Racism and Racial Identity: An exploration in memory fragments

My father and me

Circa 1978, Grove City, Ohio: My neighbor was several years older than me, sandy-haired and light-eyed and maybe freckled. Tall and thin. He was on a bicycle, looking down at me, snarling these words: “N**er. Indian Freak.” Then he made a bunch of noises imitating Native Americans. I remember feeling paralyzed, flushing hot in my face, and cold and leaden in my legs, and hollow in my stomach. I remember looking at my feet, because I couldn’t look at his face. I remember wanting to run, but being afraid to run. Later, I remember thinking, “But I’m not Black, and I’m not that kind of Indian” and feeling relieved.

1980s, en route to or from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A voracious reader, traveling was always a problem because I could never transport the volume of books that would keep me entertained. We stopped by a roadside garage sale on this trip, and I remember that I didn’t even leave the car, but my mother did. She returned with a novel she had purchased for 10 cents from the table. It was a first-printing paperback of the novel, Their Eyes were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. I started it immediately. Written in dialect, it was enormously difficult — I had to read out loud to myself some of the time to understand the exchanges among characters. I still remember the passage in which Janie talks about losing respect for her then-husband, Jody, using the metaphor of objects toppling off a high shelf in her mind. Such powerful use of words, and such a way of articulating how it felt to see an idol topple. This book also opened the door to a long-standing interest Black fiction and poetry writers for me; by the time I headed to college, I had read most of James Baldwin and a great deal of Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and many others.

Circa 1987, Galloway, Ohio, Westland High School. Reginald Wagstaff was a “cool” teacher and we all loved him; he was never my teacher, but he was one of the English teachers and I spent a lot of time in the English department, because I had founded our literary magazine, Pencil Dust. He was also one of the only Black teachers in the school (for context, my graduating class was something around 416 seniors, of whom roughly 4 or 5 were not White). He told me, “One day, you will be standing on a high precipice looking at the world, and you will feel so much outrage.” I remember being puzzled, and then Daddy Wags, as we called him, kept walking down the hall. In the past few years, and perhaps especially in the last few weeks, I’ve had occasion to think about that statement more than once, and to wonder, is this what he meant?

Circa 1995, Stanford, California, Psychology Department. Sasha James (not her real name) was a dynamite research assistant in my lab. We shared similarly complex, though not similar, racial backgrounds. She won a prestigious, but minority-specific award, and I announced this in the lab meeting. Later, privately, she said, “I’d have preferred that you not say it was a minority-specific award.” I flushed with shame but also felt angry and defensive — all the things that go with white fragility. Now, all these years later, I am struck by two more things — the internalized racism behind her own discomfort — and the fact that her discomfort, once expressed, made perfect, obvious sense to me due to my own internalized racism — of course a minority-specific award was less-than, inferior.

Circa 1997, Berlin, Germany. An Indian post-doc at another center in our institute was beaten on a subway platform in the former East by right-wing hooligans, resulting in her hospitalization. One weekend after that, I was supposed to meet my boyfriend and another acquaintance for dinner in former east-German part of Berlin. I got lost and ended up somewhere I didn’t recognize, couldn’t find the restaurant, and saw skinheads skulking around. As it was getting dark, I panicked — couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think — and ran home. When my worried boyfriend called I dissolved into angry and hysterical tears.

Circa 2011 and 2012, Salt Lake City, UT. After 9/11, I was boarding a plane for a trip related to my research program. I entered the security screening line, holding my paperback novel in one hand with my driver’s license and boarding pass tucked into it. The security guard asked to have my novel, and when I handed it to her, she carefully checked in each of the pages before returning it to me. No other person with a book in the line was asked to do this. I remember the flush and dread cold again. For a period of approximately one year after 9/11, I was randomly chosen for extra screening on every single trip that I took.

Some Reflections

My own experiences of racism — as target and perpetrator — are highly embodied, reflected in the sense of hot and cold flushing and dysregulated breathing and paralysis that comes up with writing about those events. I don’t revisit these memories very frequently or voluntarily. In reviewing them now, in total, I am shocked by how much shame is there in the past, and how deeply, bitterly angry and simultaneously ashamed I feel in the present. In what Universe did it make sense for me to feel shame about what and who I am, in the eyes of others? More importantly, how shamed I am now about having reassured myself not by seeing the wrong in the racism, but rather by seeing how it did not really apply to me.

I am not Black. I’m also not really White. I’m a generation-X heterosexual, cis-gendered, ethnically mixed woman whose family roots include generations of high-caste Brahmins on one side, and poor Southern Baptist Whites in north central Florida. That white side includes slave-owner ancestry, but also tobacco sharecroppers and policemen). My father emigrated to the United States in the 1960s and became a citizen long ago, bolstered by the privilege of his own status in his home country. I have brown skin, very dark eyes, and once had black hair; I have a recognizably Indian body and deeply Indian name for those familiar with India. But most people don’t have that familiarity, so I’m often mis-categorized as Middle-Eastern or Latina. “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” are questions I encounter routinely from strangers. I’ve been followed in stores when I dressed too casually, and racially profiled during the post 9/11 period. At the same time, I qualify, via my mother’s family, for membership in the Daughters of the American Confederacy. To say that my racial experiences are complicated is an understatement.

These memories are not my only memories around race, racism, and identity — but they are among the most emotionally high impact memories that I have. They bring into sharp relief my own unique “dueling conscience” around race and racism (Kendi, 2019) — a duel with more than two sides. There is the deep and boundless importance and humanity of Black writers in my literary life side-by-side with the relief I felt at “not being Black” and the reaction I had to a request to not diminish an award by noting its racialized dimension. The sense of entitlement I have to my immensely privileged education, and extraordinarily fortunate adulthood — after all, I have worked very hard in my life (Diangelo, 2018), against my knowledge of all the class, model minority, and partial White privilege that eased those paths. The sense of safety and security I have in my daily life, lived in an expensive house, in a safe, upper income neighborhood — against those rare but terror-filled moments that remind me I too, am not fully White, and affluence doesn’t make me fully safe.

As a partially White, well-off, and partially model minority person, I want to recall and describe these events not to say “I too, have been oppressed,” but rather to cease avoiding and dismissing the anger and shame of my own experiences of racism — as both victim and perpetrator. That voice in my head — especially the one that says, “well, I’m not really ______________” — that voice is not the only problem promoting racism in America, but it’s the one that I am responsible to change as an individual. This was a first step towards Kendi’s dirt road of anti-racism for me.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility. Boston, MA: Beacon Books.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be Anti-Racist. New York, NY: One World Publishing.

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