“Jews, Blacks, and the Politics of Identity” with Rebecca Walker


Welcome everyone to the second events of the USF Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice 2014/15 academic calendar. But tonight we’ll hear from Ms.
Rebecca Walker. Founded in 2008,
the USF Jewish Studies and Social Justice program is the first and
only program in the history of the United States formally linking
Jewish studies with social justice. In addition to offering numerous courses
related to this interdisciplinary field, our program offers a minor in
Jewish studies and social justice. As well as an annual speaker series
related to Jewish identities, an annual social justice lecture, and
an annual social justice Passover Seder. In addition and in partnership with
a number of different bay area based organizations like the Jewish
Community Center of San Francisco, as well as countless synagogues and
mosques. We also offer unique educational
programs related to ways to end and transform ethnics and national conflicts, such as on beyond bridges summer
program in Israel and Palestine. This following addition to tonight’s
exciting event our third and final JSSJ event will be held in from hall
around the corner in the Maraschi room, a week from Thursday,
on October 9th from 5 to 6:30. When renowned author Dr. Joy Ladin is giving a talk
entitled the Genesis of Gender. Where she will look at specific creation
narratives found in the Book of Genesis and in the Bible and how it connects to
the construction of gender identity today. In addition, if you’re interested in
being put on the JSSJ list serve, please add your name to
the sign up sheet out there. No one in my Social Justice Activism and
Jews course needs to sign that. So you don’t need to, anyway. Now, let us begin tonight’s
program officially. Each year doing the Passover Seder
countless Jews recite the phrase B’khol dor vador khayavim anu lir’ot et
atzmeynu k’ilu yatzanu mimitzrayim. In every generation people
are obligated to see themselves as if they emerged from Egypt. The literal or
p’shat meaning of this verse, is that those participating in
a Passover Seder should try to imagine or empathize with the Hebrew
slaves leaving Egypt. But the deeper levels mean
something else entirely. It means that anyone who reads the Torah,
the five books of Moses, needs to understand that Israel and Egypt are
not literal places, they are metaphors. Mizraim literally translate as Egypt
means something else entirely. It means exile. It means wandering in the desert of life. It means oppression and injustice. And Israel, the promised land, is likewise
not a geographical territory, but an idea. A promise for what the human
collective has the potential to become, not in another reality,
but here, in this world. Tonight’s presentation
is a taste of this idea. Hovering as the backdrop to this
presentation is the notion of intersectionality. The intersection of oppression and
freedom, injustice and justice but is not yet past, and what is to become. Intersection now only, the intersection
of social identities, race and ethnicity, culture and
religion, gender and sexuality. All forms of oppression, all forms
of destruction are interconnected,. Judging a sister by the color of
their skin to judging a brother by his sexual orientation. Mistreating a woman
because of her ethnicity, is a kin of mistreating a brother
because of his nationality. Yet intersectionality is not just
about how all forms of justice and injustice are inter-related, but
the structures of oppression and freedom are linked one to the other. It is also about how the only way to move
things forward is to consider one another, is integral pieces to the puzzle,
whether a student, professor, activist, or organizer, 20 something or 80
something all of us have a role to play. It says in it’s sacred Jewish text the
term that many thing around us are echos or something else. Honey is one 160th of the dew, the manna, the Hebrews ate while
wondering the Sinai desert, the fire is one 160th of the netherworld,
the Sabbath is one 160th of Utopia. Honey is one 160th of the dew, the manna, the Hebrews ate while
wondering the Sinai desert, the fire is one 160th of the netherworld,
the Sabbath is one 160th of Utopia. With this in mind, it’s my pleasure to
introduce to you tonight our guest speaker for the evening, renowned artist and
writer Ms. Rebecca Walker. Ms. Walker’s work includes the New
York Times’ best seller Black, White, and Jewish, the critically acclaimed
Baby Love, Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence and
her new novel, Adé: A Love Story, which is currently being adapted for
film directed by Madonna. In addition, she has edited
a number of anthologies including, To Be Real: Telling The Truth and Changing
the Face of Feminism, What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future,
One Big Happy Family, and Black Cool. Her writing has appeared in Glamour,
The Washington Post, Book Forum, Bomb, Newsweek, Vibe, Real Simple,
Modern Bride, Accents, Interview, and many other magazines and
literary collections. She’s appeared on Charlie Rose,
Good Morning America, Oprah, Fresh Air, BET, and
dozens of other blogs, sites, and media. Having addressed countless universities
and corporate campuses around the world, Time Magazine named her one of the most
influential leaders of her, and my, generation. After hearing from Ms. Walker we may have
a few minutes to open floor to questions. Please join me in welcoming Rebecca.>>[APPLAUSE]
>>Wow, that was lovely. Wasn’t that a beautiful introduction? It was deep, it was profound,
it was historical, it was informative. All those things. There’s no place for me to put this. So how are you all doing?>>Good.>>Good?>>Good.
I’m really happy to be here, and spending some time with you. And I’m so just happy that you
took these hours to hang out and spend some time with me. I thought that I would do some
reading from Black, White and Jewish, and talk to you a little bit about
how this book came to be in the world. Because I think it speaks to this issue
of the engagement of Judaism with Civil Rights and the Civil Rights
Movement, specifically in our country. And it seems appropriate for
this department, and this evening, and this community, and this moment to
speak about that and from this book. And after I do a little bit of that,
what I’d like to do is open the floor for questions and conversations and really
make this an interactive community moment. Because I think that these days what
we need more of is that kind of face to face relating with one another. And I always remember one of my mentors,
Bell Hooks, who taught that this was,
she called this the patriarchal pulpit. Because of the way that it sits up
the relationship between the speaker and the people being spoken to. The idea that the person at
the podium has all the wisdom and the people who are coming, out there. All of you are sort of the people
coming to absorb the wisdom, and you need the wisdom. And in fact, we know that we all have wisdom that
we need to share with one another. So the dynamic change is trend to see when
you come out from behind the patriarchal pulpit. And I’m hoping that after I actually
utilize the function of the patriarchal pulpit, which is to hold my book,
then I will come out and we’ll have a conversation in which
we all learn from each other, okay? How does that sound?>>Great.
>>Good, yeah, awesome, good. The only challenge that I have
is how I’m going to read and hold this at the same time. This is a light? Okay, he’s gonna help me with that. I’m gonna take this off
because I turned the heat up. Did you all feel that?>>[LAUGH]
>>It’s cold. I flew in from LA this morning,
and I’ll turn the heat up so that I can get warmer
hopefully not too warm. So, I had a little nap
before I came in here.>>[LAUGH]
>>So just to give you a little background, my parents met in the civil
rights movement in the mid-1960s. They got married when it was illegal for
them to get married. My father was a young law student, Jewish
from Brooklyn, who was going to NYU. My mother was a young
aspiring African American writer who was doing a lot
of voter registration work. They both ended up in Mississippi. My father was there because
Marian Wright Edelman, do you guys know Marian Wright Edelman,
the founder of the Children’s Events Fund? Wonderful woman,
had asked him to come down and work on desegregating public schools. And my mother had heeded the call of Dr.
King and others in SNCC to go down and be involved in empowering
the black communities that were so disempowered and so without access to
many of the things that they needed. So they met and they fell in love, the
story is that they fell in love over ice cream, my mother was eating her favorite
flavor ice cream, which is vanilla, and my father was eating his favorite flavor,
which is chocolate.>>[LAUGH]
>>And I like to think that I was
born nine months later.>>[LAUGH]
>>And they fell in love and they had a kind of epic romance. And in the course of their
falling in love, my grandmother, my Jewish grandmother disowned my father
for marrying my mother, a black woman. And they were constantly
harassed by the Klan, by all of the different forces at
that time that did not want them to be together and did not want them
to be doing social justice work. In the context of that, I was born and I was considered immediately
a movement child. People used to come to our house to look
at me, this mixed race movement baby. And so the narrative that was written
on my body, really, on my identity, who I was supposed to be,
was this movement child of the future. I was to embody a kind of raceless,
utopic future, right? That I was a kind of hope that
right now race wouldn’t matter, because there would be all of us around,
all these alter racial people, and the was a wonderful identity
to have as long as I had it. But unfortunately,
the social-cultural dynamic shifted, some personal stuff happened
in my parent’s marriage, but also there was a rise of black power. The idea of integration lost
some of its luster, the forces against them as a mixed marriage
really began to be very, very strong. Their marriage didn’t hold and
they ended up divorcing and I ended up being still a movement child,
but in many ways with quite a bit of tragic you
know sort of projected on that. I became a young woman
who had to go back and forth between these very different worlds. So after my parents divorced, they both stayed engaged in
activism in different ways. My father continued to be
a civil rights leader, he continued to give all
of his energy to doing things like making sure sanitation
was included in the black community. He did things like he argued
in the Supreme Court for new textbooks to be
included in public schools. Because I don’t know if you all, you’re
probably too young, but the textbooks that my parents had,
had things like happy slaves in them. Anyway, so he did all this work. My mother, I don’t know if many of
you know, my mother who’s a writer, she did a lot of writing about
the African American experience and giving voice to to black women,
specifically who didn’t have a voice. So they both continued to do very
important, socially active and transformative work, but they did it
from 3000 miles away from each other. So my mother moved to San Francisco and
my father moved to a very wealthy suburb in New York, and
I spent my life going back and forth. So I became a different movement child. I did a lot of moving.>>[LAUGH]
>>And so my experience was one of having to,
as a mixed race person, adapt to these very different
environments constantly and sort of change my identity,
chameleon like in order to fit in. I was, I went through adolescence
in this way, and as we know, adolescence is a time of really trying to
find out who you are and where you fit in. And so I did a lot of shape shifting. And that was very difficult for me in a lot of ways, and I ended up
writing this book, Black, White, and Jewish because I had a sense,
by the time I went through college, that I needed to somehow
integrate this fragmented self. That I was so, I had all these different
aspects of my identity, of my life, and I couldn’t figure out how
to sew them all together. I couldn’t figure out who I was and
what my identity could be based on. Who am I? And in this book,
as I said earlier today I think, in many ways saved my
life because I couldn’t see how Rebecca could be
integrated until I saw this book. I remember when it came in the mail,
but the first copies, I remember thinking,
my goodness there she is. That somehow if I with all my
disparate experiences could fit between these pages,
if I could fit in these pages and become one thing, then certainly
I could in real life as well. So this book is a real,
it’s very important to me, it’s my first memoir and
I’m not sure that I would have, that I’d be standing here
today if I hadn’t written it. So I’m gonna read to you from it, yeah?>>Yes.>>Yeah. When they meet in 1965 in Jackson,
Mississippi, my parents are idealists, they are social
activists, they are movement folk. They believe in ideas, leaders and
the power of organized people working for change. They believe in justice,
and equality, and freedom. My father is a liberal Jew who believes
these abstractions can be realized through the swift, clean, application of the law. My mother believes they can be cultivated
through the telling of stories, Through the magic ability of words
to redefine and create subjectivity. She herself is newly black. She and
my father comprise an interracial couple. By the time they fall in love, my parents do not believe in
the ubersanctity of family. They do not believe must necessarily be
thicker than water, because water is what they are to each other, and they will be
together despite the objection of blood. In 1967,
when my parents break all the rules and marry against laws that say they can’t. They say that an individual should not
be bound to the wishes of their family, their race, their state, their country. They say that love is the tide that binds,
and not blood. In the photograph from their wedding day,
they stand brown and pale pink, inseparable. My mother’s tiny 5’1” frame
nestled bird-like within my father’s protective embrace. Fearless, naive, breathtaking, they profess their shiny outlawed love for
all the world to see. I am not a bastard, the product of a rape,
the child of some white devil. I am a movement child. My parents tell me I can do anything I put
my mind to, that I can be anything I want. They buy me erector sets and building
blocks, tinker toys, and books, more and more books. We are middle class, my mother puts
a colorful patterned scarf on her head and throws parties for me in our backyard
under the carport beside the creek. She invites all of my friends over and
watches us as we roast hot dogs. She makes Kool-Aid and laughs when one
of us kids does something cute or funny. As a child, as a movement child,
I am not tragic. Late one night during
my first year at Yale, a waspy looking Jewish student strolls
into my room through the fire exit door. He is drunk and twirling a Swiss army knife between
his nimble, tennis champion fingers. Are you really black and Jewish, he asked, slurring his words, pitching forward
in old raggedy arm chair my roommate has covered with an equally
raggedy white sheet. How can that be possible? Maybe it is his drunkenness or perhaps
he is actually trying to see me, but this boy squints at me then peering
at my nose, my eyes, my hair. I stare back at him for a few moments,
eyes flashing with rage, and then I take the red knife from
his tanned and tapered fingers. As he clutches at the air above him,
I hold it back and tell him in a voice I want him to be sure
is black, that I think he better go. But after he leaves through
the still unlocked exit door, I sit for quite a while in the dark. Am I possible? So a lot of my childhood was spent trying
to figure out the answer to that question, and then running into all
of the things that so many of us, I think people color and
I don’t know. The white folks in the room will tell
me later if you’ve run into some of these things, but many of us as people
color have run into these moments. Moments that you realize that other
people are seeing you as something that in a way that you don’t see yourself,
and it’s a kind of shocking moment. So this was the first moment that I
realized that I was a brown girl. I don’t know, mama put me in this new
school over here near where we live now, she and me and three rooms the size
of one the floors of our old house. We went to the little office on the first
floor with mama’s new boyfriend and she filled out the papers and the people
looked up at me, up and down, and shuffled other papers. And then mama said that I needed
to be in the gifted class. And the woman behind the desk
looked at me again, harder, like she was trying to
see through to my brain. And then I was in a classroom with Mrs.
Leoni, helping her staple orange leaves made out of construction paper to
the wall around the blackboard. And then I was in Mr.
Ward’s music class, just like that. It is dark in Mr. Ward’s music room. There is wood on the walls,
which is weird, because our school, PS321, is made of cement and other hard materials like metal,
which is in skinny bars on the windows. Mama’s new boyfriend says this is
because our school was built in the 50s, when they thought you could prepare for
an atom bomb. Mr. Ward is handing out instruments
from a big cardboard box. He tries to distribute them
evenly throughout the room, but they’re way more of us than there
are cymbals and drums and guitars, and so most of us get plastic yellow
recorders with one part missing. Bryan Katon is sitting with
his legs crossed on my left, closer to the music stands by the door,
beating on a drum. If I close my eyes I can almost smell him. Bryan has milky white skin and
red freckles. He has sandy brown hair that always
falls in front of his eyes like Linus on Charlie Brown. Bryan lives way out in
Bay Ridge somewhere, but his parents own the dry cleaning
store across the street from school, the one next to the pizza parlor
where we all go for lunch. If I walk to school early enough, I sometimes see Bryan getting out
of a black car with his parents. He crosses the street and
goes into school, while his father rolls up the gate
in front of the cleaners. Bryan Katon is the boy I like. I don’t know why I like him, I just do. I like the way he’s kind of tough and
has a lot of friends and talks in a choppy offhand way, like he
doesn’t care if anyone is listening. I like the way his parents give
him money when he asks for it. I like it that his mother and
father are across the street. The one time I go into Katon Cleaners
with Bryan at lunch time it is all war m inside and
his mother smiles when we come in and asks him why he’s late,
like she was worried. For a split second, I imagine
myself behind the counter with her, getting lost and all the hanging skirts,
blouses and suits, breathing in all those fumes and pressing
my cheeks against the silky plastic bags. I imagine that she tells me to stop,
that I could hurt myself, in that same worried voice. I tell my friend Sarah that
Bryan Katon is the boy I like. Sarah is my friend, but
I don’t trust her all the way.>>This year I’m paranoid, I don’t
trust any of my friends all the way. Let’s skip over that part.>>[LAUGH]
>>So Sarah tells Bryan, and then Bryan tells me in front of
his friends after school one day, when it is cold and there is dirty
gray snow on the ground, and we are all leaving to go home,
that he doesn’t like black girls. Bryan Katon tells me that he
doesn’t like black girls. Bryan Katon, the boy that I like,
tells me that he doesn’t like black girls, and I think with this big whoosh that
turns my stomach upside down and almost knocks me over,
is that what I am, a black girl? And that’s when all the trouble starts
because suddenly I don’t know what I am, and I don’t know how to be
not what he thinks I am. I don’t know how to be a not black girl. My stepmother is a not black girl. When she picks me up on Fridays after
school in her tall brown suede boots for the weekend, I wait inside a little
longer, until I’m sure Bryan is outside, and will see me go over to her and
be hugged by her. I want him to see her take my backpack and
take my hand and I want him to see me get into her car. And when my grandma, Miriam, comes to pick
me up on other days I do the same thing. I make a big fuss in front of school, so that Bryan will see that I am
related to not black girls. I start to brush my hair
straight a hundred times every night before I go to sleep like
I see Jan Brady do on The Brady Bunch. Do you guys know who the Brady Bunch is?>>Yeah.>>Good, Jan Brady, well not good but
good for this purpose. Jan Brady is not, is a not black girl. I roll my hair in pink rollers
when I’m at my grandma’s house so that I will have bangs. So that my hair will look more like
the not black girls in my class. And I tell my stepmother that I want the
doll she says I should want because all girls want dolls. And even though I’ve not ever had
a doll and I’m not at all interested in the plastic baby that eats colored
mush and then poops it out. I think to myself, this must be
part of being a not black girl. At school Mrs. Leoni tells us that we,
our class, are going to put on a play for the whole school. She tells us this from the front of
the classroom where she walks back and forth looking out at our faces. Some of you will make the sets for
the show. Some will make costumes and
some of you, she says, will act. The play is The Wizard of Oz,
she says, and hands short, rectangular stacks to
the first person in each row to pass backward until we all have our
own wad of mimeographed sheets to hold. I rush through my pages,
inhaling the sweet, tart, mediciny odor of the purplish-blue ink. Who do I wanna be? We read the whole play out loud, and everyone who wants to act tries different
parts on, to see which one fits. Mrs Leoni only has me try the lion,
Aunty The wizard himself. I do not notice that she
has only not black girls read the words beneath Dorothy’s name. I am too excited by the idea of acting,
reading out loud, and making my voice change to match what I
think each character should sound like. By the end of class time
it was all decided. I will be the Wicked Witch of the West. I don’t tell my mother too much
about the play, and she doesn’t ask. It isn’t a big deal, I say, hoping she
won’t see through my mask of nonchalance. I don’t wanna hurt her. I don’t wanna lie either, but how else am I going to convince her
not to come to see me on play night. How else can I explain that Bryan Katon
doesn’t like black girls and if she comes, he will definitely know that I am,
in fact, a black girl? And all of my other efforts to be
a not black girl will be washed away. How else can I stay with her,
and still leave? On the night of the play, as I’m trying on
my black witch’s cape and pointy hat for the umpteenth time, I beg her not to come. I will be too nervous, I say. I won’t be able to remember my
lines if you are there, I say. Please, mama, don’t come. She looks at me strangely,
like the woman in the office did, trying to see through to my brain. I hold my breath but she doesn’t push. She takes me at my word and
I go free and alone out into the night. When I look out from the stage, I can make out my grandmother’s
white face in the crowd. I think, mama is not here mama is at home,
I think surely Bryan will see my grandmother,
I think surely Bryan will like me now. At the end when all the parents and
teachers stand up and clap for us, I feel an unexpected
sadness come into my body. A heat inching up from some place
underneath the skin on my face. I picture my mama lying in her
big bed by the window alone. The lamp giving off a pool of
yellow light as she reads, silently wondering about play night. Even though everyone says I was good,
my mama, the one with the most important voice,
can never say this to me. Shame sticks to me like sweat. So that’s the moment, when I found out that somebody else
thought of me as a black girl. And that I was, in fact,
whatever that means. I did, in fact, have brown skin. So let’s just talk for a little bit. Little break. How’s that?
Do you like being read to?>>Yeah? Sometimes people say that when I
read I can lull them to sleep. [LAUGH] It’s the style I like
to kind of flow with it. So, this question about
the construction of racial identity, I think, is interesting. And I hear that this is the number one
most diverse school in the nation, apparently? Somebody told me that, is that true? You guys are rated number one, yeah? Does it feel diverse? Yeah? Yeah, it feels diverse? I see the white people nodding.>>[LAUGH]
>>Where are the black people, you guys feeling it’s diverse?>>No.
>>Isn’t that interesting, yeah, right. So, I think so many of us come into
our racial identity in when we are of color in this culture sometimes
in very painful ways like that. When you’re excluded from something,
or someone’s judging you and pushing you away and
saying that you’re not attractive or that you’re not smart enough or
that you don’t belong in some places. And we were talking a little
bit in class today, just for a moment, about whiteness, and
the construction of whiteness. And so, black is this often constructed
in the culture as something negative, right, as something outside. But we don’t really talk
about how whiteness is, is taught and we talk about it as
sort of the dominant culture and that there’s a lot of privilege
inherent in being white. But I’m interested in maybe just one story of when one of you white people
in here recognized that you were white. So, that was my moment of
realizing that I was of color.>>Well I talked about
this in class today, but when I was going through RA training, we had to split up by race for
affinity groups and I have never been categorized
by someone else’s white kind of. I mean, I’ve always known that
I’m white but I hadn’t ever been put into a group of white people
to like talk about our whiteness. And so, that would have been
the first time I actually had a conversation about it.>>Sorta realized that you were white or
that you were perceived as white and how did that feel?>>It was one of the most uncomfortable
moments of my life I would say or one of the most uncomfortable
groups to just, like, step in to. And I have done that same
affinity group activity before->>Mm-hm.>>And it’s been split up by gender, and
it feels much easier to step into a group of women-
>>Mm-hm.>>Then it was to step in
a group of white people.>>Okay, any other stories?>>So, I was at my friends house,
where he’s having a little gathering, and he’s African American and he invited
a bunch of other African American buddies, and my other two buddies came
that were also half black. And so, some other random guys came in,
they’re all African American. I’m the only white guy there, and they all
when they do their handshakes, they’re all tapping it up, super, they’d never met
each other, but they’re super close. Like hey, what’s up, man. And they see me and
they put their hand up, hey. [LAUGH] That’s the whitest I’ve ever felt. But, I mean, I understood I was out
of place, but I was like, okay, man, I had no hard feelings. I was just like, hey. What’s up?
[LAUGH]>>Uh-huh, that was the first time? That was the first moment that you-
>>Well in a large setting, cuz I was the only white guy,
was generally the only white guy there. So it was pretty apparent, and
I was the last one in line. So they went down a whole line,
everyone being super friendly and then.>>Uh-huh, so that feeling of exclusion,
but you were cool with it.>>I mean, what was I gonna do,
I’m not gonna complain about that.>>Right, you’re not gonna feel guilty
about it.>>[LAUGH] Well, I will.>>Okay good, any others,
your first moment of realizing?>>I have this one input,
I’m not like white. For me, what was the most that
impacted me that I realized that there are different races is I’m from Brazil and in Brazil literally we have this
thing where we go to the hospital and you need to say are you white, black,
Hispanic or anything like that.>>Like, we don’t have that
differentiation because I think we’re all a mix. So when I first move into U.S.
and I had to go to the doctor for some reason and my first time
filling out the paperwork and they ask white, black,
Hispanic, or whatever. But as a Brazilian,
we’re not really Hispanic, so I’m always like, am I Hispanic? What am I? Others? Because I always put Hispanic others or
others, because we’re not really fully considered
Hispanic, but I never really know how to fill out those paperwork
cuz I never really know what I am. And there’s no category. So it was really interesting
to me that okay, now I have to categorize myself,
what am I really? As far as now, I still don’t know. I even spoke to one of the person who
is in charge of our nursing program and I was looking at some scholarship,
and I was like, do I classify as Hispanic to apply for
a scholarship? And he’s like well,
if you feel like Hispanic, I think so.>>[LAUGH] If Hispanics
getting money I don’t care>>I don’t care, I care about they classify me as but it’s funny how sometimes I
don’t know what to put and most of the time I put others and
I’m like, okay, I’m just others.>>Right.>>My boyfriend all the time mess
around with me, like, you’re others.>>Well, it’s interesting how we
don’t naturally think of ourselves as a category or as a race. That all of these stories are about other
people making us aware or conscious via exclusion or asking us to categorize
ourselves as a difference race, right? But it’s not our organic way
of understanding ourselves, we don’t wake up and
say, hey, we’re black. So it’s a kind of superimposed structural
device that is being utilized, and it’s interesting to think about who is
utilizing it and for what purpose, right? That’s part of becoming critically
aware around race and color. Why are people needing to categorize us? One of the most moving stories
that I’ve heard about whiteness, and somebody coming into their whiteness,
similarly to this story, is that there was a young guy who
was in a talk like this with me. And I asked that question. And he had a best friend, a black friend, his whole life who lived around
the corner, something like that. And when he was eight years old,
his mother told him that he could no longer play with his best
friend because he was white. Because he was white, and that as a white person he was not
allowed to have black friends. And he loved this friend so much, and that was the beginning
of his identity as a white person. And it was based and grounded in
a kind of separation and isolation and ripping away from his own
emotional relationship, his own emotional ties and
his own humanity. His own sense of human connection. So sometimes I think it’s important
to realize that whiteness can also be located in the space of pain
and separation and distancing, yeah? And we think of whiteness as being
only this place of privilege and the normal,
the standard of whiteness as the neutral, You know what I’m saying. But I think it’s important to
also acknowledge that whiteness, the construction of whiteness,
also has these many facets. And that as a white person, I behoove you
to really think about the construction of your own identity as a white person. Part of doing social justice work, which is connected to this wide world here
today, wanted to do social justice work. Is to really, as white people,
try to understand your role in racism, and your role in this whole
discussion of race and culture. And how you can deconstruct your own
identity in a way that’s helpful for others, for black people,
for people of color. It’s important for straight people to take
responsibility for their own straight privilege on behalf of gay people,
queer people, transgender people. It’s important for men to take up
the mantle of gender equality, right, for women so that we are not always
the ones having to do the work. Nor are we the only ones having to
articulate how we have been damaged by the ways in which we’ve been asked to
define and construct our identities. Because the other side,
even though it appears that you have lots, that the other, right? The person in the dominant position
has all of the privilege and all of the power, there is still
often an underlying wound there. So we’re all wounded on some level
by this structure that’s asking us to be separate and to be classified and
to be otherized, right? As opposed to being together. Some people just get rewarded for
that system, financially or
physically more than others. But there’s still often this
underlying injury, okay? So this is something that I hope
that you all are thinking about. So that gives you a sense. So I started moving back and forth. And it was a crazy system. My parents devised this custody
agreement where I moved every two years to be with the other, insane. And then they ended up moving
within the two years themselves. So I end up going to a different
school every year of my life.>>Wow.>>I know, nuts, and
they were extremely different schools and different environments. So I went from in fifth grade I went
to this hippie school in San Francisco where we called all of our
teachers by their first names, and we did tai chi, and we did yoga.>>[LAUGH]
>>It was Takeba and Rainbow and Ocean and River, and
that was the name of all the kids and we ate the version of quinoa in the 80s,
I don’t know what it was. And then for sixth grade I went to this
school in the middle of one of the worst, poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco. And girls were always threatening to
beat me up after school and I was always running to the bus so that I would not get
beaten up because I was light skinned and the black girls didn’t like me
because of it, so on and so forth. Then in seventh grade I went to this
school in the Bronx that was half Puerto Rican and half Dominican. I don’t know if any of your
are Puerto Rican or Dominican. But anyway, the Puerto Rican and Dominicans were always fighting with
each other and so I had to take a side, because the black was not a part of
the program and mixed certainly wasn’t. So I decided I was gonna be Puerto Rican
because they were always winning.>>[LAUGH]
>>So I spent a year, and that’s where I got most of my Spanish luckily, but anyway
I spent a year as a Puerto Rican girl. And that was how I dealt with that and
then eighth grade, I moved to my father’s
house in West Chester, which was completely Jewish,
completely upper middle class, upper class and all the girls were like,
I call them total jabs. Like they had Guess jeans, you don’t
know what these references are probably, but they had these super expensive
jeans and Pisio shoes you know and pools and I couldn’t figure out how
really to adapt in that environment. But what I remember most of all, again, when we talked about the ways
in which identities, whether they’re social economic, racial,
cultural, religious, whatever they are. The ways in which they ask us to split
ourselves from people that we love and communities that we connected to. One of the things I remember the most
about moving to West Chester was that I had to leave behind
all of my friends from The Bronx, because I could not figure out how to
bring my Puerto Rican friends, who had never even considered, who had never
even seen this world that I was now in. I could not figure out how
to bridge those two worlds. As a movement child, the vision was that
I would be able to be that bridge, but logically. Realistically, I couldn’t and so I had to
break from them and I found that my life, every year of changing and moving, was a
serious of having to leave people behind, in order to fit into the next world. And in some ways that has really shaped the way that I write, the way that
I think, the way that I move in the world now because I refuse to let people
go in order to fit into a new world. Because I find that that has been one
of the most emotionally wounding and psychologically traumatizing
experiences of my life. And I think that’s part of why we
as a culture, we as a nation and we as a planet, a world,
are in such dire straits. Because we have lost the ability
to commune with one another, because we feel that the differences
are too great to bridge. And so one of the decisions I mean early
on, during the process of actually writing this book, was that I was
no longer going to deny anyone. That I was going to always be open and
I was not gonna take on the responsibility of trying to make sure that everyone could
get along, but I was not going to turn my back on anyone and I was not going to
refuse to bring people forward with me. And that has been part of
my healing of the world, my work in the world. So you wanna hear some more, you guys do? Okay, good. But, you know it took awhile. And one of the things that I
had to come to terms with, as well as trying to bridge differences,
is that even within my own community, I was seen as an outsider often. Even within communities that I
felt should be embracing and I should be able to have a stable
identity and a stable sense of love. There was always a sense of
fragmentation even there. So let’s see. My father’s brother Jackie and my mother’s
brother Bobby are my two favorite uncles. Uncle Jackie is my favorite because
he always ask about my mother, and even more than that, I like his sweet man
smell, his habit of playing with my hair when we are seated at
the Passover Seder table together, the way he absent mindedly twirls my curls
around and around his short fingers. He’s not afraid to touch me,
to be close to me and this is important. There was also the fact that he a nice
Jewish boy from Brooklyn is married to my Aunt Lisa, a nice Italian Catholic
girl from Staten Island. So there was a kind of harmonious
discord in their house, a bicultural theme that feels familiar. There are huge Christmas’
at Uncle Jackie’s house with lit up plastic mangers and Santa’s
and elves scattered on the front lawn. There are communion parties for his three
children, filled with Italian friends and relatives, named Angie and Marco. And Lisa’s mother is dead but
her father is sometimes there, muttering in Italian and chain-smoking
in front of football on the television. There are also good presents for birthdays
and Hanukkah at Uncle Jackie’s house, boxes and boxes of toy trains and
dolls and baseball mitts and clothes. There are presents at my house too, but
they are about developing my mind or my coordination or
my identity as a non-gender-defined child.>>[LAUGH]
>>My mother buys me books, a hula hoop,
an Etch-a-Sketch or a journal. My father buys me board games,
puzzles, magic tricks, and workbooks that help me improve my math. At Uncle Jackie’s, I get the Jordache and Sergio Valente jeans that mama refused to
buy me because they are too expensive, and which Aunt Lisa’s best friend
Eileen has in bulk for some reason. Another year, Aunt Lisa gives
me my favorite outfit ever, a dark blue corduroy skirt and
matching vest from Abraham and Strauss, that I wear on special
occasions for two years straight. I don’t remember my mother ever being
at Aunt Lisa and Uncle Jackie’s house. I can’t picture her there at the big white
dining room table passing the ravioli or the little Italian pastries at the end
of the meal listening to my grandmother kvetch about how ungrateful
her daughters in law are->>[LAUGH]>>And how tragic it is that she isn’t ever going to have Jewish grandchildren
because her sons married shiksas.>>[LAUGH]
>>I imagine that if my mother were there, she would be unbearably sensitive,
masked, edgy. It would be too stressful for her to sit
and pretend that she felt comfortable and embraced, welcomed like
any other family member. As if race, and hers in particular,
was not an issue. That it is an issue is undeniable,
her absence confirms it, and I am far from oblivious. Nights at Uncle Jackie’s, I miss my mother’s deep, melodious
laughter, floating alongside my father’s. Her elegant brown hands poo-pooing
my grandmother’s assertions, her warm voice complimenting
my Ana Lisa on her antipasto. Her presence at the table would grant
me the great luxury of being able to love my family members unreservedly,
to take them irrevocably as my own. As it is the specter of my
mother of race really and the inability of my relatives to deal with
it, leaves me somewhere on the periphery of my own experience unable to
commit to fully being their. Haunted by her absence I pull back
cautiously and feel even as I laugh and play with my cousins as if some
part of me is alien to them. As if I’m in the family through some
kind of affirmative action plan and don’t entirely belong. I don’t remember Uncle Jackie and
Aunt Lisa ever coming to our house either. Where would they have sat? On one of the two red
love seats in the parlor? How would they have moved among the dark
wood and endless cases of books? How would my giddy,
frenetic cousins have interpreted the quiet stillness my
mother kept in our house? The emphasis on beauty and
color and handmade things. Could they tune in to our domestic
frequency with the ease with which which I was expected to tune into theirs? When I run into one of my cousins years
later in the gritty dark reading of the 14th Street subway station, we stand
awkwardly trying to bridge some gulf neither of us knows how to acknowledge but
which neither of us can deny. He’s all grown up now, with horn rimmed
glasses, in his first year of law school, and he tells me about the house
he’s renting on Fire Island. I fumble for my token and get out
something about an article I’m writing and a trip I’ve taken, but I notice that I hold back, still
unable to commit to fully being there. On the train, I ponder the distance between us,
the way I feel closeted around him. Not my real self. I think about the fact that I can see
him clearly from childhood to now. Going and coming back to that house
on Bridgewater Lane I know so well. I can see his mother and his father
in his eyes and in his cheekbones and in his walk and
I know their dreams for him firsthand. His is a story that is coherent to me,
linear, accessible, plain. But mine is half-alien to him,
blurry, imagined, incomplete. He knows my father well, but
has only heard stories about my mother. To bridge the distance, I must choose to
share with him the part he doesn’t know, and I’m not sure that I trust him. Because a part of myself held back is what
I’ve done to cope for the last 20 years. Opting instead to be partially known,
reservantly intimate. I had no idea if I could tolerate what
might be a less than accepting response. Protecting myself I decide
I rather not know if my cousin is just another racist
hick from Stanton Island. It’s rough. When we see each other at family dinners,
we hug, make small talk, and avoid looking too deeply into each other’s eyes. Number two, two more short sections. Or at least I think I am. Here we go. So Uncle Bobby. This is the flip side. Uncle Bobby picks me up from
the airport in his truck and I toss my red suitcase into the back
before we speed off onto the highway. I am cursing being grown. Fuck this, goddamnit that, shit, you know. Rebecca the wrecker,
Uncle Bobby calls me grinning. You sound like a sailor. Where did you get that mouth? He slaps my thigh hard, but then he laughs
and shakes his head at me from behind the steering wheel, letting me know
he kinda likes it, that I am cursing, that I am tough on the outside, but
sweet on the inside, that I am like him. When we get to his house,
my Auntie Link is cooking sausage and eggs in the kitchen, her hair in pink and blue spongy rollers as she stands
over the sink washing collard greens. The gate slams shut behind me and
she turns, looks me over, and tells me I’ve gotten big. Come give me a hug, she says. Taking me into the warm folds of her gauzy
nylon nightgown that smells like bacon and give me some sugar. Uncle Bobby carries my suitcase
into my cousins’ room. The room I will share with them for
the summer. There are dirty football jerseys and
Toughskins jeans lying on the floor. Pictures of dark skinned women in
bathing suits from JET magazine taped up to the dark wood paneling. The sheets on my bed are blue and white
striped with baseball players on them. Little men swinging bats and
catching balls. There are always two televisions
going in Uncle Bobby’s house, and sometimes the radio on top of that. The TV in his and Auntie Link’s bedroom
was where we watched Soul Train, Fat Albert, the James Brown Show,
and soap operas. After I washed my hair behind the pink
shower curtain in the bathroom, I sit on the floor between Auntie Link’s
legs watching The Young and the Restless as she tries to grab my thin brown hair up
in corn rows that will never stay because as my Auntie Eva says, those little curls
you got from your daddy keep poking out. Every four or five days, me and
Uncle Bobby, and Robby, and Wayne, and Yadah the German shepherd,
all load up into Uncle Bobby’s truck and drive down to the country to the old
shack where my grandmother was born and which my uncles have taken over. And filled with freezers full of raw meat,
soda and beer. The old houses where we have Walker Lee
Grant family reunions every year on the 4th of July. My Uncle Kurt makes his
famous barbeque sauce. He cooks ribs, and chicken, and
fish in a barbecue pit in the backyard. People sit under shade trees and folding
chairs by the side of the house and on the screened in porch talking and
eating barbecue and coleslaw. We kids run through and
around the house under and between all the grown ups playing tag and
it, grabbing a chicken leg or mountain dew and each showing off to aunts
and uncles and friends of the family who haven’t yet seen us, but had heard
of us and we may never see again. When my granny pulls me over to meet
relatives, they all say the same thing. This here is Alice’s little girl? And then they look me over carefully as
if to see if I have all ten fingers or maybe a horn growing out
of my side somewhere. Well, she sure is now, ain’t she? They say finally. She is Alice’s baby girl and
she’s pretty too. She looks just like her mama and
her daddy. I smile politely but I can’t figure this
last part out because even though everyone asks after my daddy,
always wants to know how is Uncle Mel, and they tell me to say hello to him, I
don’t remember my daddy ever being there. The old house where Uncle Bobby and
Robbie teach me how to use a gun. They take me over to the side of
the house in the late afternoon, where they have cans on top of sticks. And they put the big, heavy, metal thing
into my hand and tell me to go ahead. I’m afraid of the loud noise of the dull,
gray thing that can kill, so heavy in my hands. But I plant my feet on the ground and
I point it out to the woods and I pull on the trigger, getting ready for the kickback Uncle Bobby
says may knock me down. He says it is important that I learn
to shoot, that I not be afraid of guns. Sometimes Uncle Bobby carries a gun and
a holster on his hip, with his cowboy boots and
gun and baseball hat. He looks likes one of those guys
I see on old movies and TV. The ones who walks into a bar and
makes everyone move out of the way. From Uncle Bobby,
I learned how to walk like I am tough. But I am not afraid,
like I have a gun on my hip. It is at the old house, too,
that I first hear the word cracker. But I don’t have any idea
what it means until 10 or 15 years later when I am really grown. I don’t realize that it is a term black
people use for white people, and which signifies the insanity, the cruelty, the
maniacal culture of racist white people. Me and my Uncle Bobby, Robby, and Wayne, sit in one of the bedrooms in the old
house, the one that has a big photograph above the bed of my granny and
all of her sisters from the Kingdom Hall. It is late, and we have been shooting,
and eating, and fixing the truck. But now it is dark, and
we are getting ready for bed by the light of an old kerosene lamp that sits in the bathroom by the jar
of peach brandy when it isn’t burning. The boys are making jokes and I’m laughing hysterically,
far more than the jokes call for. I’m intoxicated by the smell, and
buff, and love of these men I adore. Delirious with the airy
dampness of the house, the thrill of the gun
I’m holding in my hands. The way I have foamed over snakes and
pressed my cheek into my cousin’s sweaty back as he drove me
around on his new motorcycle. And now it is dark and
they are telling ghost stories. And the heady mix of fear and
excitement and safety and joy and heat rushes through me and I am full with a giddiness that feels
like it is spinning me around in circles. I laugh and I laugh at my
high-pitched giggle, unable to stop, unable to get control of myself, to calm
down, to get into bed and go to sleep. After 20 minutes or so of this whirlwind,
my Uncle Bobby says something to the boys that I can’t hear,
and they start laughing, too. What, I say, looking up into his beard,
wide-eyed, in the dark, reaching for his strong arms. What did you say? He turns to me with a grin as wide as
my own, and he says, I said, Rebecca, that some people would call
what you have the sillies. But we call what you’ve got the crackers. And my cousins burst out laughing. This is a word my Uncle Bobby would
use again and again to describe me or one of my mannerisms. And my cousins do, too,
even when I’m grown and doing things they think are strange or
weird, things they think are not black. Even though they are just kidding and we laugh about it together, a part of me
feels pushed away when they say this, like I have something inside
of me I know they hate. And so even as we stand there together, I am struggling to find my ground,
to know where I really belong. How do I reconcile my love for
my uncles and cousins with the fact that
I remind them of pain? So there was a lot of that growing up,
yeah. But again, you know,
at a certain point in your lives, you have to figure out
what you’re gonna do with your childhood stuff, right, right? You guys at that point yet?>>[LAUGH]
>>You have to figure out how you’re gonna heal yourselves so that you can
actually heal other people, and help your relationships, yeah? So I’m just wondering, how many of
you have had experiences within your families in which you were
made to feel like an outsider? Wow, goodness, I think,
anybody wanna talk about one? Go ahead. Nobody wants to talk about it.>>[LAUGH]
>>Okay, I’m interested just to hear.>>Share, great.>>I believe, I think in response
to a traumatic childhood, I turned towards the black community for
identification.>>Deep, okay, and then your family-
>>I still have my family. I think that it was the era that we
were talking about when we turned adolescent and
trying to find your identity. And that’s where I connected with,
it’s who I connected with. But as I’ve gotten older and
now I have my own daughter, and as we age and
come more aware of who we are, like you were just describing,
I still connect with my family.>>Yeah.>>It’s a small family, but
it’s part of being a woman. I guess generationally I knew that.>>Uh-huh, interesting, okay.>>And I have a black daughter.>>You have a black daughter? Mixed?>>Yeah.>>Okay, how is she doing?>>Awesome.>>Good, yeah, it’s a different time now,
Mrs. President.>>Absolutely.>>Different moment than it
was when I was growing up, but good, go ahead
>>I think I have a unique situation because my mother was raised
by black people from Texas. She was 13, she was an orphan and so I always felt that I was
raised by black culture. Even though I’m mixed,
I always saw myself as black and never white as a child and I didn’t, it wasn’t thinking negative to me until
I had like a kind of similar situation. This kid, Jason, said you black
little nigger girl, and I’m like? Me, what? But it’s interesting because it’s
difficult for me to relate to other mixed girls who have white moms and
they identify as white. And we just could not,
the food was different and I just could not relate, and
then also being told I’m not black. You’re half black,
you’re mulatto, you’re mixed. Or you’re not black because your mom,
you didn’t come from a black woman.>>Right.
>>So it’s really just weird being rejected on both sides. I’m still trying to figure out the rest. [LAUGH]
>>Right, I hear you.>>Yeah, it’s difficult.>>I actually have lots of
theories about mixed-race girls especially with white moms. That’s tough,
that’s a very specific situation, I think. It’s different. We can talk about that a lot, but I am wondering about
an experience within your family. So we talked earlier about
the ways in which the culture, the external culture, asks you to
identify with a certain race or identity and sort of forces that onto you. But what about when you’re moving in
closer when you’re with your family and they’re applying pressure? Has anyone had that experience?>>Well, within my family, like as I
mentioned in class I’m from North India, so the problems I face is really big for
me, since I’m little they used to say so you’re like the dark child
compared to my sister. So I was the darkest in the family and
that I mean that was so hard for me that like since I was a pre-teen I started doing stuff to my skin
to make it lighter and stuff. And I mean, it’s still taunts me almost.>>Yes, yes, that is very, very deep. And so how are you managing that?>>Yeah, now I’m,
I’m at the age I’ve kinda grown from it, even though I don’t believe in
what they say anymore definitely. But a lot of the things I
did to myself like skin or whatever when I started thinking
about self-esteem and all that. It’s really like you can’t forget
it because they used to say say, you know, you’re the ugly one or
you can’t get married.>>Yes, I mean, I think there’s
the entryof being rejected from the outside world and
being asked to assume an identity. And then there’s this extremely
painful sort of intrafamilial violence that happens that we then
have to also process and work through. That is almost unbearable because it’s so
close. It’s kind of the people that you love, and
it’s so shocking, and it’s so intimate, such intimate violence. And I actually know a lot about racism
in India and colors in India and the caste system in India is what
different things signify can do. And especially in North India when
you told me you were from the North, I was thinking about your skin color and
all of the different assumptions in North India, so
I was wondering how that was going. So I’m glad that you are aware of it and
working through it, and I’m so sorry.>>That’s okay.>>Well, you didn’t deserve that.>>Yeah.>>So yes, so I think as again,
when we think about social justice and social change, we think about again, the external forces that are asking us
to align and why they’re doing that. And then this internal sort of
warfare that we have to also counter in order to be able to be healthy,
and full, and own our own subjectivity and
our in our own self-determination. These are very important locations in
the ways in we’re definitely oppressed, or in the ways in which people are trying
to suppress our own individuality and freedom, yeah? Is there another story about, yeah?>>Like I mentioned in class,
you asked us about our identity or how I identify, and
then first I said where I’m from and then I said a black woman and
you said well what else? I was like, well I’m adopted,
and so I guess my experience, I’ve been adopted ever since I was a baby. But my parents are, but my family is
white, but I have an open adoption so I’m able to speak with my birth mother. Not my birth father, but just my birth
mother, so I’ve grown up with her also.>>Uh-huh.>>But I guess my experience
the first time I kind of felt, what was the word you said?>>Marginalized?>>Yeah, like they kind of pointed me
out because I was black type of thing. So the reason my mother and
my father adopted me is because my mother was married to a man previously and
he passed away from cancer. But they had two children together, so by the time she met my father, who’s
name’s Paul, they couldn’t have children. So she adopted me, they,
well she was 50 when, yeah.>>Wow.
>>So my mom is gonna be 71 in October.>>Wow.
>>But she doesn’t look like it. [LAUGH]
>>Right on.>>And so anyways, so
they adopted me, right? But they also had two previous daughters, who are my sisters, but
my sisters are like in their 40s. But I always kinda saw them as second
moms cuz they were so much older to me. The older one always told me what to do,
but my sister now separated from her
husband who I grew up with too.>>Okay.
>>So now she has a boyfriend named Paul, and my dad’s name is Paul, and
Paul has a daughter named Sarah, and my name is Sarah.>>[LAUGH]
>>Okay.>>I don’t know how that happened.>>[LAUGH]
>>So when we all have, like when I go home for Thanksgiving or
whatever it’s gonna be, you know, we all get together or whatever. And they’ll go, Sarah can you go get
something, and I’ll be like, wait, I meant the other Sarah.>>Uh-huh.
>>And so my sister started to say black
Sarah can you come do this, and that’s the first time I was like,
whoa. But that recently happened,
about a year ago, but I had a conversation with her.>>[LAUGHTER]
>>That is not happening.>>But she couldn’t really
understand why that was not okay. My sister and I really don’t have
a good relationship anymore, because now that I’m at USF and learning
more about privilege and all these things. I’m realizing that half the things
she told me growing up were wrong and she shouldn’t have said these things. So that’s one of the ways I’ve
been specifically targeted for.>>Within your own family?>>Right.>>So how did you explain to her
that that was not appropriate?>>Well, at first, it didn’t go
over too well, cuz I yelled at her. But then,
I returned back to the conversation, and I told her that even if you’re gonna
identify me, and point me out, black Sarah, why did you do that first and
why didn’t you say white Sarah? Instead why did you come to me first and
say that?>>Why am I the other?>>Right, exactly, and she couldn’t
really answer the question and I kinda think because she couldn’t answer
the question, she figured out that wasn’t.>>It wasn’t correct, interesting. Okay so I’m going to read the very last
section, then we’re going to talk a little bit about solutions, and
then we’re going to be done. And this is fairly short. When I am in college,
I travel with my mother, and also alone, to Greece, England,
Ireland, Spain, France, Holland. In Spain, people tell me I must be a,
quote, dirty Mexican, because I don’t speak Spanish with
the lisp left over from a stuttering king. And in France I am treated like
the Algerian I am presumed on many occasions to be. Waiters ignore me,
hotel concierge’s forget my cleaning or otherwise botch my request. Cab drivers pass me and my friends on
the street without so much as a glance. In England, when I go there with my
boyfriend to visit his relatives in Cornwall, my race is completely unspoken. A subject which is obviously on
people’s minds, but is utterly taboo, as if it represents something
beyond words, beyond comprehension. As if not speaking about race, except to
spit tersely whenever it does come up, that it doesn’t matter at all,
is proof that the British are tolerant and progressive, accepting. But when I’m in high school and my mother starts to make more money
we travel to Jamaica, Mexico, Bali. We go as tourists, but
because my mother is an artist and makes an effort to make friends with
other artists everywhere we go. And because we are people of color who
take the time to learn as much as we can about the culture we are visiting. And because we treat the people we
meet as if they are human beings and not objects they are solely
to respond to our every whim. We’re embraced by people,
taken in like family. In those places where many of the people
have skin the same color as mine, and where I’m not embroiled in the indigenous
racial politics of the day. I get a glimpse of a kind of a freedom
I have not experienced at home, where I always seem to be waiting for
a bomb to drop. And where I feel I am always being
reminded of the significance, for better or worse, of my racial inheritance. In the race obsessed Unites States
my color defines me, it tells a story I have not written. In countries of color I feel like I am
defined by my interactions with people. How open am I, how willing to
truly see and be seen by another? What skills do I bring, how able am I to communicate even
when we speak a different language? My lover asked me one night, when we
were all bundled up and close under our comforter, and our child has long
since gone to be with grandparents for the summer, what it feels like
to have white inside of it. What does it feel like to have
white inside of you she asks, and I could hear the burning
curiosity in her voice. What does it feel like to have
white inside of you she asks, and I could hear the burning
curiosity in her voice. What is it like to have thin,
curly hair and lighter skin? What does it feel like? Her question throws me but
only for a few seconds. My first response is, what is whiteness? And how can one, quote, feel white when race is just about
the biggest cultural construct there is? Utah, I’ve moved for
many [LAUGH] from the beginning. I’m actually coming to
some resolutions here. So she nods, she’s heard me
deconstruct it all a million times. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Race doesn’t exist but if you’re operating
within it, come on, let yourself go. Do you ever feel anything different? Well, I say the only time I feel white,
quote, unquote, is when black people point out something in me that they don’t
wanna own in themselves and label white. My tendency to psychoanalyze for instance,
or my greater tolerance for cold weather. My hard earned sense of
entitlement is another example. Or my insistence on physical
beauty wherever I live, which ironically comes from
the black side of my family tree. I also feel white when I compare myself
physically to darker people, and find myself lacking. I most experience whiteness, then,
as some lack of an attribute or another, a lack of a certain kind of
thickness of a particularly full, round, womanly shape that I find
beautiful and associate with abundance. A lack of color,
of the richness, depth, and luminosity that I see in skin darker than
my own, a lack of a non-neurotic quality, a kind of freedom from obsessive mental
anguish which I admit I definitely lack, thanks to the Jewish folks in my life. I don’t exactly think to myself,
I feel white at those particular moments. But I do carry a constant sense of not
black in those areas, of deprivation in those areas, of wanting to have more
of something other than what I have. But is whiteness something I can feel
on or in my body like a stomachache or a burn? No, I asked her if she feels black. Yes, is her instant reply. And because her mother was so
color-conscious all her life, associated goodness with lighter-skinned
black people, and evil with those darker. And because she went to one of the most
color stratified black colleges in the country, and because dark skin is
generally reviled in a culture that deifies whiteness, she says she feels an
instant kinship with those who are darker, who share her brownness, who have been
raised with the same shit hurled at them, the same messages to have to rewrite. She feels black, she says, all the time. She says on the tail end of all that, so
like when someone black starts talking about my people have been oppressed for so
long, do you identify with those people? Do you feel that bond in your gut? Can you draw your fist up behind that? Do you think of black
people as your people? I sense we are headed into a danger zone. Is this is a test? I breathe. I do and I don’t, I say. I was never granted the luxury of being claimed unequivocally by my people,
or by any people, or by any race. And so when someone starts
taking about my people, I know that if we look hard enough or
scratch at the surface long enough, they would have some problem
with some part of my background, the part that’s not included in the my
people construction of the moment. It’s not that I’m not loved and
accepted by friends and family. It’s just that there’s always
the thing that sets me slightly apart, the cracker lurking in my lap. And then there’s the question of how I
can feel fully identified with quote, my people, when I have other people too
who are not included in the grouping. And this feeling I have of
having other people, too, is in effect even when the other people
under consideration do not claim me. Does that make sense I ask? She nods. What I do feel is an instant affinity with
beings who suffer whether they are my own, whatever that means, or not. Do I identify with the legacy of slavery
and discrimination in this country? Yes. Do I identify with the legacy of
anti-Jewish sentiment and exclusion? Yes. Do I identify with the internment of
Japanese-Americans during World War II? Yes. Do I identify with the struggle
against brutality and genocide waged against
Native Americans in this country? Yes. Do I feel I have to choose one of these
allegiances in order to know who I am, or in order to pay proper
respect to my ancestors? No, I do not. Do I hope that what my ancestors love in
me is my ability to muster compassion for those who suffer, including myself? Yes. It seems to me that this,
too, is how memory works. What we remember of what was
done to us shapes our view, molds us, sets our stance. But what we remember is past,
it no longer exists. And yet still we hold onto it. Live by it, surrender so
much control to it. What do we become when we put down
the scripts written by history and memory, when each person before us
can be seen free of the cultural or personal narrative we’ve inherited or
devised? What do we become when we
ourselves can taste that freedom? So by the end of this journey
of writing this book and sort of trying to heal my mind, I came to this understanding
that it was more important to me to identify with the struggles
of all people really. [LAUGH] The struggles of all people,
the joys of all people and not to feel like I had to
claim one identity or another. But that the great gift of my experience
was that I could relate to all these different experiences. And that I could move amongst
these different communities and hopefully in a way that
would be healing for them. And hopefully a way that would bring and contribute to an important discourse
around these issues, right? So I had to come to some sense of
how I was gonna be in the world. Which is what I think all of you,
as you move through college, right, you’re all pretty, you’re all wow,
I won’t ask how old you guys are. But by the time you leave here, hopefully, you’ll be closer to
figuring out how you wanna manage this part of your humanity,
who you want to be, how you wanna identify as
you go through the world. And how does your sense of having
to identify impact the larger structures that are designed to
oppress and marginalize others, right? You have to get to the place
where you take responsibility for your role in that process. And you make decisions about how
you’re going to circumnavigate, how you’re gonna subvert that process,
how you’re gonna change, how you’re gonna not be
what is expected of you. And that´s tough. And that will often take resisting the
kinds of pressures that the outside world will place on you. It will take confronting
people in your family, and sometimes having to walk away from them. It will take having to go deep into
your own psychological makeup and really get real about whether or
not you can let go of certain privilege. Whether or not you can let go of
straight privilege, whether or not you can let go of white privilege,
whether or not you can let go of all the different ways of which you
are rewarded for being who you are. Rewarded for identifying with the category
in which you’re placed, right? And then you have to decide how
much you’re gonna identify if you’re on the other side with
a sense of being a victim, right, how you’re gonna transform that wound,
that pain of being marginalized, where is that gonna take you? Are you gonna stay in a place of rage? Are you gonna stay in
place of being wounded? How are you gonna transform that into
something that can actually transform and heal the world, right? So in this book and in most of my work,
that’s been my question. How to transform these
experiences in a way that is both healing from me as an individual and also healing as a part of it a healing
movement in the larger culture. And what I hope for all of you is that you find that you
come to a place of peace with this. And that you allow yourselves to really
blossom and become who you really are. And I believe in humanity. I believe that you have the potential to step outside of these prescribed
identities in a way that is powerful and subversive, and
in the best interest of all of us. But you have to have courage and
you have to have strength to do that and you have to have awareness
of what’s really going on. So that’s my gift to you for tonight. [LAUGH]. As much as I could do, you know,
that’s my hope for you. That’s my, my dream for you, for
all of us and it’s not easy. And before we close, I actually want to do
the same way we just did the other two. I wanna know if there’s anyone who has
come to some realizations about this and has made decisions in their own lives
about giving up either privilege of one kind or another in a way that
serves humanity, that serves love, that serves peace,
that serves deconstructing power, the empire. Or giving up a sense of woundedness or
victimization in a way that can give them more power and can make space for others
who have been victimized in the same way. Anybody, any stories about doing that? Either of those? Yeah?>>Kind of, I’ve been having
a lot of discussions with all the speakers at USF about white privilege. It’s something I always rejected the idea
of, cuz I felt very attacked by it. And I would say that coming to
terms with that privilege and having to accept that was challenging. But now that I’m there and I think
that it’s a really big leap between, okay, here’s my privilege, but how do I
recognize how it plays out in my life? What is my privilege as a white person? What are my marginalizations as a woman? And how do I reject that privilege, while at the same time
advancing on solid ground? So I think it’s been really hard, and
I’m trying to reject my privilege and interact with a world in a way that does
not bring that privilege to the table. But at the same time recognizing
my marginalized identities and how I can advance despite those.>>Genius, that’s fantastic! So how is that going? Are there any moments you can share where
you really felt like that’s an issue?>>Yeah, I work out in the Bay view
community with a predominantly African American community.>>Yes, I know it well. [LAUGH] I went to school there, That’s
when I was in sixth grade I went to, I think it’s called Thurgood Marshall now.>>Yeah.
>>That school. Yeah, it used to be called Pelt in
junior high, and that’s where I went, it’s terrible. But anyways, glad I,
so you work out there.>>And I- I mean that’s been recent, and it’s been very difficult to sort
of insert myself in the community. I work as a tutor, and so to come from
a place of privilege, cuz not only as a white person class, I’m upper class,
but also having that college education. And to bring that to the table, while at
the same time being asked to be a role model, it’s like how do I
act as a role model and not at the same time flaunt that
privilege that I’ve been granted? And so I have to insert
myself in that community and it’s been a personal challenge.>>How do you do it?>>I keep going I think really it’s more
personal than it is for other people. It’s pretty much just walking in and recognizing it and having to think
about it constantly in the same way. Putting it aside and
recognizing what you are going to do. And it’s also, I think it’s accepting it. I like to tease myself about being
a stereotype about the whole white culture and sort of acknowledge it. I found that humor can also be a way
to acknowledge the privilege without flaunting it.>>Well, it’s great that you’re
thinking about all that. That’s really wonderful. I often, when I’m in situations like that, I really remind myself that I have so
much to learn from other people. That people who have
struggled in ways that I can even imagine have something that is so
precious, resilience, grit, determination. And there’s a challenge,
because you don’t wanna romanticize or idealize that, but for
me it’s very important to understand that we have something
to learn from each other. And that’s part of the way that I
address that moment, in addition to trying to give as much as I possibly
can to demystify the power structure. Cuz that’s part of how this whole system
works is that people are not told how things actually work,
what you have to do to get here, what you have to do to get there. So I find myself spending a lot of time
trying to tell people information that they are ordinarily not given,
to share my privilege in that way. So it’s really, yeah,
I think that’s a great place to start, I wanna get back to you on that. Anybody else, yeah?>>My stories a little different
>>So I come from an Armenian community. So our privilege, I would say,
security that’s found in family.>>Yes.
>>So it’s very tight knit. And everybody who goes to school goes to,
I’m from LA, too, so the community is in LA, so
no one goes further than Santa Barbara.>>Right.>>So personally, a lot of things
that happened to me, so my security, which is my family, was a little taken
away from me cuz I lost my dad and my grandparents to cancer
all within two years. So it was really dramatic,
and so I took that, I kind of didn’t do it consciously. I unconsciously like needed
to get away from it and chose to move to San Francisco. And I think that was kind of
a rebellion against what the norm is? Because it was like I was by myself and
I was away from my family. But other people have looked at
it in different perspectives. Still I’ve been here for three years and
when I go home for different things they’re like, you left your mom and
I’m like, it’s been three years.>>Right.>>[LAUGH] I didn’t leave her. And so other people have actually taken
that, like, wow, Paulina can do it. So they’ve actually taken the opportunity
to come to visit USF as an option or go out of their norm and
ask me and my mom for advice. And I think another way I
grew up the key barrier was a lot of the women are very dependent. So they go to school, but
they never practice what they’ve learned. A lot of the Armenian community comes from privileged families in
the sense of, they’re upper class. So they’re very snobby or
dependent on their parents. Not all of them. I’m totally judging in general. I think-
>>But in America, I think that I would say
that that’s largely true globally.>>So one way I had to try to make
myself different from that is, so I started working from a young age. So when my dad passed away,
I kind of asked somebody right after the funeral, actually like,
can I work for you? And it was very bizarre for him
especially because he’s an Armenian man, he was like, you’re a young
Armenian girl who wants to work. And he actually gave me the opportunity, which was the kick starter to
my career as a young individual. So that has been really inspirational too to a lot of my sister’s friends and
a lot of those people. So when I have articles featured
about me and things like that, it’s kinda dispersed among the community.>>Right.
>>So I think that I unconsciously did it, and I followed my emotions. But it’s been a push to people that are younger than me to understand, like, we have the ability to do this. And we’re not doing it against our family,
we’re doing it for ourselves, to better ourselves. I hope that answers your question.>>Of course, that’s wonderful. I mean, it’s interesting how
you put all that together. That out of great loss that
somehow the pain in the loss or the loss itself motivated
you to propel yourself out of a kind of limiting category. Of a limiting identity of the daughter
who should be sort of evangelized and wounded within this narrative
of now having to stay home and take care of the mother,
for the death of a father. But you left that and you made
space not just for yourself but for other young women in your community
who are expected to stay. So I think that It’s another
story of how we have to divide our own narratives and how we can do that
in a way that makes space for more people. And it sounds like you’ve done it in a way
that is not separatist, so to speak, that you’re still staying integrated
with the community at the same time. And that’s I think very powerful and
important, I would say. So yeah, that was great. Thank you. Any others? Yeah?>>I recently lost my father too, so
I just want to say I know how it feels, it’s very, very rough. So in my household, in my family, we’re Italian and
very close as well. But we all live in the bay area,
so it’s a little different. But my brother, he’s 24, and
he just realized he’s having a baby, and he just got married, and
it’s all happening very fast. And he called me first to tell me first,
and I was really, I was shocked. I was like, wow, I didn’t know I meant
that much to you that you would want to tell me first. So anyways, then he was gonna
tell my mom a few days later, so they drove down to her house and
she called me after they left and she was, in a funny tone, she was like,
hey, Auntie Alex? Cuz my name’s Alex, and
I was like, hey, Grandma Gina. And we just laughed about it. And there’s never been any conflict or misunderstanding towards my brother and
his now wife. And there’s been no separation or bad looks or cold shoulders. I know that’s not me directly and it’s
talking about by household in general, but I’m just really proud to have
a mother who’s like that. And they now live with her because she’s created a beautiful house
where we’re always welcome back. They both now live with her and I just am really proud that’s that like
the family that I come from. And that even though they’re financially
unstable and young, that it’s okay. And that they love each other and
that we’re a family.>>Uh-huh. That’s nice. Good, okay. I was wondering what the issue was. I was like
>>I know, and it’s really not an issue but-
>>Well, no, it actually could be an issue. So, that they’re young, and they’re not financially stable-
>>Yeah, well->>And there could have been a space for ostracism and rejection-
>>The whole point, actually, what I was sharing is
that Christine, my brother’s wife, she’s Hispanic-
>>Like, full Hispanic, and we’ve never thought twice about that. There’s no ethnicity barrier. We love her cooking, it’s delicious. We accept her family and
there’s like this beautiful mesh. I know it’s not a black and white,
but it’s a white and Hispanic and it’s interracial and
we find it beautiful in our family and I->>That’s great. You think she feels the same way?>>I’ve been thinking about that
now from hearing you speak and I actually, next time I see her,
I wanna ask. How have you felt interacting
with my family and relatives and->>I think that will be a good thing to do.>>I’ve never though to but I should.>>That would be a great thing to do. I think,
to break that barrier of assumption and actually have a real connection and
a real conversation about that, would be a furthering of the narrative
that you’re working with and believe in as part of
your positive narrative. Okay, that’s great, wonderful. So I think you all are doing it. You’re working it out, you’re starting. It’s making sense. Before we close,
do you have any questions for me? I realize I didn’t leave much time for
questions. I think I’m an open book. I didn’t write about it in this book. I’m sure I wrote about it in another book. [LAUGH] But are there any questions? Yeah?>>You said you are a mother, correct?>>How is the ideology that
you’re raising your child, when they ask you controversial questions? How do you put it into a point of view that a child would understand and
also so you don’t force your point? I don’t know.>>It’s very hard and
that’s a great question. One of the great things about kids, I
found, is that if they don’t understand or they’re not ready to hear,
they just shut you down. And often, I talk to him like he’s 20. He’ll say, well, what is such and such? And I’ll go on a whole discussion about
privilege and you know, [LAUGH] And people who can afford this, and why is
this and then he’s like, mom I can’t. I mean, I try to give him a lot of room, just mental space,
to have his own experiences. And when he comes to me with questions,
or with things that have happened to him, I try to present them in a way that
gives him a historical context.>>At his level, but
that also empowers him in some way to act in a way that’s both holistic and
also self-preserving and that’s hard. We’ve had many different moments that
have been especially challenging, because he’s a very peaceful kid,
and an introvert and kids have picked on him a lot. Not picked on him a lot, but he’s had some
bullying moment and I really want him to fight and back even though I’m
a total pacifist and peace chick. So there’s a part of me that wants
him never, ever to hit anybody, but at the same time I feel like he’s
gotta assert himself or else. He’s just gonna be completely
taken advantage of for ever and that’s one of the interesting
conversations that we’ve had to have and we continue to have when is it
okay to respond to aggression or to insult with a kind of forceful
rejection of that regression? When is that okay, how do you measure it? What are the steps you
have to go through first? How do you hold that and also your
desire to be peaceful, loving person, because I’m fortunate enough to have
a child who really values being a peaceful loving person. That’s all he wants to be and
having to encourage him to kind of get that grit
has been very interesting. And so it’s interesting,
because this is just one example. The other day, he got into
an altercation with a kid in his class. This kid pushed all his books off of his
desk and then he picked them back up, and the kid pushed them back off again. And then he picked them back up and said, could you please stop pushing
my books off of my desk? And the kid pushed him. And ordinarily, my son would have cried or just ignored it not done anything. But my son, I’m really happy to say,
pushed the kid back and knocked him on the floor and
I hate, I mean, I was so torn. He told me about it. I picked him up and he’s like mommy,
I had this thing today and I knocked this kid down and
I was like my God.>>[LAUGH]
>>But what I actually said to him was did
you win and did you get in trouble?>>[LAUGH]
>>Because that was really the story, but then I said to him that I’m so
glad that you stood up for yourself. You did the right thing, the teacher
was there, she didn’t intervene, you had to stick up for yourself. I’m really proud of you. I know it’s really hard for you. I mean, so we had that moment like yeah,
mommy is really proud. But then I had to have that
conversation about it again, we never wanna resort
to physical violence. Because it doesn’t lead to peace and
that whole conversation, and then I had to have the conversation
about being a boy of color, and being criminalized as he grows up. You can’t just as a boy
of color hit other kids. I think you’re gonna have the same kind of
reaction from people that white kids have. You’re a boy of color,
you hit kids, you go to jail. It does matter how old you are. You could be 11 and could go to juvie. So it was a very dynamic conversation and I think that’s how I approach
a lot of these issues. It’s not easy being a parent and I just try to give him as many
perspectives as possible and try to help him understand the big
picture, as well as what’s important for him as an individual how to
survive this crazy world. Yeah.
>>Professor Tapper mentioned that you have a book coming out or
a movie, or something?>>Yeah, my last book was a novel called
Adé, which is based on my experience living on a very small island off
the coast of East Africa called Lamu. And falling in love with the devout Muslim
man and accepting his marriage proposal, and then getting caught there
in the middle of a Civil War, and getting very sick and
almost dying, and having to be airlifted out of the country
in the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. It’s a love story. It’s a love story, anyway, and so
we’re now adapting it for film. Madonna’s attached to direct so
that’s very exciting in some ways and->>[LAUGH]>>I mean, she’s a very dynamic, powerful woman.>>[LAUGH]
>>Love her. And yeah, so that’s happening. So one of the reasons that I moved to,
I had been living on Maui for ten years in years and
I just recently moved to Los Angeles. And one of the reasons that I moved is
because a lot of my work now, Black, White and Jewish is being developed
as a half hour cable show. Black Cool, which is we haven’t
talked about is being developed. So Black, White and
Jewish being developed by NBC. Black Cool is being developed by
BET as a series on blackness and then Adé is being turned into a film, so I’m finding that I’m moving more into film
and TV and I’m interested in that world. So that’s one of the reasons
that I moved and that’s one of the things that’s happening. It’s pretty expecting, pretty cool. It will be interesting
to see what happens. I mean, one of the things about Hollywood
is that it’s so different from publishing. Publishing is you know, you write
something, you sell it, then it comes out, and then there’s this. It’s like but Hollywood is very,
you have a meeting, everyone loves it. You could have another meeting,
this one hates it. You have another meeting, it’s very fluid. So who knows what will happen,
but I’m excited about all of it. I think it’s gonna be very interesting to watch my work take on another life, a visual life. It’s gonna be fascinating for me or
very rewarding as an artist, okay?>>Your mom wrote a very famous
book that was turned into a movie.>>That’s right.>>Do you want me to mention what it was?>>Sure.>>The Color Purple, okay? So how did that influence you as a writer, because she influenced the world’s,
you could say? I mean,
I’m sure all of you have heard of it. So I was just wondering
how that influenced, like affected your career path and
personally.>>Yep, so my mom’s a famous writer and I think primarily the way
that it’s influenced me. There are two different prongs,
I think quickly to answer that. One is I had the great fortune
to grow up with a master artist. I mean, it’s like being an apprentice
to Picasso or something. It’s experience you can’t buy,
you know what I mean?>>Yeah.>>So even though she was my mother, I had the experience of watching her make
art and seeing what that looks like. Do you know what I mean?>>Yeah.
>>How to spin your experiences into something that’s bigger than yourself and how to negotiate building
a career at the same time. So being able to have that kind of
via osmosis to get that is really, really powerful for
my artistic development. And then also in terms of my career, I had access in a way that a lot
of people haven’t had access. So my first agent was her agent. So I didn’t have to go through a lot
of the different hoops that people have to go through to get agents. Now that being said, I had to sell books once I sold my books
in order to get my next book deal. So it wasn’t like I was able to just build
on her success for the rest of my career. But I did have a kind of access, and
especially with Black, White and Jewish, a kind of built in readership of people
who were really interested in her. And so,
they came through my work to get to her’s. So I was very fortunate, in some ways,
to have that kind of life in the industry. So I think both of those
things are very relevant. Yep?>>So much of our identity
can be built into our names. And so, I was wondering,
I carry my mom’s maiden name. She never took my dad’s name even
though they were married for 28 years. And so, I was wondering how your name,
Rebecca Walker, comes from your mom and not your-
>>My dad.>>So my name is Rebecca Leventhal-Walker,
but it used to be Rebecca Leventhal. I changed my name when I was I was 15,
myself, and it’s in the book. And I changed it because I
felt very much like my father had gone on into this white
corporate world and had left us. And I felt very identified with black
community and black culture and my mother at that time. And also,
I learned that my father’s father, who was the Leventhal in the family, had
abandoned my father when he was eight and been very physically violent and abusive
to my grandmother who was the person who loved me unconditionally my whole life. And so all of those things came
together in a kind of tsunami in my 15, 16 year old mind and I decided that I was
going to change my name and shed him, and shed whiteness, and
identify with blackness. I had a whole moment. So I went to the courthouse and
I changed my name. And I had to have my mother agree,
and people had to sign papers, and my father was very upset. I have people have
accused me of since then, of trying to capitalize on my
mother’s fame by changing my name. That is a big thing on this trip, but when I was 15 she was not the famous
Alice Walker that she is now. So it was much more about
who I felt connected to and expressing a kind of rage
toward this grandfather, who I had never known, and
to an injured people that I love so much. And my son carries my name as well. And that’s important to me. [LAUGH] I, he can have the middle name,
I don’t know, I’m hardcore about it. I just I just, I really wanted that. Because I think that’s an important part
of his legacy and I want him to have it. Okay? All good, as we say in Maui,
pow, we’re finished.>>[LAUGH]
>>So, go forth and I wish you all the best and
thank you so much for coming out and
spending some time talking about all this. Okay.>>[LAUGH]
>>[APPLAUSE]

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