Last night Mom and I are talking about dating, and I’m telling her that part of me wants to date a man of color. How I think this type of man just might be a bit more mature than someone in the upper echelons of society: the white male. Because if you are a person of color in this country then you have suffered. Undoubtedly. And suffering grows character and can fertilize maturity. Not always, of course. I think a person like this might be able to understand me and some of what I’ve been through.
Then my mother hints that yet again she has no idea what I’m talking about with this race stuff. A minute later she tells me that I need to stop obsessing about hair. I tell her yet again that it has always been more than just hair to me. It is my race. It was my only racial marker, it was the marking of my suffering, the impetus to my finding my heritage.
The conversation becomes disjointed. My mother acts confused. I remind her, again, that yes I am biracial. That the health forms I received from the adoption agency in 2000 confirmed it, that so many city beauticians took one look at my hair and confirmed it, that other black people have always confirmed it, that my birth mother confirmed it. That even though she always refused to believe it, it was true. (And frankly I’m tired after all these years of trying to convince her.)
“What? You have those official forms? And they say your father is black?”
Yes, Mom. I mentioned it to you back when I got them. It said it right there in black and white. Father: Black/American. My mother is flabbergasted, apologetic. She says she must not have heard me or understood that I had official forms.
I remind her of all the times I reached out to her—how in college I had mailed her the story I wrote of that first racist encounter when I realized that my hair was dangerous, how it became literally a matter of life and death to hide it. She remembers reading it. I remind her that she had nothing to say about it at the time except that it was sad.
She says she didn’t realize I was reaching out.
I reminded her of the conversation we had at the Columbus Arts Festival when I told her I was trying to accept the fact that I was biracial. Her words I remember clearly, because I went straight home and wrote them down (using the only tool I’ve ever had to deal with these things): “You are not black.” I remember the pain of her silencing me.
She says she thought I still had no evidence. She thought I was, perhaps, just making something up because I never knew my background.
She says she didn’t realize I was reaching out.
Then she begins to cry, defend herself, tell me she’s sorry. I tell her that I’ve come to an understanding, that I’ve already forgiven her, that I realize how white people will never understand the pain of being marked as a colored person—they have no reason to. We can’t hold that against them. I love her. I have understood for a long time now that she and Dad could not be a part of that area of my life. I do not blame her for not supporting me racially as I was growing up: she was operating under the pretenses of what she was told by the agency: I was a white baby. I DO blame her for refusing to see it and meet me when I reached out to her later after I found confirmation of the truth, but I forgive her. I know that she has chosen not to see that part of me. It hurts, but I accepted it long ago.
I cannot tell if she’s apologetic because she knows I’m writing a book about it and she’s afraid she’ll be implicated.
Then—and then, oh heaven—she tries to relate to me, saying that she knows what it’s like to be marginalized as a woman. She’s experienced sexism and sexual harassment, etc. I say yes, this is a marginalized position. But do you really want to know what it felt like to be me, Mother? Do you? Okay, then. Here it is, using your example.
Say you are adopted. You do not know whether you are male or female. Your appearance is ambiguous/androgynous. Your parents are two males. Everyone in your town is male. It is important for people to know when they look at you whether you are male or female, as it is essential to their immediate understanding of you. (This is how the world works, you will agree.)
All of this is no matter until suddenly one day when you are ten years old you experience this sexism/sexual harassment (someone calls you a whore, someone accuses you of being a dirty female, or maybe you are raped, you are molested, for example). And then, because you have no evidence to show the perpetrators that they are wrong about you, you begin to be afraid. No, not afraid. UTTERLY FUCKING TERRIFIED. TERRIFIED OF WHO YOU ARE. You realize that it is absolutely vital to your being accepted in your environment to hide those things that people seem to find ambiguous. You begin to study the males around you with deep intensity. You must figure out how you will survive safely. And, if you care about being accepted and having friends in that environment (as I did), you must figure out how to fit in. You must figure out how to become male.
(PS: You have never met a female. You have heard of them, yes, but you have no personal experience of them. No role models. You see them on TV, often in relation to crime and drugs. They don’t have a clear place in the world you know.
PPS: You are alone in this. You are too scared to tell your fathers about your sufferings—the threats, rapes—as you do not want to be isolated from them; you know they won’t understand. And they are all you have.)
You better believe that you would hide your breasts. Perhaps you would tape them down. You might still get sexist comments, which will heighten your paranoia and fear and increase your desire to change yourself. Perhaps then you would try to lower your voice. Perhaps you might try to replicate a penis and put it in your pants. But you better believe you’ll be watching everyone around you to see if they can somehow see this unknown thing about you that you are trying so hard to hide.
This is why I straightened my hair so much. This is why I refused to cut it. This is why I bleached it. This thing you call an “obsession with hair,” Mother? This was fear. ABSOLUTE FUCKING TERROR.
One day perhaps you go to college and learn that you are female. The doctors tell you that you are clearly a female. Your birth family tells you that yes you are a female. Your fathers refuse to believe it. Your fathers do not want to face the fact that they were lied to by the adoption agency, that they unknowingly perpetuated your marginalization/isolation.
The medical forms tell the same story. But does it even matter by this point whether you are female? Does your suffering as a female count enough?
Does my suffering count enough? Enough to be counted among the colored who would understand? If my skin and my hair and my paper that says my father is black aren't enough... IS MY PAIN ENOUGH?
My mother cries, apologizes, swears she did not realize when I was reaching out. She never meant to silence me. I forgave her long ago, I tell her. Part of me feels resentful of her sudden desire to align herself with my sorrow.
I needed this years ago, Mother. I needed you years ago. Is it too late now? I don’t know.