I was recently selected to be one of the participants in this year’s Boston’s Listen to Your Mother (LTYM) show. I am nervous, excited, and grateful. Having been through two rehearsals now, I am confident this reading will be exceptional. I feel honored (and truthfully a bit surprised) to have found myself part of a group of such incredibly talented writers. I am beyond impressed by their willingness to so honestly and beautifully tell their stories. Although I don’t personally feel brave when I’m sharing my life’s experiences (crazy, yes), I think it is, in fact, a courageous act. Detailing parts of your life before an audience of strangers is, perhaps, the boldest display of vulnerability imaginable. To do so is to invite commentary, inquiry, and insults. It’s not for the thin-skinned, so why do it?
I suspect if you were to ask a group of personal essayists or memoirists why they share so freely, you would get a lot of similar answers:
I feel like I have something to say.
I want to be heard.
I write as a way to make sense of what I have experienced.
I want to connect with others.
It is this last part, the ability to form connections through writing, that resonates most with me. Since I first sat down with my LTYM cast mates and we began sharing significant pieces of our lives with one another, I was reminded of the power of good storytelling. Among us there are stories of loss, overcoming incredible odds, and grappling with identity. I found myself (more than once) in tears because I felt so many of their stories were also mine. And perhaps it sounds corny to say so, but there is something meaningful about feeling so human.
This blog, of course, contains my personal stories, many focused on race, and I assume many African-Americans and/or Black-White Biracial individuals can relate to a lot of what I write. After all, regardless of the myriad experiences among us, we share in common having brown skin in a society that was created to be advantageous only to Whites. Collectively, our story becomes one of figuring out how to make our places in a world that never really wanted us (free from enslavement, that is).
But what of those Americans who came here voluntarily? One of my fellow LTYM readers shared this part of her life’s story with us and I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels in our lives. Her family came here, brown skin and all, and as it turns out, whether you are here by choice or here by circumstance, the racism is exactly the same. As she read, I found myself nodding my head, thinking, “Oh yeah, I hate it when they ask that.” And more often, “I know what that feels like.”
Along with emotional connection, I appreciate when another person’s writing provides me with an opportunity to learn something about myself. In this case, though, I’m a little ashamed that my reaction to learning of the similarities between my cast mate and myself was one of mild surprise. Why should I be surprised? Is it really hard to believe we have heard the exact same prying questions for our entire lives? Does it really seem so far-fetched that we would draw the same conclusions about racism? Did I think one’s ethnicity made a radical difference in how racism is doled out?
I’m going to take it a step further here and own my privilege. As a natural-born American, I don’t have to think about the effects of racism on immigrants. While the racism itself was certainly no surprise- one need look no further than this year’s presidential election for proof of its existence- I’m not sure I ever fully took into consideration the fact that there is a kind of universal racism happening, the end results of which are not so different from one population to the next. Clearly, there is a real overlap between American privilege and run-of-the-mill white privilege. It’s a humbling admission, to be sure.
I don’t want to sound flippant or dismissive of the fact that racism is multifaceted. I cannot claim to understand what it must feel like to be told I have no right to be in this country, or told my very presence is unlawful. And I have never been forced into the position of having to explain how my religion and the acts of terrorists are in no way related. Conversely, those who are not African-American cannot completely understand what it feels like to grow up and live in this country with its centuries-long history of oppression that, no matter how we fight, won’t seem to go away. There is, however, an overarching piece: we all know our un-whiteness serves as a measure of our worth. Universal racism.
I wish I could say it’s comforting to know my experiences are cross-cultural, but there is nothing comforting about racism. I’m also not sure what to do with this new discovery of self, this knowledge that I probably could have been paying more attention. I suppose I’ll just count it as another step in the process of trying to do better. Awareness of one’s privilege and one’s ignorance is never a bad thing. I’ll keep making mistakes and keep writing about them, and I will be forever grateful to those whose writings, in turn, teach me.