Kind Of American

by: Heather Fawn

A representative of the “middle children of history” discusses race in America….

The legacy of living in the middle of nowhere stays with a person. It stretches across time to caress with the strangest, farm-weathered hands. It has a wad of tobacco in its lower lip. It calls you an Oreo and then tells you racism is a stupid topic to get upset about.

Am I over the bizarre juxtaposition of being a part of less than one percent of a population of minorities in a school district? Am I over the sexism and the racism and the bigotry that I grew up with? Am I over the upbringing that quite literally denied half of my family tree? Sure. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it. That has been replaced by a tiny stand-up comedian.

What kind of picture can I really paint about the first 20 years of my life? I got a sorry education in a school known to not take kindly to non-WASP folk. It was physically safe and emotionally draining. The irony of the situation is that the way I moved through life was by identifying with those around me. White, lower-to-middle class country kids. I had nothing else from which to form my identity. My mom and step-dad explicitly and implicitly discouraged any discussion of my biological black father. The last time I remember bringing up race was in 3rd grade to cry about how yet another kid used, “You’re adopted,” as an insult. And these are the same people who used to lock their car doors in certain neighborhoods. And scream racist epithets out their pickup truck window. Hey – I never said I came from good stock, just white stock.

It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside – if you are surrounded by self-satisfied bumpkins and soft-hearted farmers and down-to-earth Caucasians, you’re going to absorb that. It becomes a part of who you are. I grew up with white people. Almost exclusively. All of my friends were white. I didn’t have some kind of minority island that I could weather the racial slur storm with. White was the norm, and white was – and still is –what I am on the inside. That is just how it is. I can’t really change it. The two factors of extreme familial denial and being completely submerged in bread-and-butter Americana sealed the deal indefinitely. The Hanks and Ricks and Skylars and Loris of Bumfuck, Ohio. Those were my parents, my teachers, my friends, my heroes, my babysitters, my extended family, my community.

Sociologically, psychologically, my identity is misshapen. It’s incomplete. I swim with one fin, so to speak. I have a face that I present to the world, and it’s not in line with the me on the inside. That’s the message I’ve gotten as I’ve moved through life, anyway. I don’t look how I talk and I don’t talk how I look. To the extent that—back in my more flamboyant fashion days—black people used to make fun of me. Strangers. On the street. In stores. At the mall. Since my return to the US, even black people speak Spanish to me. I just don’t make sense, and everyone’s got the fucking nerve to point that out to me all the time. Either that, or I just don’t fit in with their expectations of someone of the same race, I get identified as “Other” and I get a whole new set of assumptions about who I am based on that.

I get frustrated, because I want to be racially balanced. But this is impossible. My identity, at 28 years old, is more or less solidified. Adjustments to this are minor and decorative. I missed my chance to figure the other half of me out, and I can fully place the blame for that on my parents. Great fucking job, people. The only thing worse would have been if they told me for half my life that I was a dude. But this isn’t, honestly, the worst thing that could have happened to me. Not as an adult, anyway. Growing up was brutal, but I made it, so, at this point, it’s just another page in the coloring book.

White culture is the dominant culture of this country. I effortlessly swim with the current on this one. I have a “white-sounding” name to put on my resume, I sound white on the phone, I sound white in person, I dress like a….fucking weirdo, so forget that part. Is this racist to say? No – it’s factual information. People have done research on the success of people with “black-sounding” names. The working world is still a racist motherfucker. Academia has a field day with me. I’m the literal bastard child of racial mixing, and I am functional and intelligent and can lay out that pristine-sounding dialect of economic and social success just as smooth as butter.

To add to my repertoire of dominant culture one-ups, I am as down-to-earth as they come. I grew up in tree houses and campgrounds, I was in 4-H for a brief time, I was neglected enough by father figures to overcompensate with a large dose of tomboy traits, and my parents talked enough shit about the have-nots to turn me off to the idea that money is an ideal thing to stockpile in life. I am the fucking 99%.

Of course, things started to get really complicated when I entered high school. My acute self-awareness prompted me to drop the white bread act and I morphed into the slightly less immaculate but genuine and authentic lady you see today. Loud music, black clothes, an affinity with strange art and stranger artists. Then, once I entered college, I chose the most foreign language and land to study, met a lot of international students, and turned a new page in chameleon life.

Do you have any idea how easy it is to accommodate a culture that isn’t your own when you aren’t even sure what your culture is? My color did not stay in the lines. It bled profusely, and everywhere. I was so flexible that I retained every nuance of everything. I blended in. I bowed. I mastered chopsticks and drank beer. I made friends with everyone. It was a wonderland.

Coming back to America was a reality check, that first time. I was still reeling from the idea that I could be that “Other” in a much more comfortable way abroad. My American background was slightly shameful, but my flexibility softened the blow. It was easy to want more culture when I was living in a place that seemed so devoid of it. I lived in Chicago and tried to fill the void with art. I suffered through more school and threw myself into a default land – Australia – to continue this pattern. Then back to Japan. Years passed. I made the decision to break my tenuous ties with Australia, to which I had committed quite a bit. And my second stint in Japan made me realize that for all my blending in, I was still this outsider, forever. No escaping it. Whether I was in Japan apologizing for swearing or in Australia feeling fucked up about not loving it, I was an outsider. I was falling out of love with living abroad, and I didn’t know why. I started to identify my affinity with a certain attitude, set of beliefs, way of living. It was wholly American, if nothing else. I guess I have what you’d call a Big Picture identity. No family, no racial ties, but name that song or that place or that TV show, or tell me you want to punch someone in the face, and you know that I am a fellow countryman.

It goes deeper than that, of course. I was so nostalgic for America, and so disillusioned about that. My fantasies involved the most American shit you can think of: Taco Bell; suntanned, muscular country boys in cut-off t-shirts washing their pickup trucks in the sun; befriending a Republican; Miller Lite; the word, “dude”. I was simultaneously aroused and disgusted. I knew I had to come back.

Something I’ve come to realize since I’ve been back, is that we are a bunch of sniveling, nostalgic, uncreative adult children. Not that we cannot or never come up with awesome shit, but we are so stuck on the past that it is nauseating. I feel like it’s pathological. I thought it was just me, but it’s everyone right now. Care Bears, 80’s music that makes us think of our babysitters with teased hair, the atrocious and unoriginal fashion. Look – I get it, you miss the monkey bars days. But what about the fact that it’s 2012, and you’ve got the beginnings of crow’s feet and a righteous, alcohol-maintained muffin top? Surely we can do better than this.

But today, it came to me with resolute clarity: we are all damaged. Palahniuk calls us, “the middle children of history”. And I agree. But the preoccupation with nostalgic paraphernalia is all-consuming, and as I looked past my reflection in the mirror at my (clearly for children) frog, turtle, and bee wall decals, I realized we are looking for something very specific: comfort. If our parents didn’t beat us, then someone else did. And if someone else didn’t beat us, we know someone who has been beaten. Emotionally, physically, sexually, spiritually. We hang on to the things that once made us feel safe. We hold out for that future that looked so bright in the magazines, in the halls of our high schools, in the eyes of our first loves. This is probably, more than any other reason, why I still sleep in until 1pm when I don’t have to work, why I have a collection of misfit stuffed animals shoved onto a shelf in my closet, and why any mention of The Labyrinth, The Goonies, Spongebob Squarepants, or Roald Dahl elicits a tallying of bonus points for a new acquaintance.

This identity, this shared affinity with all things from the days of yore, is the coziest identity I wear, perhaps even as cozy as the “whiteness”, though less secure. I am not a grown-up, because being a grown-up, I’ve learned, sucks. My parents were beating each other and puking out the windows of moving cars when they were my age. My grandparents were making babies and fighting wars when they were my age. What do I want from the future other than to ride unicorns and hug strangers and make it so women in war-torn villages never shed another bitter tear? I don’t know. But it’s nothing that I’ve seen in grown-up land. The best I can shoot for is to fulfill my worldly responsibilities as a person of-age in society: work, bills, non-violence, voting, stopping for pedestrians, practicing safe sex, being kind wherever possible. I have plans to work for an NGO…someday. I want to go back to school for my fourth degree…someday. I want to be part of an ass-kicking partnership…someday.

As one of my favorite writers articulated so well, “We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact.” Yes, more than any other generation before us, haven’t we been raised by television? Before everyone realized they had better try and raise us with a little sense, Bill Nye was telling us about science and Elmo was telling us about feelings and Oscar the Grouch was being kind of an asshole about our enthusiasm (just like daddy!). We have our hearts on our sleeves. Society provided the needles and the thread, and we didn’t know what else to do with our feelings, so we just sewed the fucker where it dropped.

The point is that I am the most American amalgamation you can think of. I am not as well-off or cultured as Barack Obama, but you can understand, as the child of a crazy white mother and a Cherokee-Black father, why I might be so in love with the man. I ran from my American identity for a long time, and the concept of race is still fluid for me. Fluid. Can you imagine? But I represent the American demographic of the future, so pay attention people: embrace whatever the hell you are, however you express it, because in 100 years it will be a page in a history book. I am the face of the offspring of rebellious 80’s moms who married black dudes to piss their families off, but more importantly, I am the face of the future, and I’m figuring out how that works. So if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take some damn notes.

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