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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  • azi

    I like the Seinfeld in which elain dates a guy, she thinks he's black, he thinks she's spanish, but they're just a couple of boring white people.

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      I like that one, too!

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

      Wanna go to the gap?

  • RamonaCC

    Good. So good.

  • Sa

    I'm half black and half white too and I'm also very very pale. Ironically it's my white family that makes fun of me for it.

    • yrmomsbff

      Is that really ironic?

      • Sa

        It half is and half isn't.

  • yrmomsbff

    This is such a wonderful piece. I am not of a mixed race, but have dealt with similar problems of racial identity. Basically you've written what I've been trying to put into words for the past twenty years – congrats!

  • http://somuchtcome.blogspot.com Aja

    Thank you for writing this. Race is such a tricky thing to tackle in the US. And surprisingly, people still really hate talking about it. I am not mixed race however because of the gene pool and the mixing of ancestors, my sisters and I all look nothing a like. The oldest is very chocolate with round apple cheeks. The youngest is tall and slender with a reddish complexion and me, I guess I'm the lightest of the three with a more yellow undertone. My sisters and I never thought much of it until other people did. I have heard people outside of my family refer to me as “high yellow” which really gets on my fucking nerves like you wouldn't believe. I hate that term. I hate how people discriminate against each other based on skin tone or grade of hair. If one more person tells me I have “good hair”, I'm gonna rip my hair off and give it to them. It's just all really confusing . . . especially when you're a kid. And yes, I like you just wanted to exist.

  • Waicool

    what people think of you is non of your business

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      deep

  • Michele

    So refreshing to read an article here that's actually interesting and thought-provoking. I was getting tired of all the #whitegirlproblems.

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      Thanks, Michele. I felt weird about writing/sharing this one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    Maybe its just cuz I'm a plain old whitey, but I feel theres way too much pride in this country. Sure, my ancestors came from Europe. But guess what? That was a long time ago. And they came here for a reason. Cuz if youre so damn proud to be from a particular heritage, why not just go back there?!?! Ah, no one wants to live in their third world nation, they want to live here and act as though they care about the third world nation.

    • http://somuchtocome.blogspot.com Aja

      You sound like a friend of mine. He didn't hate Ireland (where he was from) but he really hated when Americans would tell him about their Irish ancestry as if he gave a flying f*ck. He always thought they had a really magical image of the country when in reality, the country has it's problems, like many other countries. I guess it's annoying whenever someone idolizes the place you're from without knowing much about it.

      Being black in America is tough on the identity side of things, because I'm guessing like me, many other African Americans can only trace their ancestry so far before you hit a brick wall. I think often people need an identity to cling to because it's makes you feel a little less lost.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        I think the same holds true for anyone without a prestigious pedigree. I'm a mix of European ancestries. Tracing my family back more than a few generations is impossible, both because of the mixture and because of their social status (read: poor). Does any of this mean anything? Do I need to know exactly where I came from and when to go about my life productively?

      • http://somuchtocome.blogspot.com Aja

        Never thought about it that way actually. I guess I assumed most caucasians had no problem with family lineage. Shame on me for making such assumptions. Does it matter? It depends on the person. Aren't we all just looking for a place where we feel like we belong? I remember UN day in elementary school and all the kids around me enthusiastically scribbling the flags of their ancestors on index cards while I sat there blank and immobilized with sadness over the feeling.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        I can sympathize with you AJA, not for the same reasons but having been made to feel isolated in school. Probably the most common sentiment amongst teenagers. But yea, I think lots of us caucasy types cant trace our ancestry any further back than you can because of how poor our ancestors were.

  • http://twitter.com/hereticaneue Heretica Neue

    Crap, why am I on the brink of tears after reading this?

    Perhaps it is because I can relate. My dad is black and my mom is white. I grew up with six strong black women as aunts and a grandmother. I grew up with two eccentric Cajun women as an aunt and a mother. I grew up with one trembling, fragile little sister, lost and shaken by the forces surrounding her on all sides.

    I inherited darker skin (people think I'm Hispanic), the nappy hair, the brown eyes. My sister looked white in all but hair, but even then, the only people who could tell her hair wasn't “white people hair” were other black girls. Yet she was tormented so much more than me by the racial divide we were delicately set upon at birth. Yet still, I have always felt inherently and profoundly *alone*.

    Okay, oops, I don't want to write a novel in your comments. Maybe this will inspire me to write my own blog post in response. In any case, I just wanted you to know how much this touched me. Thank you.

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      Wow, thank you – your comment is actually very beautifully written and I'd love to read more about your particular situation.

      I think people feel embarrassed to address their mixed race formally, like it seems like you're “showing off” or something – truth is it's weird and isolating and you have no one to share it with. I shared it with my sister, but even so, we look different so our experiences are not the same.

      Looking “white” but being mixed is a sad thing. You hear a lot of racist shit this way. You are confrontational just by addressing the fact that you have a stake in someone elses racism. Scary.

      I wish your sister (and you, obviously) luck and hope that you will contact me (steph@theuglynewyorker.com) should you write about your experiences.

  • Angie Bee

    I so love this. I have this theory that our generation should have babies with other races and keep that going until no one knows who is who and where anyone is from. The hope is that maybe race wouldn't matter so much when skin tones aren't so defined. I'm doing my part with my tri-racial son. Anyone else? :)

  • the token

    I usually never comment on these articles, but yours touched me so much. I have a black dad and a white mom. We moved to a small town (89% white) in the south when I was twelve. My dad is also half cherokee so I came out looking mostly white. I was almost instantly an enemy of every black girl in my middle school because of my hair and because I “talked like a white girl.” and when I hung out with the white kids it was always only a matter of time before one of them would start talking about “niggers.” I'd keep up a poker face but eventually let people know about my family (and my black dad). And then I could usually tell who were the racist ones and who didn't care. The racist ones were the ones who watched me when they spoke. who walked on eggshells. who assured me that “it's not YOUR fault who your parents are, we don't blame you.” and then the second they get too comfortable and forget i'm there will say something like
    “of all the nigger bitches, which ones would you fuck? and don't say anything like Beyonce or Rihanna. I mean the ones at this school” to the group and start laughing…

    still, there would be the moments when someone would either not know about my race or “forget” and i'd have to hear some hateful, racist comments that I wish I wouldn't have. Even a few teachers have dropped the “N” bomb in class!!! IN CLASS IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. I was the only minority and I could feel all eyes shift to me. Then there was the time in class discussion (teacher present) that a boy said the races mixing was an abomination and that our skin color is “vomit inducing.” I was stunned. no one spoke in my defense. :/

    I don't mean to ramble but you hit so many points that are close to my heart. I could go on and on about this, and I'm sure you understand and have experienced just as many of the same situations as I have.

    Thank you for writing this! and sorry for leaving such a long comment but I hope you read it :)

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      I've read and glad I did. First of all – WOW at your teachers. That's disgusting. I'm so sorry you didn't have anyone to stand up for you, and I understand why you didn't.

      But yeah, the things you've hit on, notably looking white and having to hear a bunch of racist bullshit from people because there's no “darkies” or whatever around… really the one thing that I've constantly been surrounded by and has bothered me forever.

      The mixing shit, too. Really? People thing I'm lying when I say I'm mixed. That's how white I appear. It makes no sense to me that someone who's against mixing can respect me and like me one minute and spit at me the next.

      I've always wanted to open a dialogue about this and embarrassing my family has stopped me. But if they've warmed to my mom like I think they have – then they should be able to respect what I've said about it. They were wrong and I'm assuming they know that. And if their call-to-jesus, we're all equal epiphany is disingenuous in any way, I guess I shouldn't be worried about embarrassing anyone.

      Anyway, thank you for reading/commenting. It'll get easier with age, and if it doesn't, I suggest getting the hell out of that town. You don't need to identify with race on others terms to feel valuable as a person. There are good people out there, of every race, who honestly don't give a shit what your racial identity is.

  • Kay Elle

    I am Native. My skin looks tanned year round. I obviously don't look white. I often get mistaken for being Asian, likely cause of my almond shaped eyes.

    My half sisters are also Native however their mom was much more fairer-skinned than my mom. They look white. “THEY'RE your SISTERS?!? You look nothing ALIKE!!” Fuck off.

    I also never grew up on a reserve. Actually, I grew up in Quebec, a predominantly French speaking & white populated province here in Canada. I constantly heard- “You don't seem like all the other Natives” while growing up …all the other Natives of course were obviously raised like savages unlike my family who seemed to raise us kids “normal”.

    It made me feel ashamed to be Native.

    There have been comments on this posting about having the sense of belonging from knowing where you come from. I can say I have felt lost in many aspects of my life and a lot of that has stemmed from feeling lost about who I am.

    I have struggled with issues of identity which led me down a series of drug addictions. When I reached rock bottom– I started to find strength by learning more about my own culture. I started to attend Native ceremonies and gatherings where I began to discover who we are as people and how we relate to this world, to other people, to the universe.

    Finding a sense of belonging is important. It's just a shame that for those of us who are seen as 'coloured', finding that sense of belonging and feeling proud of it, is still quite a challenge in this day & age.

    • http://stephgeorge.tumblr.com Stephanie Georgopulos

      I'm sorry that you felt ashamed, I think Native Americans feel particularly marginalized; which is unfortunate considering that it's a interesting and diverse culture that has been quieted down for centuries.

      I think finding a sense of self is key, not belonging. Be who you want to be, and be happy – some people will appreciate it. Some won't, but fuck them.

  • Carolyn

    this is an amazing article

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