Identity Culture

“Am I black or white, am I straight, or gay?” Prince asks in “Controversy”. These are questions that go straight to the heart of identity. When you are 17, your identity is not fixed; it is in flux; it is morphing, and you are not sure what it is yet. You have your genetic inheritance, and then how you were raised. This package was brought into contact with the wider world, and you learned about your identity from how you were received, what you were told, what you told them, and how you thought about it all.

Who are you at 17? What are you? Are you OK with that? Where will it lead you? Do you like what you see in the mirror?

We think we know, and we pursue life with vigor and optimism. I did. But I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t like many of the reflections sent back my way about me.

I’ve told you that I chafed at the preconceived scripts that dictated how I was supposed to be in the world. I certainly did not appreciate the stereotypes of black folks that I knew and loved. Matt Joyce was another guy who modeled a different way of being in the world. And now I was confronted with sexuality–my own, that of the girls I pursued, and that of those who were mostly hiding at the time.

These questions were particularly salient to me. I was white. My parents were white. But I was adopted. The world was teaching me that whiteness–or, at least, it’s “opposite”, blackness–was fluid. Rather, “blackness” contained a whole lot more than I was led to believe. And if I let go of “whiteness”, (whatever that was), I could be truer to what seemed to be me, and life could be richer. Whiteness could be fluid. Whiteness need not be static. I did not want to be restricted by it. That I knew at 17.

What is racial identity in my life? That was a serious question. I actually thought for a time, maybe I am black, and no one can see it, not even me.

I’ve told people since my teenage days that as an adopted person I view the world as an outsider, really, like an anthropologist. What can happen in anthropology is that the researcher begins to identify with those under study. Where at first the culture appears inscrutable and exotic, its practices, folkways, and philosophies, over time, look extremely functional, adaptive, and nimble. I began to identify with society’s outsiders. In the sphere of my life, that was black people.

As an adopted person, I was a minority among the population. Black people were a minority in the country. Black people were St. Louis’s minority. Black people were enriching my life. I wanted to know more about blackness. Further, I wanted to be less majority, because that wasn’t who I was. That’s how I saw it.

We are told a bunch of bull about black people. That has consequences, for all of us, and it is a dynamic loop. You know how I know? Because I have been with black people for most of my life. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Barkley, whom I loved, was the only black person I knew until I was 11 years old. The student population of Des Peres School in the 1970’s was 100 percent white.

My first run-in with a black person was with Lisa Carruthers at Nipher Middle School in Kirkwood in 1975. She didn’t appear to like me. Lisa yelled at me a few times. She kind of scared me. By the end of ninth grade, I was regularly making out with her older sister, Jewel, in the principal’s office.

I have lived with, made love with, fought with, cried with, laughed with, got in trouble with, had a child with, married, divorced, made music with, played sports with, argued with, protested with, voted for, or railed against, and LEARNED SO MUCH FROM, one, or another, black person, for over 40 of my 53 years. My life would be so different if that had not been the case. It would be a pittance. It would be nothing. I, would be nothing, without black people.

I have also been defrauded by two black women, in love frauds. Those are for another time.

I was not raised by those who created me. From the start, my identity was part inheritance, and part acculturation to a new family. (No wonder I was different.) I got very lucky. The culture of my family was right for me. Mostly, they allowed me to find myself, to discover who I was, and am. They allowed me to be me. For that, I can never thank them enough.

Am I black or white? I think I see the world through the lens of blackness, whatever that is composed of, and comprised by. Identity is colored by how you are seen. I cannot tell black people that I am not white, that I am really black, for they know that the world sees me as white, and that means so much in our world. It means so much to me. For me. To them. For them. It can’t be done, or undone. It can’t be.

I am a hybrid. Hybridity is real. Hybridity acts. Blackness is hybridity. My identity is still morphing, because of blackness.

I’m learning as I go. Black people help me with that.



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