I’ve come to the realization that one of the most difficult things for a young female academic of color such as myself to do is to avoid identity politics. Put another way, among the difficult things for me, I have discovered, is to write, read, and teach things that are not about race, gender, or various other marginalized identities. It’s what I do; it’s my solemn duty. It’s what I’m good at. Of course, a long time ago, when I was struggling for a cohesive through-line for my first book, someone asked me a really difficult question: “how is this book not another book of Caribbean literary criticism about identity?” It was one of the most productive questions I have ever been asked. It helped shape my first book, which in part challenged the primacy of identity and its conflation with sovereignty in Anglophone Caribbean discourses. This question’s prompting to think counter-intuitively against the grain continues to inform my present scholarship, teaching, and of course this lovely blog of mine.
A thing dawned on me about this blog though. What got my blood boiling and the writing momentum going in the last month was racial and gendered politics as we encounter them in popular media. Sure, I work to dislodge them from tired, worn, and unproductive logics, but in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking about what could quickly become an exclusive focus on identity politics and that is a little unsettling to me. The thing to write about this week, of course, given the trajectory of the other pieces herein, is the story of the lesbian couple in Ohio who are suing the sperm bank because they were inseminated with the wrong sperm thereby creating a mixed race baby. All week the choruses of “that’s racist,” or “that’s white privilege” resounded and it seemed like this would be the difficult subject of the week. A thing that would come to me very easily is outlining exactly why declaring this couple as either racist or privileged doesn’t even begin to get at the truly perplexing issues of this story. I’ve had lots of practice. In a nutshell: words like racist, white privilege, even feminist are so widely circulated their potential for conveying complexity is often diminished. In a way, they are like when my students use the word culture for example: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a book about Dominican culture. Yikes.
We all know what such popularized words mean once invoked; some of us experience them with emotional associations, but this familiarity comes with the flip side that there is no need to think anymore deeply about why a white couple would have problems raising a mixed race child beyond their own ignorance based on privilege or racism. Complexity vacated. White privilege makes them racist. End of discussion. Nonetheless, neither of these things gets at the connections between the Ohio couple and my own encounter this morning with a woman at church, who timidly and apologetically asked me what products I used on my fantastically impeccable big curly coif. I mean today the hair did the damn thing and did it right! Anywho, church lady’s daughter, who I assume might be adopted (both parents are white) is mixed race and has hair that is curly like mine. It’s only a matter of time before she/they give up on the natural texture and turn to the relaxer for deliverance.
Truth be told, I’ve always looked at the daughter’s hair and recognized some familiar struggles: the wrong products, the wrong shape, the lack of bounce shine and movement, a general uncertainty about how it looks and whether or not it looks right. I have been there. She’s a teenager. This is why some curlistas abandon their natural texture; it’s different from everyone else’s; it’s too hard, especially when the knowledge that makes it easy isn’t in say mainstream beauty and fashion magazines. In the last six years, I’ve watched the daughter come into her own as a young woman in so many ways, but the hair I can tell, continues to be a struggle. I’ve often thought about how I could approach her, all big curly haired sister like, and talk with her about her hair care regimen. These things are delicate though. I know she notices my hair; she compliments my outfits and I’ve seen her looking, but she hasn’t asked any questions. General unfamiliarity with such interactions myself, especially with folks I don’t really know, means I have not volunteered wisdom. Today, though curly haired daughter was absent, parents were present and Mom was wearing a blouse in a color that was so lovely on her, I told her as much during the meet and greet portion of the service. I suppose this was the window she needed to ask me when service was over, again apologetically, about my hair. Here is where I was planning on making the connection between this and the baby the couple wasn’t planning on having, but really church, I tire of this. I tire of it because it is becoming a box in which I am putting myself. I’d like to push back on my own critical impulses if you will.
Like Olivia Pope who ran away with Jake to an isolated beach paradise because she got tired of always being asked to do the same angering and soul crushing things, I have always found it difficult that I am more often than not called upon to do one kind of thing. This thing – race – in large part frustrates me, often angers me, in particular as I often get called upon as an authority on it. To speak, as though it was the totality of my being, about this one facet of it. I am good at it. I am an authority on it, but it’s still complicated. Remember a couple weeks ago, when the tone deaf Alessandra Stanley tried to compliment Shonda Rimes by celebrating her capacity to get away with being an angry black woman? Linda Holmes explained in her own thoughtful piece that there is something to be said about the questions Rhimes gets asked as the only successful black female show-runner of our time – the ways these same kinds of questions may often result in angry or perhaps less than enthusiastic answers:
Who often gets asked… [a]bout people of color on television? About black women on television? Who’s expected to act as broadcast television’s conscience and diversity czar? Shonda Rhimes. And every minute she’s asked to spend serving that function, valuable and necessary as it is, and perfectly understandable as it is that people are curious about her experiences, is a minute she’s not answering the same questions Damon Lindelof gets, or Joss Whedon gets, or Chuck Lorre gets. She’s not talking about her process, she’s not talking about her characters, she’s not telling her silly show business stories. She’s saying, yes, this is bad (as we know). Yes, this is a loss (as we know). Yes, networks who ignore entire audiences are leaving viewers on the table at a time when nobody can afford to do that (as we know).
Now, I am neither Shonda Rhimes nor Olivia Pope, but I do understand this pigeonholing on a personal level. In my first semester on the job as an assistant professor, I was asked to serve on the College of Arts and Sciences first ever diversity committee – college level committee work in a 2/2 job in my first semester on the ground. Go read Mat Johnson’s Pym to figure out how I now feel about this and diversity committees more generally. Whenever I am approached by journalism students to be interviewed for either course assignments or one article or another in any one of a number of local newspapers it always comes with the exact same question “Professor, I wonder if we could do an interview about being black in [insert small Midwestern town here].” Every year, no, just about every semester this request comes (it is the only kind of such request that comes) and I feel the same way about it as I do when I get emails from professional organizations on and beyond campus addressing me as African American faculty. But, I nonetheless always participate. I agree to be interviewed about what it is like to be black here. I try to point out, when I can get a word in for this purpose, that there are other facets to who I am as a woman of color from a place that is not America and other facets to what I do, but that hardly ever makes it to print. Even more difficult is to realize, I’ve been asked to do this so much, I have done not nearly enough work conceptualizing anything else.
Let’s not get it twisted though. I know this is good and much needed work and trust me, I am up for the task and will continue to puzzle through the hard things about various facets of indentarian inequality. Much like Olivia Pope though, while I do want to stand in the sun, drinking rare vintages, without the baggage of all the things I am expected to do, the show could go on. Despite me yelling at the TV, “Stay in the sun, Liv. Fuck DC,” Olivia eventually returns to all the things that continue to make her tired. I hope some things change for her; like maybe she goes down to Florida and lays out in the sun there, at the Mandarin Oriental, get a massage and talk about it from time to time, away from all the things that drain her, though always perpetually require her expertise. Maybe she could start a food or fashion blog. I sure as hell hope making jam in Vermont with Fitz does not become a thing though, because in my mind that would simply be retreating to the other side of an extreme spectrum.
What is the psychic toll of only ever being asked to do one thing? What does it mean to hone one skill disproportionately in relation to others? How does it affect one’s capacity or even desire to think more expansively? Neither jam making in Vermont with Fitz nor feeling like the help in DC feels like a desirable position. I have to keep at it despite the frustration, for the young aspiring to similar levels of fabulosity. But I’ll be damned if I envision my work or myself through myopic lenses. Maybe next week I’ll tell you about the couple and their mixed race baby.