Black White Other


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What I got called today

November 4th, 2015

Today I got called a “filthy jew.” This is not the first time it has happened, and in keeping with past instances, it appeared on the Internet and from an unnamed source: this one used the moniker “moremane.” In fact, today’s slander was a two-fer, in which I was disparaged alongside a woman who interviewed me a few years ago and posted a segment of it on YouTube. There was no more to moremane’s slur than adjectives and a noun—“Two filthy jews”—and it appeared in the comments section of the YouTube page, underneath a screen grab of the interviewer and I seated across a table from each other, Charlie Rose-style, my hands in the air as if grasping invisible baseballs about eight inches in front of my face. No elaboration from moremane, no explanation of what occasioned this declaration, no why-this-why-now context. No mention of or comment on the video’s actual content (which never mentioned Judaism or religion but did cover father-daughter relationships, black-white race relations in the USA, and biracial identity formation).

I know about the YouTube comment because I subscribe to an alert system that notifies me when anyone remarks on the segment. This is only the second alert I’ve received for this particular video. The first, which showed up in my in-box back in 2013, let me know that I had commented. As of today, “Two filthy jews” keeps company with a self-deprecating note in which I discuss the overly dramatic hand gestures I make throughout the 4:13 clip.

commentsLike many published authors, I maintain a presence in social media. This is less technological prescience on my part and more a haphazard nod to publishers hungry for platform, the elusive virtual net they believe will capture sales and/or audience and/or critical attention for their writers. So I practice indiscriminate linking on LinkedIn; I blog now and then on a website that mostly serves as a cloud-based filing cabinet for old articles; and I tweet once in a very blue moon. I have a healthy following on Pinterest thanks to visually oriented procrastinators everywhere, and I am so susceptible to the rabbit hole of facebook (baby bats! a friend’s double-dutch champion daughter! The niece off at college!) that I regularly crank up a blocking app called Anti-Social. More passively and less frequently, I show up because my work shows up and sometimes gets passed around. This, and a surname often taken as an indication of my religion, is what brings people like moremane into my world.

“Two filthy jews.” Filthy, indeed. It slithered across me, oozy and viscous, like pus from a neglected wound. I remembered the clean room scene from Silkwood and wished I could disinfect the parts of me tainted by moremane’s drive-by derision. In short order, though, curiosity replaced disgust. I imagine the sting might have been deeper and more enduring if I were Jewish. But I’m not, nor were my parents or their parents or anyone we know of in either family tree. The epithet remains just as ugly, just as offensive, but its mistargeted (or semi-mistargeted) aim exposes its hollowness, the self-contained and self-propelling nature of vitriol. What was moremane’s intent, I wondered? What was exorcised by his/her condemnation? I’m guessing moremane doesn’t rank among the 358 people who actually watched the video, so how did moremane come across it in the first place? My interviewer’s last name was Cohen…does mormane type that into search boxes as a keyword? Did moremane feel like a winner after hitting “return” and landing on us?

I won’t ask YouTube to take down this sliver of hate speech. I don’t want to give moremane the thrill of having been banned, and besides, information is power; we all need to know who’s out there, even if it’s mostly cowards and thrill seekers who have confused anonymity with lack of accountability. I did, for a short while, amuse myself with the notion of replying in the spirit of accuracy. “What kind of bigot are you, moremane?” I would have written. “Be advised that it’s one filthy jew and one filthy mongrel. Thank you in advance for correcting this error.”


When I tried to look black: A response to all the messages friends have left me wanting to discuss Rachel Dolezal

June 13th, 2015

When I tried to look black, it was the late 1970s and I was in England for a semester abroad. I had hair down to the middle of my back, the blonde of my birth long since turned a medium brown but the hair itself still fine and mostly straight, with more of a bend than a wave. It lay flat on my head most of the time, coming to life only slightly in all that London wet.

At the High Street hairdressing school where cost was minimal if you were flexible about outcome (a colorist once gave me a spectrum of highlights he called Autumn Splendour, fairly risqué then, which was decades before people took on the look of psychedelic skunks or dipped their hair into drink mixes…and then wore that to work), the student assigned to me thought it would be fun to perm my hair. “It might not hold,” he warned, given the length. “But at least you wouldn’t have paid much for it.”

Once the last coil had been unfurled, the noxious chemicals rinsed away, and the hair gently dried at a low setting, my hairdresser called over all his mates.

“Donna Summer!” he announced as he spun my chair to show off the new pyramid of hair. Like the Bad Girl herself, I even had curly bangs. I loved the new moniker and not because I was a fan of her music. I loved it because Donna Summer was black.

Growing up, I envied my best friend, Lauren. We were both mixed kids with black dads, but she had olive skin and curly hair. You could see her lineage when you looked at her. At least you could see that she wasn’t just white. But her father had darker skin than mine had, and her Assyrian-American mother, I only realized many years later, wasn’t exactly Caucasian in the American sense of the word. I, on the other hand, looked white, unless you threw me in with a bunch of cousins from my dad’s side, in which case I looked like I belonged somewhere far, far down the family spectrum at the melanin-challenged end.

I loved those Donna Summer ringlets. I loved the way my hair bounced and had substance. I felt special, more done-up than usual, especially since I wasn’t much for makeup or jewelry beyond earrings and a swipe of lipstick. And I loved that people might think, for once, that I might be all- or half- or a even just a little bit black.

When my curls lasted months past the perm’s standard lifespan, I took it as a sign that my hair liked being curly, that there was some inner kink waiting to be let out. By the time it returned to its natural listless form, I was back in the States and scraped together money for a real salon, where I also splurged on a sporty, shorter cut [see photo strip].

In the 1980s, lots of white people permed their hair—including my mother—but for me, a white-looking person who felt a deep connection to her black family, the act of changing my hair texture was fraught. I had always been fine with being mixed (we didn’t know the term “biracial” then), thanks to accepting in-laws and parents who chose to raise their family in an integrated neighborhood that spilled over with little half-n-halfers. Not being different was different to us. But other people hadn’t been fine with me. Black kids threatened to beat me up for being white; white kids thought it would be okay to call other children “nigger” in front of me. I could see that I was treated differently from my browner friends; I could see that people from all races changed their attitudes and expectations once they learned that I wasn’t white, or not the white they understood. I was a text they could not read, and it frustrated them.

So I loved my perm, but after a few refreshers, I stopped and never got one again. I told myself that it was too expensive, that it was bad for my hair, but the truth is it felt like I was abandoning the self I was in order to skip past other people’s prejudices and ill-targeted calls to allegiance. I was trying to pass, not as white or as black, but as a mixed-race person who looked mixed. Surely that kind of passing represents a rarefied version of tragic mulattoism, a true hairsplitting of identities. What can I tell you? That was the race card I was dealt.

In the end, I couldn’t give in to that passing urge because it seemed like it erased who I was, that it was an attempt to escape a challenging truth. I am the complicated reality of America’s racial legacy. I am the blurred line, and it’s the very ways in which I don’t add up and don’t meet expectations that give the lie to the expectations themselves. This is true for most people I know, no matter how many boxes they check on a Census form. What if we all just doubled down on our own authenticity? Where might we be then? In my case, living a rich and flat-haired life.


Digesting Architecture

December 29th, 2014

I’ve been exploring our built environment lately, thanks to assignments from Architectural Digest‘s website (click on the pictures to get to the magazine’s site). Topics have ranged from the precious handful of preserved historic theaters around the U.S. (giltapaloozas!) to a well-provenanced artisan’s furniture repair and restoration techniques (ciré rempli anyone?). In a testament to self-indulgence, deep passions, and big dreams (not to mention more than a few quirky work relief undertakings), there’s a slideshow of garden follies across both time and space. A new exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles (through May 3, 2015) explores how coastal communities across the globe are designing in response to climate change. Two portfolios of amazing landscape designs offer green eye candy, first from this year’s ASLA winners’ circle and next from The Gardener’s Garden, an encyclopaedic, carefully annotated survey compiled by Phaidon. #BetterthanBuzzFeed