Last Sunday, my stepdaughter and I went to a Latinx church we’ve never been to. On the drive to the city’s west side, I explained to her most of the service would be in Spanish and many of the people attending are brown and black folks, like us.
“I don’t even know that many words in Spanish anymore. I really only know numbers now, and just up to 15,” she whispered.
She was visibly nervous and also openly curious about the experience. My stepdaughter is biracial, of Mexican heritage, and depending on the season, can pass for white. She’ll be eight in a few months and already recognizes that racial identity and ethnic background are social constructs with their own cultural signals, markers of group belonging commonly defined by collective experience. In her mind, her identity as a Mexican child and capacity for acceptance in this particular Latinx community somewhat depended on how fluently she speaks and understands Spanish.
I’m a queer black woman helping raise a growing brown girl in the U.S. Our relationship with each other is just shy of a three-year milestone. And in that time, we’ve talked a lot about race, black-brown solidarity, and how whiteness impacts what we think and feel about ourselves and others, as age-appropriate and honest as we can be. Because of who we are, who we are to each other, and how we move through the world, we don’t have a choice but to.
“It’s okay that you don’t know a lot of Spanish, baby.” I assured her, “The amount of words in Spanish you know doesn’t change the fact that you are Mexican. Plus, there will be some translation to help us understand and feel welcomed. You know, many of the places we go, people mostly speak English, and those whose first language is Spanish are often left out. We might feel a little of that same discomfort, and that’s okay.”
And it was okay.
As we walked into the building, we heard people singing a worship song in Spanish from the hallway. She took my hand, briefly squeezed, and we entered the sanctuary doors together.
Although my lived experience is a world apart from my stepdaughter’s, our positions hold common threads as people of color. Our time together in church this week was a reflection of my own childhood, memories I often draw on as a parent.
When I was four, my family moved from Landover in PG County, a well-known and historically black community in Maryland, to Merrillville, Indiana, a town birthed of white flight from Gary during the steel crisis of the early 1970s. I was one of just five black students at my elementary school when I was my stepdaughter’s age. By contrast, my parents chose a church home in East Chicago, Indiana. On weekdays, I was taught by all white teachers in classrooms with almost all white kids. And on weekends, I spent most of my time in church and close-knit community with black people, with black children.
I didn’t have language for the pressures shaping me then. I subconsciously began shrinking myself at school. I spent my days gradually perfecting my handwriting and grades and diction, raising my voice to an unnatural pitch to match that of my girl-ish classmates, putting on a tweenage veneer of likeability. I was a wallflower in perpetual late bloom, a mouth full of metal, ill-fitted glasses, pimple-prone, thick-haired, dark-skinned, and fully vested in futile attempts to take up the promises of whiteness -- to be softer, prettier, loved. I wasn’t myself, didn’t want to be, and I couldn’t pinpoint who or what told me I shouldn’t.
The first time my friend at church asked me, “Why you talk like that?” I balked at the question, hurling back, “What do you mean?” She shrugged and declared, “You sound like a white girl,” and carried on eating the chips we had just bought at the corner store across the street. Her words convicted me, and rightly so.
Racial impostorism describes an identity struggle for authenticity and community, mostly attributed to multiracial people. The phenomenon can manifest among people of color of all backgrounds in personal and political ways, recently highlighted as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker entered the pool of 2020 presidential candidates.
Harris is tasked with reconciling her history of targeting marginalized communities with “a big stick” as California’s top prosecutor. Her department fought due process to keep people in prison, denied hormone treatment for incarcerated trans people, and proudly launched an initiative to criminalize the parents of truant students, most were families of color. As a senator, she sponsored human trafficking legislation that obstructs the wellbeing of sex workers and their ability to work safely.
Booker’s campaign debut refreshed the memory of T-Bone, a gang-affiliated character he admittedly invented to vouch for his “Ph.D from the streets of Newark,” and his neoliberal investment in privatizing public goods from schools to sanitation. His policies as mayor and state senator directly impact access to educational opportunity, living wages, and affordable housing and health care.
Social media and offline spaces have turned a critical eye not only toward Harris’ and Booker’s records as elected officials, but also their cultural significance, especially in the wake of former President Barack Obama. Democratic contenders must win the black electorate for a chance to win the primary, and the stakes are high for Harris and Booker as black candidates.
Their campaigns and curated personas incorporate black signifiers in hopes of somehow passing an imaginary litmus test. A snippet of Harris dancing and snapping off-beat to Cardi B, Booker’s campaign video emulating an Empire episode — these efforts can read as political pandering, and worse, as corny, deserving of the jokes and memes and thinkpieces questioning their intent, their policies, their impact.
Some people take the corny charges seriously and personally, claiming the racialized criticism of Harris and Booker is unfair. Apparently, holding black politicians accountable to harmful policymaking rooted in anti-blackness is tantamount to stripping their black identity. The reaction is familiar.
I don’t know if my friend at church intended to hurt my feelings by telling me I sounded white, but I do know now that I was seeking white acceptance. The identity I was striving for at school was, in my mind, a better black than that of my church community, and I acted like it — by changing how styled my hair, dressed, and talked to other black people. And my friend called my behavior exactly what it was because she cared enough about me to say it. She wasn’t the last to poke fun at me for trying to be someone I wasn’t, and I am grateful.
Sometimes calling out and calling in, uprooting racial impostorism and internalized anti-blackness, is getting clowned for being corny and dragged for bad policy. Sometimes it is like my stepdaughter seeing a glimpse of her whole self in a Latinx worship song and being accepted regardless of how many words she knows in Spanish. Sometimes it’s a fellow black girl being honest with me in church.
Accountability looks a lot of ways when we are looking funny in the light. Our communities can and do bring us back into the fold, into sanctuary, space to be ourselves in a world not made for us.