Category Archives: authenticity

Am I Black Enough, Woman Enough, Trans Enough?

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By Guest Contributor Koko Jones; originally published at Koko Jones

There are several places where my multiple identities intersect; Black/African American, Native American, Musician, trans woman, trans woman of color. My blog is an attempt to address these issues for myself and where I land in the maze of multiple identities.

Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry show this morning I wanted to join the conversation on Race and Identities. On the show there was a white woman who is raising two black children and a white woman who is the mother of two interracial children. It made my mind wander a bit as well as wonder a bit about my own duality and identities. There has been a theme this week with conversations about identity and labels (i.e.: B. Scott).

I grew up knowing I was a black child; I knew nothing else. All of my friends were black, my neighbors were black, my uncles, aunts, cousins were black, the only grandparents I knew were definitely black. We ate typical southern black cuisine in our house; neck bones & cabbage, collard greens with ham hocks, pig’s feet, fish and grits, the list goes on. The music we listened to and what I remember from childhood was all basically black music; from Mahalia Jackson to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Jimi Hendrix was considered a Rock God in our house.

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However, my mother looked incredibly like a white woman despite the skin color of her father. My brothers and sisters; six of us in total all had relatively the same pigment of skin. It has been a bone of contention in our family for years; what are we really? I am a child of many ancestors. Some of those ancestors are black; some are white and some are Native American (Cherokee and Choctaw). I knew nothing of the culture of Native Americans growing up and knew nothing of the culture of white people. I was often teased as a child about my skin color and sometimes I still am by some of my closest friends in jest. Terms like “Light Bright” or “Injun Joe” have been used by some of good friends and I laugh at along with them.

So it’s natural for me to identify as “Black”. Not to give up my age but for context I will.  I was born in 1959 and grew up during the civil rights movement of the 60s. My mother joined the fight to integrate the Englewood Public School system in the 60s, which I vaguely remember. While growing up in my little New Jersey suburb in Englewood, neighborhoods were segregated. Just over the town line from us in Teaneck there was a white neighborhood we called “Crackatown”. The houses were nicer; the streets were smoother and kept much better. It was those nicely-paved streets, excellent for bike riding, that attracted the kids from my neighborhood. One day a group of friends and I went riding in “Crackatown” when we were attacked with water balloons by a group of white kids. A water balloon hit me in my head and I went flying off my bike. That was followed by the hurling of racial slurs: “You niggas get out of our neighborhood!” That neighborhood has long since become integrated. But the memory still remains. It didn’t matter to them how light-skinned I was, I got the smack because I was still black.

Despite this, there were times when I first started to go to public school where I felt a strange awkwardness when my mother picked me up from school. I remember kids asking me, “Yo, is your mother white?” I would answer, “No, she’s black. She’s just really light-skinned.” It was if I had to prove somehow that I was totally black.

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As the years went on it was well established that I was black, but in a certain way I always felt that perhaps I had to prove my blackness. Could this be the reason why I chose to play congas and African drums?

Yet and still, there was another search for my identity in terms of gender. As one who transitioned relatively late, I had to deal with (and still deal with) people questioning my gender as well. There are those inside and outside the trans community that sometimes question whether I am trans enough. After all, I play a very physical instrument: the drums. I play like I’m supposed to play. To me there is only one way to play the congas and that is the way that I was taught. I carry my instruments from the car to the venue without asking for any help from anyone. This is the way of the drum. Max Roach used to tell me, “Learn to carry your instrument.” It’s just a part of the learning process and the oneness of you and your instrument. It doesn’t make me more ‘butch’ or less ‘fem’. I’m just an artist doing my art, my craft that I have honed for 44 years.

In my years it has taken a lot of growth to accept myself the way I am without a ton of surgery or having the ability to transition early in life. It takes a lot to love your self when there are so many standards set for women in society. I believe myself to be a beautiful woman. But there are times when I feel eyes upon me. I often use the example of going into the ladies restroom in the Port Authority in New York and getting stares–or at least what I feel are stares. Sometimes I feel it so fiercely that I want to ask them, “Do you want to see my female realness card? Can I see yours?”

So the question is: What is “realness”? Is it being what the status quo believes or is it created by our own perceptions based upon our experiences?

Just the fact that someone feels like they don’t belong to any group for whatever reason, can be very traumatizing. I remember standing out in front of the legendary club, the Grapevine, in the early 80s and getting “read” by a trans woman there. She said to me, “You tryin’ to be a woman with that face?” Of course, I was questioning at that time and I hadn’t truly started my transition. But the fact remains that there are still those in our community that judge one another based solely on looks.

Being judged on several levels is a tough thing to take at times. I have lost jobs; no I have lost a career based upon judgment and looks. It is only through my resilience and tenacity that I still continue to pursue my music career. Just a couple of years back I lost a really good job with a band that I worked with on a pretty regular basis. I will never forget those emails and the letter that was written to me by the manager and owner of the entertainment company I was employed by, explaining the reasons that they were letting me go. I will paraphrase: “I know I have been a chicken about approaching you about this and I’m sorry. Although you are unbelievably talented, it is because of the complaints of our clients that we are unable to book you for future gigs.” A range of feelings from sadness, to self pity, to anger permeated my being at that time. But self doubt about who I am seemed to creep into my soul. It was just one more trauma I had to endure. Certainly it is painful to see my good friends and colleagues in the music field continue to work and further their careers. However, I was fully aware that this would take place before I transitioned physically from male to female.

It hasn’t been until recently that I have been able to fight those feelings of self-deprecation with tools that I have learned in my study at Hunter College. Coping skills are extremely important for “Girl Like Us” for we face such a wide variety of challenges. I am hoping to be able to teach these skills that have been helpful to me to others. I have a long way to go but we can only keep what we have by giving it away. Of course I am a teacher, too, so teaching comes so natural to me. I am not giving up on society for I believe that everyone has goodness inherent in their lives. But we can start by discontinuing the propensity for us to judge one another.

Originally Amalia

Image Credit: Suuraa Qeerroo

Image Credit: Suuraa Qeerroo on Flickr

By Guest Contributor Amalia Clarice Mora; originally published at Feminist Wire

Life is easier, kinder, and more lenient when you are white, and this may be why George Zimmerman decided to downplay his mestizo origins and identify as white/white Hispanic during the Trayvon Martin trial.  Zimmerman is a partially white half-Hispanic, and as such he was already closer to whiteness and the privilege it grants than Martin ever could have been. But perhaps Zimmerman knew that just being a partially white mestizo wouldn’t win him an acquittal, and so he decided to identify with a category of “really” or “fully” white people who would sympathize more with a white man whose actions reflected his (and their) fears of black America.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles during the 1990s, “really” or “fully” white meant Northern-European looking. Aryan looking. Those with the combination of an olive complexion, a “big” or “bumpy” nose, and black hair were not “really” white.  These “not really white” people included individuals belonging to groups officially labeled “Caucasian” (i.e., Eastern European Jewish, Arab, Middle Eastern, Southern Italian, or Central Asian), as well as mixed raced people with a partially white background. They were the “sort-of white” people, because of their official racial status or their mixed race background, but “not white” in the way people treated and perceived them. The “sort-of whites” were put into an ambiguous “other” pile and were constantly asked (like many other non-white Americans): “Where are you from? I mean—originally?” “Sort-of whites” never felt really truly American, and those of Middle-Eastern, Arab, and Central Asian descent faced the most discrimination from peers, not only because of the way they looked, but also because their families were recent immigrants.

Discrimination against “dark-ish” immigrants in the U.S. is as old as the country itself. White Americans have always had a socioeconomic interest in proving that they are the “real” Americans with the right to establish and control institutions. The category of white, in regard to European immigrants, was relatively fluid until the mid-nineteenth century, when it became restricted to individuals of Anglo-Saxon origin. Europeans perceived to be of the darker “variety” (e.g., Polish, Jews, Italians) occupied a kind of “in-between” space when it came to racial identity and designation. The official status of “in-between” “sort of whites” of European, Arab, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian descent changed to “white” in the twentieth century, yet many people belonging to this category still don’t feel “really” white. The more purportedly “Arab” or “ethnic looking” they are, the more they feel and are treated as non-white.

I have experienced what it is like to be a “sort-of white” person because of my racial background,  my upbringing, and the way I look. My dad is Mexican-American of mostly Amerindian descent and my mom is of German, Scottish, and Cherokee descent.  Ethnically and culturally speaking, in other words, I am partly white. Many Mexican-Americans I knew growing up were either poor or lower-middle class and experienced economic as well as cultural marginality. My family wanted my sister and me to feel American, not marginal. Ensuring this meant ensuring that we were imbued, at least partially, with what had become a Euro-centric English-speaking white culture. This culture has always been institutionalized as American. Other American traditions, other holidays, values, philosophies, and languages, have been systematically excluded, never allowed to become American. This is why black, Hispanic, and Asian cultures, despite having had a firm presence in America for generations, are still “hyphenated” cultures. Though I was surrounded by the Spanish language, Mexican food, music, and holidays growing up, I was also exposed to homogenized, anglicized, and middle-class American culture. And this may be why some of my Mexican-American/Chicano friends and acquaintances can’t always relate to me— to the part of me that has, in their eyes, “become white,” culturally speaking.

My physical appearance, however, has shaped the “sort-of whiteness” I experience most explicitly. Many people in the U.S. don’t think I look Hispanic, and usually assume I am of some other “dark,” “brown,” or “sort-of white” ethnicity.  As a result, white acquaintances often feel free to make invidious jokes or derogatory remarks about Mexican people in front of me. Some make these jokes and remarks knowing my ethnic and cultural background, but perhaps they assume that the access to whiteness I have because of my physical appearance will make me indifferent to their cruelty.

Though my appearance has often allowed me to avoid anti-Hispanic prejudice, it has exposed me to the kind of prejudice some “sort-of white” people face. Conflating nationality, race, and religion, many people in the U.S. lump Middle Eastern, Central Asian (and sometimes South Asian) nationals, Arabs, and Muslims together into one category of “darkish” or Muslim-ish” looking people. Many people in the U.S. assume I belong to this group, and have discriminated against me, accordingly.

When I was in my early teens, a few white acquaintances tried to insult me by calling me the “Armenian chick,” and made fun of the bump on my nose saying it was ugly and Persian or “Middle Eastern” looking. In college, I received an anonymous email, and attached to it was a picture of two naked women. Both women were lying down, legs spread, vaginas center stage. One woman was a blonde whose pubic and leg hair had been shaved. The other was an older dark-skinned Arab woman, unshaven. Under the Arab woman a caption read, “Here’s what they have,” and under the blonde woman, “Here’s what we have.” It hurt even more when some Hispanic and African Americans began discriminating against my sister and me post 9/11, perhaps eager to finally feel like they could become part of the American “us” versus the hyphenated “them.” In one incident, a man yelled at my sister while she was walking down the street, “Get out of my way, you Arab bitch.”

In no way am I implying that I have experienced what it is like to be Arab, Muslim, or Middle-Eastern in the United States. Moreover, I recognize the advantages I’ve had as a person perceived to be “sort-of white,” “part” white, or “brown-ish,” as opposed to the more explicit and cruel forms of hatred and institutionalized racism that those perceived to be “fully” non-white experience. My point here is to show how the mixed race, partially white, and/or “sort-of white” experience can reveal how problematic and exclusionary American understandings of whiteness are, and, therefore how real and severe the problem of race still is.

Even many individuals of Southern European and Eastern European Jewish descent still don’t feel fully American because of the way they look. Some of my friends and acquaintances that belong to this group have obtained plastic surgery or blonde streaks in an effort to “Aryanize” themselves. This means that even though they have, to a certain extent, become white culturally and in official rhetoric, they have not become white physically or psychologically. And if they still don’t feel American because they don’t feel fully white, then what does this mean for everyone else?

It means that whiteness has not become more inclusive. It means that whiteness welcomes and rewards those willing to hide, downplay, or remove traces of ethnic features, traditions, or origins (read: George Zimmerman). And it means that those who have no chance of being even semi-included in this exclusionary privileged club (read: African Americans), become even more marginalized and even more non-white than before. It means that the closer one is to being black, the harder, harsher, and more unjust life will be.

When they were growing up, my dad and step-mom both faced discrimination and feelings of inferiority because of their poverty and ethnicity. During a recent dinner table conversation, they told me that they have always hoped that I would never experience shame. Shame is debilitating yet persuasive in its ardor, like a jealous friend. Shame keeps us company in the hide-out it has forced us into. I didn’t want to upset my dad and step-mom, so during the discussion, I didn’t reveal to them that throughout most of my life I have experienced a great deal of shame in regards to the racism I have experienced. I have felt and still feel misunderstood by those who perceive me to be too “Middle-Eastern-ish,” “not Chicana enough,” or “not white enough.” I am often asked why my name, Amalia, isn’t spelled with an accent, the way it is spelled in Mexico. And I am often asked, “What kind of name is Amalia—I mean originally?”

Lately, I have been trying to use my personal experiences to help challenge understandings of American whiteness and race. Lately, I have been responding to this question by saying, “Amalia is an American name.” Its ambiguity is part of the Middle Eastern story I am assumed to have. Its lack of accent is part of my assimilation story, part of my white story. And its accent fills in the confused space that is my México.

They say shame starts to lose its poison when it is turned into a story. And so I try.

 

References

Behad, Ali. 2005. A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ignatiev, Noel. 1996. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge.

Jacobson, Mathew Frye. 1999. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Roediger, David. 2005. Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books.

Samhan, Helen Hatab. 1999. “Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience.” In Arabs in America: Building a New Future, edited by Michael W. Suleiman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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Amalia Mora photographAmalia Clarice Mora is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her doctoral research examines how tensions related to class, caste, and gender are negotiated within the context of music tourism in Goa, India. Her other research interests include interracial attraction and mixed race experiences in the U.S., and how sociocultural anxieties related to both manifest themselves in unofficial discourse and texts, such as rumor and internet comment sections.

Django Unchained: Coonskin Redux?

By Guest Contributor Paul Barrett; originally published at New Solitudes

Jamie Foxx in "Django Unchained." Image via Slate.com.

Jamie Foxx in “Django Unchained.” Image via Slate.com.

What I find surprising in the critical and personal responses I’ve heard to Django Unchained is the unwillingness to discuss what notions of race the film traffics in. What is Tarantino’s vision of blackness and whiteness, and how does his aesthetic mode of borrowing from every movie he’s ever seen contribute to his notion of race, cultural difference, and racism?

The feud between Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee is one point of entry for discussing Django Unchained. Lee refuses to see the film, arguing that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.”

At the heart of Lee’s critique, and much of the debate over Django Unchained are the questions of historical appropriation–who has the right to tell particular stories–and the question of realism. The latter question really asks, how can we tell particular stories? Is it disrespectful, irresponsible, or racist to depict slavery as a spaghetti western or in an unreal fashion?

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Excerpt: “Why You Listening To That White Sh-t?”

Writing this book, I found other black women who had felt rejected by friends, family members, or their communities because of their musical preferences.

At one point, I distributed a mass questionnaire, and nearly three-quarters of the replies described negative reactions to listening to heavy metal.

Many of the replies were predictable: “Many people say the style of music I like isn’t really music, it’s just loud noise. Or that I’m not black because I like rock or punk music.”

Others were encouraging: “Especially when I say I like rock, they think it’s like devil or white music. I find it hilarious. I revel in my musical tastes and find audio joy wherever I can.”

Some were unfortunate: “When I was younger, I was criticized for listening to ‘white’ music and told I was weird and [that] there was something wrong with me for being a black girl listening to rock ’n’ roll … [Then] I learned that black folks actually created it.”

And many stories were downright infuriating: “Especially when I was in my teens and twenties, comments from some family and friends if I was listening to rock or punk music were like: ‘Why you listening to that white sh-t?’ I once dated a white guy who grew up in a black neighborhood, and was trying to be ‘down,’ and he yelled at me for listening to Led Zeppelin: ‘Don’t you listen to any black music? Why do you listen to that white music for?’ — the funniest thing I ever heard. Now that I’m in my forties, I don’t tend to associate with anyone who is so narrow-minded about me or my tastes in life.’

From “What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life And Liberation In Heavy Metal” by Laina Dawes [Courtesy Bazillion Points Books, 2012. ]

New Film: Middle of Nowhere

Winner of the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE follows Ruby, a bright medical student who sets aside her dreams and suspends her career when her husband is incarcerated. As the committed couple stares into the hollow end of an eight-year prison sentence, Ruby must learn to live another life, one marked by shame and separation. But through a chance encounter and a stunning betrayal that shakes her to her core, this steadfast wife is soon propelled in new and often shocking directions of self-discovery – caught between two worlds and two men in the search for herself.

Ava DuVernay is back! And I have been dying to see this film.

Race + Burlesque: Dita Von Teese Dons Yellowface

By Associate Editor Andrea Plaid, The Shanghai Pearl, Chicava HoneyChild, Essence Revealed, and ExHOTic Other

Burlesquer The Shanghai Pearl tipped off the R to one of the latest offensive acts, this one done by renowned burly-q entertainer Dita Von Teese at her ::sigh:: “Opium Den Show.” (Video NSFW)

Latoya asked me to cover the controversy with my burlesque mentor and one of the R’s favorite burlesque experts , Chicava HoneyChild. Chicava reached back to Shanghai Pearl as well as asked Brown Girl Burlesque performers ExHOTic Other and Essence Revealed to join the conversation. Here’s what we all had to say about it.

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“Queen Chief Warhorse, Tchufuncta Nation, Chahta Tribe”

by Guest Contributor Deb Reese, originally published at American Indians In Children’s Literature

I registered for the Healing for Democracy conference yesterday, found a place to sit, and pulled out the conference program. Among the speakers for the Welcome was “Queen Chief Warhorse, Tchefuncta Nation, Chahta Tribe.”

“Queen” gave me pause right away and its use cast doubt on the rest of the information provided. “Tchefuncta” and “Chahta” are not nations or tribes I have heard of before, but there are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations and I don’t pretend to know about all–or even most–of them. Still, “Queen” made me uneasy.

That unease was confirmed when “Queen Chief Warhorse” took the stage and began delivering her remarks. She was wearing a necklace that was supposed to suggest Pueblo Indian or Navajo turquoise and silver. To most, it probably looked like the real thing. To me, it screamed imitation. I wondered where she got it.

Right away, she had most of the audience eating out of her hand. Working with the theme of “healing,” her opening remarks began with calling out the limits of a black/white paradigm. That was fine, but then–for me–her train went off a cliff.

She started using “we” in ways that demonstrate she doesn’t know much about tribal nations and our reservations. One statement after another was problematic. It was a “poor Indians” narrative, living on our “prison camp” and “the projects” reservations.

Her remarks were, in short, a mess for lot of reasons.

Her use of “we” was wrong. Using “we” as a keynote speaker to an audience who, I hazard to say, is fairly lacking in knowledge of American Indians, only added to the already-too-big body of misinformation about American Indians.

I did a quick bit of research and found photos of her in a Plains style headdress. Why was she wearing that?! When I have more time, I’ll do some research on her and the “Tchunfuncta Nation, Chahta Tribe.” Will I learn that the “Chahta Tribe” or the “Tchunfuncta Nation” are Plains people?

For now, I’ll say this:

Healing requires accurate information, not sensational remarks that generate a righteous anger and create or affirm a body of misinformation.

Quoted: How Hollywood and The Help Screw Up History

The Help Movie

There have been thousands of words written about Stockett’s skills, her portrayal of the black women versus the white women, her right to tell this story at all. I won’t rehash those arguments, except to say that I found the novel fast-paced but highly problematic. Even more troubling, though, is how the structure of narratives like The Help underscores the failure of pop culture to acknowledge a central truth: Within the civil rights movement, white people were the help.

The architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American. Many white Americans stood beside them, and some even died beside them, but it was not their fight — and more important, it was not their idea.

This isn’t the first time the civil rights movement has been framed this way fictionally, especially on film. Most Hollywood civil rights movies feature white characters in central, sometimes nearly solo, roles. My favorite (not!) is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, which gives us two white FBI agents as heroes of the movement. FBI agents! Given that J. Edgar Hoover did everything short of shoot Martin Luther King Jr. himself in order to damage or discredit the movement, that goes from troubling to appalling.

Why is it ever thus? Suffice it to say that these stories are more likely to get the green light and to have more popular appeal (and often acclaim) if they have white characters up front. That’s a shame. The continued impulse to reduce the black women and men of the civil rights movement to bit players in the most extraordinary step toward justice that this nation has ever known is infuriating, to say the least. Minny and Aibileen are heroines, but they didn’t need Skeeter to guide them to the light. They fought their way out of the darkness on their own — and they brought the nation with them.

–Martha Southgate, The Truth about the Civil Rights Era