up not going to many of those meetings. It was transparent even to me, an oblivious teenager. There might have been and illustration being made but I didn’t understand irony at that point so I didn’t stay to find out if that was the case.

One afternoon there was a pep rally. A girl who I had a crush on invited me to sit with her in the bleachers. She said, come on, all of the minorities will be sitting in the same section. I became immediately disinterested because the purpose of a pep rally was to represent your graduating class, not to segregate into color groups. This is the day that I stopped caring about race.

At that point, I was still very unclear about my background. My mother had regained ground in casting doubt that I was black. I was often asked about my family origins. I told people that I was American. That was good enough for me but to many Americans, this is not an acceptable answer. You can’t just go around with a perma-tan and call yourself merely American. “What are you really?” was a common response I would get. I sometimes gave more information but the truth is, I didn’t have very much to give. I know that my dad was Irish and Lithuanian, not German at all. My mom is for all I know only black but I have reason to believe that she could be Indonesian or East Indian. Her birth certificate says that her father was Sanka Mantan of Indonesia. I only have a sliver of information regarding a grandfather who might have been from India but it’s from an unreliable source. I suppose it’s also possible that my maternal grandfather was actually Chinese. These things are all currently unconfirmed so I will continue to give the short form answer when pressed. I’m black, Irish, and Lithuanian.

These things all bear a diluted meaning to me. I spent a lot of time identifying with various groups so now, I feel as though I’m a part of every group. Middle eastern people often ask me if I’m from one of their countries. Hispanic people regularly claim me as one of their own. Italians tell me that I look Italian, black people tell me that I look white. White people usually don’t care either way unless their racist in which case I sometimes become the subject of their indignity.

I believe that my mother came out as black in the year 2005. She had just returned from being away for a long time (jail) and we were reestablishing contact. We were having a great conversation on the phone and she called me a white boy for some reason. I simply replied, “You no longer have permission to call me that anymore. It never means anything good.” To this, she broke down. She admitted to me for the first time in my life that she was black. She told me of how she was able to pass for something else. She has thin lips and wavy hair rather than tight curls. It’s just enough to cast a shadow of doubt on her origin. She had struggles growing up that I won’t begin to understand. It was the past and as with almost everything, it was worse, less accepting, and more ignorant. People on both sides of the racial divide were likely intolerant of her. Although she grew up in New York City, she was unable to cope with this part of her identity.

With the Fur

After my mother told me this story, she asked how I felt now that I knew that I was black. I told her that I had known for over ten years at that point and that I felt the same as I had before. In the following weeks, she purchased a black Barbie for herself and purchased me two FUBU jackets the size of sleeping bags.

When she presented them to me, I tried to look grateful but was confounded by how ridiculous they were, fur collar and all. I declined and said that they didn’t fit the way I like my clothes to fit to which she replied, “But baby, they’re For Us, By Us!”

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about racial identity. I think that overall, I am at an advantage having identified with so many ethnic groups. Coming to the understanding that race is a hoax anyway had led me to be a more inclusive person. I like identifying with everyone I meet. I hope that more people have the opportunity to be as racially confused as I was.