I don’t understand my racial identity. I am mixed race Jamaican British in Australia. Difference is all I know. It is epidermalised in my mishmash of Roman profile, Nubian arches, bold Afro hair. Someday I want to own my mixed raceness, not juggle it, but I don’t believe I can express it through the tools I have been given. Shit, I don’t know where to go. Where will we (I) find the tools we (I) need?
For the most part I’m as black as people need me to be. I am black when someone needs an n-word pass, white when they don’t want to see race, just black enough but not too black when they like the sound of diversity. Egyptian, Spanish. But at the same time I’m acutely conscious that my country’s hatred is not directed at me — as the child of Anglocised parents I am more or less one of us Australians. Even if I am presumed to be Muslim, even if my hair is sheep’s wool, I am alive, I am educated, I am anxious. Indigenous Australians are being murdered by the state, Hijabi threatened off our streets. When you live in a white supremacist country, blackness becomes a pantomime. Whiteness is all-encompassing, so blackness must be performed — eat black food, listen to black music, and then you might feel connected to your roots (and mark yourself out as exotic (as if your skin didn’t already do that) or you might feel like a clown.
In the beautiful, poignant outro of Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon despairs at the thought of looking to long-sunk African empires to reclaim the power of blackness. Race is violent. Race is inconstant. I have had to realise that talking about this makes me neither pretentious nor selfish. My race is constituted every day through the struggle to perform and grip onto networks of otherness. My problem is this: it is difficult to be alone.
When I turned 18, I left home and went to university. Like many dilettantes, I studied psychology. I was excited to learn about race, about the (what I was sure were) very well described ways we come to take on an identity. No matter how much I read, I could never remember it. The canonical theories of identity and self never stuck in my mind. I remember slamming my introduction to psychology textbook open to the short section on racial identity. I read it three times, and at the time I thought it went over my head, but really it went beneath me, around me and straight through me.
Four years later I know now that the human sciences prize exhaustiveness over realness. Lived experience is lost in translation. In This Bridge Called My Back, Cherrie L. Moraga writes of acclimating to a pale, bloodless language that “deal[s] with oppression purely from a theoretical base”.
The most insidious racism is a language that must be hacked to express pain, confusion. If language is built, is ours built to deny space for blackness? I feel like I’m up against the wall because I cannot express what I feel with the technologies I am given. They return me to the trope of the mulatto in orbit/ the confused mulatto, placeless mulatto liminal / boundary / mutant mulatto / orbiting whiteness and blackness.
My race has vicissitudes that cannot be expressed in a label. My racial identity does not tend towards stability and I doubt it ever will. IF mixed race identity is inexpressible, IF marginality is precluded from discourse, how can we produce it? I desperately want there to be more to my racial identity than confusion and guilt. But to find it, I need a more visceral language than ours.
The older I get, the more I learn that my gut was right all along when it pulled me towards art and poetry, that my brain was suckered into the sciences. What can’t be written must be imaged in absences and contradictions. For now I’m resigned to all the _where are you from? no, really???_s, but maybe someday I(we)’ll be able to escape the penumbra of (not)whiteness, (not)blackness, drip through the boundaries. Art is the only way that I know of to survive, to recognise a shared well of feeling, by expressing what is keenly felt in absences, maybe expressing in contradictions.
THE BROWN PAPER BAG TEST, STEPHANIE JOLISA WOODS