On Twerking (and being mixed race)

This isn’t an article about video games. In fact, it has nothing to do with video games.

In the small, predominantly white and Irish-Catholic suburbia where I grew up, the neighbor kids I played with would report, in whispers, that they thought my dad was “scary.” Or “angry.”

And he was, a bit, to be honest. He remains a fairly solitary man, not especially neighborly by picket-fence definitions, and has a mistrust of overfriendliness, of rehearsed social overtures, that causes others to read him as unfriendly. I remember being nine years old or so, watching, mortified, from the window of my bedroom as Dad argued with a playmate’s dad after the kid had been caught sawing down small trees in our yard.

The other father, a small-town real estate magnate who drove a custom Acura, threatened to “deck” my father, I can remember him scoffing when he came back in the house. The other father had insisted, aggressively, on calling my dad by a belittling foreshortening of his first name, which he always preferred in full.

My dad has been a journalist for most of his life. He told me a few times about how when young, in interviews for various writing positions, he was frequently complimented on his articulateness, told he “speaks so well.” Though born in New York he is often asked “where he is from.” When I was a child I would represent him in drawings by a head bookended by twin scribbles, shorthand for the kinky hair that had already retreated from the top of his brown, shiny head by the time I was born. Later on, once most of the hair was gone he started shaving his head and wearing Kangol caps and we started calling him Samuel L.

Dad is one of four black boys born to a black soldier from Texas and a Frenchwoman Grandpa met and married while overseas for World War II. I suppose this makes Dad half black, technically, the same as First Black President Barack Obama, but thankfully we don’t measure identity in quarters of blood.

I have some idea what color has made of my father and his life. I better understand the incredible tragedy that made my little white friends avoid my father, nervously, in our house when they came over to play. I understand, maybe, that my dad is not so “angry” as the caricature even his own children have gleefully drawn of him, and why he never seemed to trust the Howdy-Neighbor sorts.

I’ve had a much harder time knowing what color makes of me.

***

I’m often asked “what I am,” and in a good mood I’ll explain I have a black Dad and a Jewish mom. At other times, pressed out of nowhere by taxi cab drivers or strangers in parties, the answer’s sharper: “American.”

“Where are you from?”
“New York.”
“You were born there?”
“I was born in Massachusetts.”

I am light; I’m white, really, white-skinned, and sometimes incidental news of my ethnicity comes as a surprise to friends who never would have guessed. I am uncomfortable with being told I “look exotic,” even when it’s meant as a compliment, but I’m also uncomfortable when to others this strain of my heritage isn’t visible, because it means I’m presumed to be the same as others who have not experienced the alienation I have.

I did not know any other black people growing up; only my Dad. I’m sure there had to have been some other black kids in town, but at the dance classes and summer camps and Montessori middle school that were generously given to me to attend I rarely encountered any classmates of color at all. I only knew white people, the snarls of my obscenely thick curls unwelcome and perplexing at French braid time during sleepovers.

Dad again frightened the kids at school when he came in one day to ask my teacher, very civilly and not frighteningly at all, to no longer allow the boy I had a crush on to make fun of my “afro.” He must have talked about racism, but I only remember being mortified about the scene, worried that the chastisement would attract further unwanted attention.

In high school I wanted to be Kate Moss, but my short figure insisted on being stubbornly curvy from an early age. I was not built for field hockey or cheerleading, the popular pastimes for girls that required we wear uniforms with skirts to class on game days. I was not built for it, but I tried anyway. I still remember what the other girls said about my ass, which was lampooned for seeming to move on its own when I walked. I wanted to fit into Gap straight-leg pants, but it was never going to happen.

I can’t blame all my alienation on race. I was a weird girl, and latently queer, and a nerd, and still carry the complex cultural condition of being raised Jewish, in a Jewish family, even though as an adult I have no use for religion and all of the rituals feel like my Jewish mother’s business, not mine. I probably would have inherited this volume of coarse hair from her anyway (memory: Mom and I both anguished, green-haired, after a relaxer we bought from an infomercial went awry), and my figure is most definitely her figure. My mother and I are quite alike-looking, except for the part where I turn properly bronze in just a little sun and she can’t take any, occupied with an obsession with sunblock I’ve never had to share.

My younger sister looks more like my father, and is darker, is brown-eyed. One day when I was in high school she came home crying because the other kids down the block where she tried to play had insisted on calling her “Mexican,” their idea of an insult. I was sixteen, and big at the time, and in all my mouthy temperamental teen angst it seemed like a constant effort not to throttle anyone who upset my baby sister, so out I came into the suburban cul-de-sac where I confronted all these pale blond children and I told a six year old child I’d knock him out if he ever said anything about my sister’s looks to her again. This with their blond mamas looking on, agog, standing on their green lawns in their cargo shorts and polos.

When I got a car with a radio I developed a sudden affinity for corporate rock songs about how Christianity was for sheep, man, and I played that junk as loud as I could. I was a nightmare. I’m sure eventually the family’s reputation for being “angry” owed much more to me than to Dad, in the end. Looking back, I think I may have been driven by an unconscious desire to be the one to take the hit, to be “decked” by others’ fear.

***

I went wrong for a while, engaging in a campaign of war against my own body, my hair, anything that would have made me unsuited to the cover of Seventeen magazine. Any whiff of ethnicity in myself, really. There were departures, moments of hesitant efforts toward self-acceptance. When Halle Berry, a mixed race actress, first became a style icon in the 1990s, I decided to cut my hair short like hers. She represented, to me, a way that I could maybe embrace some aspect of myself and still be considered acceptable, attractive.

The result was everyone said I looked like a lesbian, an impression I was trying to avoid with all the fervent denial I could muster of a thing that has a grain of truth in it, lest fate had doomed me to be any more “strange” than I already was. Everyone said I looked like a lesbian except my crush at the time, who when asked why he would not go out with me, replied it was because my hair “looked like pubes.” I still struggle with a virulent distaste for Halle Berry’s acting work that seems a little suspicious to me.

***

I stop short at saying that I “experienced racism.” I have had far too much privilege to be comfortable with that — and, I’m sad to say, boy did my younger, ignorant self levy that privilege against others whenever I got tired of feeling like the one who ought not to belong. I harmed others and I definitely harmed myself through the kind of profound self-hatred that longed, even threatened, to rip my own body in half. There would come a hospital stint where rather than lament my wasted life or fear what was at the time an imminent death, I took pleasure in my “glamorous” Girl, Interrupted bony pallor, in the fact that more than half my hated hair had fallen out and was quite manageable with a straight-iron.

Still, I have some compassion for that brat: my upbringing was a series of confusing microaggressions in which my race was one factor in a painful collision with my desire for conformity and I had no lens to sort it out. My family raised me with the ideal of all-are-equal, but other than slowly learning about how my father was treated differently for being black in suburbia, the idea that race prejudice toward others or toward myself was something I’d have to be equipped to address was not something I internalized at the time.

And that there was any blackness in me, either of the kind one can note with the eye or the sort that can be quantified through experience, was something that took me longer to understand and to accept. Daring to celebrate it is coming even more slowly, as in my adulthood I understand far better the complex systems of oppression that live in our society. I can empathize with others, and I can urgently want justice on their behalf, but being able to claim any group’s experience for my own is a more complicated proposition.

I have not felt “white” in my life, but I have not lived as “black” either, not Jewish but not-not, and too ignorant to gender and identity politics most of my life to even understand my own until recent years, let alone to know whether I have a community around them. Even having become comfortable with myself I don’t know how to talk about my race, about any of it, really, without sounding or being afraid that I sound appropriative, privileged, insensitive, narcissistic, worse.

***

I took a brief stint at community college in my late teens and had black friends and classmates for the first time. I made friends with a girl named Tayisha, who asked me why I didn’t just get extensions like hers if I hated my natural hair so much, and I told her it had never occurred to me, to deal with my hair as black girls did. Then I told her I had a black Dad.

“I know,” she said.
“How did you know?”
“Because,” she replied, laughing, “you got a n***a nose!”

I can’t remember what I replied, only that the conversation sticks in my head more than a decade later because I was so shocked, because I felt so many conflicting things at once — oh, no, that word, can she say that, and what do I say, and also really, I do?! and the strange commingling of affront and profound relief I experienced. I still don’t know how I feel when I think back on that conversation; I don‘t have enough vocabulary to comfortably unpack it. There is only the memory of a sensation that a needle moved in me, a little bit, when I felt Tayisha was accepting me.

I’m sure it’s problematic. Everything is probably a little problematic, like is it okay that another black friend of mine said to me last year “girl, you sure enough do have some black in you” because I’d lost my temper and was talking animatedly with hand punctuation. I mean, I’m sure I’m not the one who gets to decide what’s okay. Or maybe I’m the only one who gets to decide what’s okay for me. I don’t know, and maybe I never will, and maybe that’s how I experience the conundrum of being mixed-race.

Into my early twenties when I started feeding myself again I began to heal. My hair came back and I started picking it out, sometimes sporting a giant dark, spongy dome stinking of Pink brand spray that I think looks fucking awesome and that girls in club bathrooms longingly ask to touch. I say yes, because I don’t really mind, and I wasted way too much of my life feeling like just because one can’t run fingers through it no one ought to touch it. Sometimes I still flatiron it and put twee little hipster pigtails in it or whatever, too. But less.

The Booty also came back, a looming gravitational object so ceaselessly pointed to by all kinds of people throughout my life as incontrovertible evidence of my unwhiteness. Whether it is or not, I have let go of the idea that I must stop it from moving to avoid being laughed at by the Katies and Kellys and Kristines of the world, and have instead begun indulging the idea that to move is the natural and righteous condition of a large hind end, especially if one likes sashaying, or dancing. Owning this ass has been probably the single biggest step I’ve taken toward accepting that I exist, am comprised of many things, should not look like someone other than myself. It is Music Video Ass. There is no reason not to be happy about having a Music Video Ass.

I started writing this essay because I was thinking about twerking. I mean, I wasn’t really thinking about doing it — when I feel like doing it I just kind of do it, a little bit here and there, like, in the grocery store or the apartment balcony or something like that. Not dropping it to the floor or being really inappropriate to the venue, just a little milkshake sort of thing, because it makes me happy.

I mean, I was thinking about Miley Cyrus, and voraciously devouring the articles about her VMA performance, in which she most definitely did, no questions asked, exploit and appropriate the sexuality of black women and prey, culture-vampire style, on whatever ideas she had about black people and black music in order to make herself more famous. And how all of these things Miley did (with the support and participation of many other individuals and forces) are encapsulated by her twerking, like this dance move she lifted from black music videos and the fact she did it so shamelessly, are really shorthand for the rest of the problem.

And I thought about how letting my music video ass do what it seemed to want to do had been a form of healing, I guess, for me, a permission, a declaration that yes, I do not have a Seventeen-magazine pair of hips, a way to feel happy about how I looked and what I move like and where I come from. And that since it’s not okay for Miley maybe it’s not okay for me. And that if my only idea about how to solve it is to take a poll of every black person I know and ask “am I allowed to twerk” then probably it’s not okay for me.

Thinking about twerking and being unable to decide for myself is what it feels like to be mixed-race, for me. Being mixed race, for me, is about never being quite sure what is okay for me and who gets to decide. It’s hard. It’s not as hard as being oppressed, that’s for sure, and there is a positive in it.

The positive is this: If there was anything I needed to learn in my life to grow out of being an awful brat and into someone who wants to be a good person, it is that sometimes I should think a lot and listen a lot and defer to others before I make up my mind. To understand many things without necessarily trying to claim any of them and say they’re mine.

It’s the first time I’ve ever talked about this. Maybe I’ll learn to do it more as time goes on. That’d be nice. I can just twerk in the shower by myself for now.