Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 2

Alison and family circa 1992

Alison and family circa 1992. She’s the little blond lady in the sailor outfit with the very serious face.

I mean it had always been a thing, like…

*heavy pause/sigh*

… 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.

This part 2 of the “Remembering Together” oral history series. Read Part 1: On Being Interviewed here

Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 1

On Being Interviewed

There is something special about being interviewed.

Hearing myself tell my life story is eerily familiar and refreshingly strange.

There is a comfort in the stories – in knowing the endings and the feelings intimately.
There is a newness in hearing my voice outside of myself.
Outside of my body — coming into me instead of coming out of me.
There is a discomfort in sitting in my past reality and letting it wash over me. Particularly the things I took care to fold, pack up, and walk away from.

I am trying to be generous with myself.
There is a tendency to cheapen things in the past, especially from my youth. I want to pass it off with a preceding, “Well, I was 13…” or “It was one of those teenage things…” or simply a “whatever.” As if any of these qualifiers mean I don’t have to account for “it.”
Deal with “it”. Acknowledge that at the time those emotions, experiences, people, fears were my full reality. I couldn’t dismiss them because they were all I had.

If I was listening to someone else, I would listen to their speech patterns and appreciate them without judgement as a part of the way that person expresses themselves. When listening to myself I am full of critique — why didn’t I finish that sentence, I mumbled here, etc. I am a performer after all, I want to be heard a certain way. But this is how I sound. I realized my mother is right, I do mumble. I don’t finish my sentences, numping from one thought to the next and daring my listener to follow.

Also, I say “you” when I’m really talking about myself. I give myself speeches, directing everything at “you” as if I am outside of myself.

I’m listening for poetry.

For monologues. For things to put in the choreo-poem I am writing. I’m listening to the oral history for parts to be used in the piece I’m creating.

I’m listening for poetry.

I was surprised at how “white” my voice sounds. I know that is a very problematic statement. And I’m not even sure what it means. But I couldn’t keep it from popping into my head. So even when people can’t see my blonde hair and light skin, hearing my voice probably cues them to think I am white, right? I have spent a lot of time thinking about how my body is seen racially, but not nearly as much time thinking about how I am heard and how that is coded.

Listening to this makes me want to do oral history with my mom.
Will my kids or grandkids listen to this?
I wish I could hear my ancestors re-tell their lives.


Part of me wants this essay to be a spitting out of who I am. A quick and dirty introduction to the “essential facts you need to know about Alison.”

Born in McAllen, Texas. Mother from Jamaica, raised in Jamaica, Queens, NYC. Father from outside Cleveland Ohio. Mother brown. Father white. Youngest of three. One older brother and one older sister. Raised in Carrboro, NC. Attended Montessori schools, Quaker school and a two-year stint in public middle school. Finished high school early to travel to Haiti. Went to Duke University for college (also went to UNC). Studied anthropology and public policy. Graduated 2012. Interned at the White House. Worked at the Kennedy Center. Was a barista and a waitress in DC. Move to San Francisco and NYC for an arts consulting fellowship. Landed in NYC. Working to be her full creative self as a freelance artists, arts administrator and teaching artist.

But in listening to my interview, I realize that a lot of the “juice” lies beyond the facts. And between the facts. And in the space created by the things I chose to tell, how I told them, and what I didn’t tell.

There is so much I chose not to say. And in hearing the absence of those parts, I realize that it is easy for everydayness to get lost in the retelling of memory. I remembered big events and ideas and I turn them into narratives and explanations. And then I dogear them in my mind, highlight them as “worthy” of retelling. In my oral history I heard these ideas and feeling analyzed and overlayed with broad strokes.

But those tiny details, the little dots — like how my mom yelled up the steps to me every morning. Or that brief period she made Pillsbury Flaky biscuits every morning. And the SlimFast shakes for snack phase. And the chinese dumping phase. (There were a lot food phases). Which seat was “mine” in our 1996 Honda Odyssey. Sitting and watching all of my sisters soccer practices. The couch in our living room. The fights over who would walk the dog.

These are the little everyday details that fill in those big lines. What really makes the tapestry and terrain of life.

I’m interested in this everdayness. Perhaps because it is often what we find so NOT interesting about our lives. Until we learn about someone else’s everydayness and how different it is from our own. This oral history is part of taking a deep dive into myself, and I realize this “deep dive” requires validating these everyday details just as much as the big picture. Acknowledging them as key shapers of my life and myself.

Read “Dig Deep Stand Firm: Part 2” here