On Identity

Yeah sister go ahead feel my arm
I know what you were taught to think
That girl’s ain’t got no muscles,
And should only wear pink
But quite the contrary dear sister,
You know what I am saying is true
Just go ahead feel my powerful arm
Yes…
– Laura Irene Wayne

This was the mantra. My little sister and I wore this poem on our backs like a badge of honor until we outgrew the grey t-shirts it was printed on. My Yia-Yia did a lot of sewing, and my sister and I did a lot of matching; two frilly, polka dotted peas in a pod.

The poem t-shirt was no exception; our mother saw it and loved it and bought two of them. My sister, precocious and noble, would wear the shirt with pride; curling up her tiny, bronzed arm into a muscle. I, on the other hand, wore it with shame – it was too “Black” and too “feminist.” And while I, too, am “Black,” am “feminist,” I didn’t know what it meant at the time – and I didn’t want to.

I look White. My sister looks Spanish. My mom is Black. My dad is White. We never talked about these things. I never felt like I needed an explanation. At the first sign of summer, I wanted to fry in the sun and be tan like my sister. I remember my brother picking on me – he has a different dad and is darker, like my sister – and I told him that he wasn’t Black, like mom, just dirty. Race was malleable to me, something that only existed in the context of the situation.

I didn’t want to be one more than the other (in fact, I wanted to be something else entirely). But I felt this t-shirt, this poem, was too strong for me – too self-aware. Too “owning it.” I just wanted to exist; and eventually, my parents let me, they let me be myself. My dad tried to get me to learn Greek, he tried to take me to church, but I didn’t care about these things. I remember my Yia-Yia and Papou, my dad’s parents, and that is the only Greek I know. I remember them offering to fly me to Greece for the summer as part of some youth program. And I said no – all I wanted was to be my goddamn American 13-year-old self. I wanted to steal shit from the mall; I wanted to smoke a cigarette. I had my own culture.

My early years were rife with familial racial tension that I was acutely unaware of until I reached an age where it didn’t matter to me anymore. My Yia-Yia and Papou didn’t meet me until I was 4; they didn’t attend my parent’s wedding. My mom, she would stay home in New York while my dad shoved us in a car to visit my aunt in Boston. My dad was constantly battling a gaggle of strong women.

The women in my immediate family are ferocious. They’re independent. One aunt is an outrageously successful architect, never married. Another, a gay woman in a Greek family, taught my father how to program computer software so that he could sell my Papou’s florist and spend more time with our family. My older sister is a warrior – fighting multi-front wars for herself and for me when I was too young to realize that I needed defending from my own family.

And my mom? The woman got away with murder when I was growing up – she never had to go away with us to visit family (though I didn’t understand why at the time); she never had to go to church because she aligned herself with spirituality and sidestepped the religion my dad fruitlessly attempted to instill in me. She raised my sister and I to be pretty and proud – though I rejected both in favor of blending in, fading into the background.

Occasionally I’ll read a news report or watch a documentary that addresses race – specifically, mixed race. I’ll hear Susie from Mississippi bemoan “people like me,” I’ll hear that mixing races “ain’t right.” I see slovenly Susie, her boastfulness. I observe her idea of what it means to be a “proud woman.” I look at the white of my skin. I think about how, my entire life, I struggled to be a “person” and not a part of a group, part of a race – my lineage, my percentages, my ethnicities so splintered that the only person I share a race with is my sister. My sister and me. We don’t even share a skin tone. I am alone. I don’t have a “people.” I don’t have a racial identity. What the fuck is so wrong with that, Susie?

There’s been all of this noise surrounding me my entire life. Be proud. Be Greek. Be strong. Be a woman. But when the static fades, when there’s finally quiet, I can hear my dad. My dad who married an Irish woman and then a Black woman. My dad who loves my mom. My dad who loves his parents, his family. My dad who, after years of bickering, posturing, and Tug o’ War with the women in his life, has only wanted us to be a family – colors and labels be damned. I hear my dad, and he’s saying…

…Girls got muscles, too.

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