I mean it had always been a thing, like…
… and I think, I’m sure some stuff happened at Friends School, but I remember more not there, like at horse back riding, when I was, this was still when I was in elementary school, like, my mom picking me up and someone being like, ” Are you adopted?” and me having to explain that, like, no I wasn’t.
And I think I’ve told you this, like, grocery story lanes were alway places where people would be like – and I don’t know – I actually don’t know how often it happened. It feels like it happened a lot, but I don’t know if it just happened some key times. But, people would ask if my mom was our nanny. And she would just say, “No. They are mine.” And then we would like pack up our groceries and go.
Ummmm, and like always like just like just standing next to her at like banks or something. Or like waiting for her to do some errand. And people would be talking to her like,
“Oh what do you need” whatever, and then look at me and be like
*high pitched voice reserved for talking with children* “Oh, what are you here for?” and I’m like “I’m with her.”
So I think it always was an issue.
– Alison, August 2014
“It has always been an issue.” My racial identity that is. Because I don’t “make sense” given how race has been constructed and functions in this world. In the United States. In the South. I am accustomed to the questioning of my identity in public. I consider it normal for someone to look at me, ask who I am or where I am from, and then act in disbelief, sometimes with a shocked and doubtful, “No you’re not!” when I tell them. This type of encounter happens regularly.
And in some ways it is understandable. As I said, I don’t “make sense.” More specifically, my body doesn’t make sense. I’ve recently taken to describing myself as a “light-to-white appearing” person. What I mean by that is I have blue eyes, blond hair (which was towhead, white-blond when I was younger) and skin that burns in the sun, turning more red than golden brown. What this outward appearance doesn’t often convey, is that I am a multi-racial woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage. My mother was born in Jamaica to afro-Jamaican and Cuban parents. Like Jamaica, my mother’s background is very mixed, but she is also obviously coded as black. We often refer to my mother’s family as the UN because it probably encompasses more people (my grandfather was one of 12) and more colors than most international diplomatic gatherings. My father is white, grew up in Ohio, and the Kibbe-clan is descended from Mayflower-era Puritans and Old English stock.
So, I understand that there is a bit of incongruence between my physical form and my cultural, racial, ethnic identity. I don’t automatically fault people for being surprised or confused.
But it does get tiring. I deal with this moment of “coming out” as multi-racial in a variety of ways, depending on my mood (shout out to this multi-racial sister who so eloquently talks about this process here). Sometimes I offer the full “Afterschool Special” version of my family history. On less generous days I respond with a simple “yes” when someone asks if my mother is really black, and leave the asker to figure out the rest.
But either way, it is something I have to deal with. And I am not complaining. I am IN LOVE with my history and identity. And I realize that I am lucky to be an “interjection” in our racial scaffolding. That introducing myself can be a doorway to unpacking racial constructs, misconceptions, and attitudes. That my body is in itself a complication of how we understand race and identity. And I also recognize that how I look means that I benefit from white privilege. I don’t pretend to understand the experience of going through this world with darker skin. I know that how I am read racially greatly impacts how I am treated and how I am allowed to navigate through the world. But I also have come to realize that despite the way I appear, my life experience is distinctly non-white. I do not go through the world not having to think about or be aware of race. And I also proudly claim the fullness of my culture and heritage.
But even though I understand where it comes from, this questioning and doubt still takes its toll. Having my identity and history constantly questioned has led to a certain sense of precariousness. Of fraudulence. For my entire life strangers have felt like they have a right to tell me who I am. To question my descriptions of myself. To assert their feelings, understanding, and sometimes bullshit and baggage, onto me and my body. To question where I belong. Because of this, I feel like I always need to be ready to explain myself. I live in “ready mode” with an explanation for who I am in my back pocket. And deeper in that pocket, a fear that perhaps I really am “not” the things I say I am. Because if others don’t see it in me, then perhaps it’s not true.
I heard this precariousness manifested throughout the interview.
A large part of my oral history interview was spent discussing race. I would say it took up a good 70% of the time. Which is fitting because I am usually thinking about it. I think the shaky ground that my racial identity sits upon, translates into how I see myself in other realms – professionally, romantically, geographically, astrologically. My “in-betweeness” feels very salient.
Some of the stories that came up are ones that are well rehearsed and recited – such as the story about my mother being asked if she was the nanny. Listening to myself tell these stories I tell about myself – these mini-monologues – linked together all at one time, I realized how much I work to make sense of myself.
To map myself.
Making sense of myself for myself, I make myself legible.
I translate myself by telling these stories over and over and over again.
At this point in my life I am particularly invested in making sense of myself, partly because I’m currently in community with many amazing black womyn artists. And starting with my mother, black women have always been my role models. I’m trying to figure out how I fit into it all, especially as I continue to grow up and into myself and my womanhood. How do I navigate the simultaneous reality of my blackness and my white privilege? And more specifically, how do me and my art work fit in? Will I always need to “explain myself”?
I am interested in healing this sense of precariousness, this feeling that who I am is always on shaky ground. There is no way to change how people respond to me. And given the history of skin tone and bodies, mine will always pose questions. But what I can do is dive deep into my experience and personal history so that I feel strong standing up and fully taking up my space. So I can trust my voice and speak, sing, and dance my truth. This oral history piece, this blog, the work I’m doing as an artist now – it is all about a deep dive into myself. About diving into the quick sand instead of trying to stand still in it or fight it with clompy steps.