In honor of Loving Day today, I thought I would write an essay about being mixed-race. Also featured: a portrait I took of my awesome family for Christmas 2018. Thanks to the Lovings, my parents could get married and Cobalt and I could get married. Hurrah!
Last Tuesday I participated in a panel of mixed-race writers. One of the questions they asked us was “What is your biggest obstacle as a writer?” Many people discussed the lack of representation of mixed-race people in our media.
How does seeing people who look like me in movies or books affect me?
- I think of crying in the dark movie theater during the opening scenes of “A Wrinkle in Time”: a brown girl with curls everywhere working with her white dad in his lab. My thoughts drifted to building radio kits with my white dad and my Black mom, to them helping me build an “apparatus” — made from a ginger ale bottle, wires and a tongue depressor — that dispensed cat food for my eighth grade science fair project.
- I think of the scene in Melissa Valentine’s “The Names of All the Flowers,” the one where her family is standing in the airport, her white dad with his chest “puffed up like an orange bird,” his Black wife and brown kids with all sorts of hair around him. I was transported back to our family reunions, being surrounded on all sides by Black people. And somewhere in the mix, my white dad.
These instances certainly help. But when I was preparing for the panel, the biggest obstacle that came to my mind was my own self-sabotage and self-silencing. Not feeling seen and feeling like I am not allowed to be my real self.
I’m always hustling and following rules instead: smiling when I want to cry, staying when I want to run away. Being what I think people want from me — quiet, contemplative — even though it makes me feel like I’m a robot.
Other people seem to be just fine saying whatever they want to say, doing whatever they want to do. But when I try, no one responds. Or if they do, it’s to tell me that I am too much: My voice is too distracting, I am too informal, I am so wiggly.
I’m trying to be better. I police myself, anticipating when someone might be upset with me, when I will be out of line, and then course-correct before anything happens. Sarah is in control.
The advent of Zoom everything provided a rude awakening for me. For the first time, I was face-to-face with what I looked like in any given situation: a meeting, a panel, a conference.
I watched a video where someone interviewed me over Zoom about my job. In the video, my interview is juxtaposed with two other writers’ interviews and we go back and forth answering questions. The other two writers are calm, composed, while I am wild. Smiling and gesturing and laughing. I’m all over the Zoom box. Can you hear me? Can you see me? Is what I am saying making sense? If you paused the video at any part when I am speaking, I would be a blur across the screen.
I was mortified.
What is wrong with me? No wonder people have a problem with me. I thought I was reining in all the crazy, but obviously that is false.
My co-workers said the video looked good, that they liked the energy I brought to the interview, that it was clear I was excited and passionate about the topic. But I couldn’t see that. Surely there must be some way to be excited and passionate while also being in control of your arms, your words.
Back on the mixed-race panel, again everyone was calm and composed, thoughtful and elegant. I turned my Zoom self-view on to keep tabs on myself. Was I sitting up straight? Was I in the middle of the box? Did I look interested? Was I looking at the camera?
Then the moderator asked the “obstacle” question and chose me to answer first. “Sure!” I said. I glanced at my notes to remind myself of where I wanted to start. On the page was a joke to myself about how I grew up acting as if I could pass as white (“Oh I’m a quarter German!”) even though I am obviously brown.
“Sorry,” I tried to regain my polite poise. “There’s a joke to myself on this one….” and then I started giggling again. “Well, I guess I should just explain it to you…” The hands came out. I couldn’t see the audience, so I had no idea if they thought the joke was as funny as I did, but I still pantomimed the whole thing just in case. “Look at me! How is this face white-passing? Hahaha anyway, I hope you enjoyed that… Now I want to talk about self-sabotage.”
The whole time the self-view gave me away: the flapping, the gesturing, the head bobbing.
But I decided that I didn’t care. Forget that poised person who looked like she was perched on a shard of glass in a way that avoided getting her butt cut. I was tired of trying to stay in the lines that I’d drawn for myself.
Besides, was I really going to silence my discussion of self-silencing?
So I let it all out for once, and the joy of being Sarah tumbled out of me.
Note: I think it’s important to highlight how many times I tried to silence myself while writing this essay. This is a constant, evolving process.