When I was in my late 20s, I went on my first ever vacation. I’d been working in jobs on and off for years, but never a salaried one, and never the kind in which you’re expected to take a vacation and fly off to Mexico for a pre-determined length of time to sit on a beach or have some kind of adventure with the deadline of a return flight.
But eventually a dear friend with whom I felt completely safe and accepted - a prerequisite for successful downtime together - suggested we take a vacation. And so we did. We went to Jamaica, found a little place away from the noise of spring break madness, and packed a stack of books each. Our plan, as I recall, was to sleep, read, soak up the sun, and perhaps drink some local rum. That was about it.
Now ethnically here’s how I describe myself: I was born in 1970 to a white mother whose family owned their house and at least one other, and to a black father whose family lived in a house that was actually one large room. My mom grew up in a suburb of Washington D.C., and my father grew up in east coast ghettos. They were both christians, of different styles. I was also raised by my godmother, and with another family whose father was the best friend of my own father. They were all jewish, in very diffferent ways, and I picked up a bit of yiddish along the way.
In my childhood neighborhood there were very few ‘mixed race’ kids. We were a new thing. I was often asked ‘do you feel Black, or White?’ Mostly I felt annoyed. My brother and I lived a unique existence in this way - while so many other kids could see others around them who looked like them, and whose families looked like them, our family was multicoloured. And while I was annoyed by the obviously irrational questions and the pointless ignorance of those insisting I take a side - “you’re Black. If you’re 1/8th Black, you’re still Black” - I wasn’t particularly troubled by them. I was introverted, introspective, busy between my big loving family tribe and my stacks of books. I was not interested in what other people outside of that tribe did. They had already shown themselves to be pretty stupid when it came to the things that mattered most to me, and stupid bored me. I suppose if I was asked, I would have to guess that all the race stuff probably had some impact on me, but I couldn’t have told you what that impact was.
So years later I went to Jamaica, on my first vacation, with my friend. And something quiet and extraordinary happened. In travelling through some of the urban and rural communities of that small island nation, I felt a kind of vertigo. It was as if my whole life, I’d been living in an atmosphere that put a bit of pressure on me, so that walking down the street or looking someone in the eye took just a bit of effort, like taking a walk in a pool of water. I had always thought that was simply what it was to be alive in the world of other people. But in Jamaica, that pressure was gone. I felt like I was floating, and also like I was almost always about to fall over. This wasn’t a result of the warmer weather, the sea air, or even of the relaxing effect of being on vacation. I knew immediately when I returned to the U.S. what it was. Because the pressure returned, and for the first time I could sense that thing I’d been living with every day of my life.
It was what people today call "identity". The felt phenomenon of being at the receiving end of the request to declare what team you're on, what group you belong to. Let's notice that if people are asking, it's because it's not obvious, because you’re exotic. But in Jamaica, I was typical. No one was interested in what team I might be on. No one asked, looked twice, or gave me any attention. Maybe they assumed I was on their team. In Jamaica almost everyone I saw looked ‘mixed race’ to me.
So here’s what I’m thinking about. Identity is a mark you are required to wear for the sake of someone else being able to comfortably negotiate the space around you. It’s something visible to others, and that’s it’s function. So you say you’re a Ravens fan, a New Yorker, a woman, Black, or, as I so often do, declare that the only box you’ll tick is the one marked ‘other’. Even that, though troubling to the box-makers, is a sort of identity mark. At the same time, you feel the impact of your own identity in your everyday life. And I think we feel it in (at least) 2 ways. We feel it’s impact in the socio-political lived state of being in the world. In the way that I feel more or less at ease in certain groups as soon as I share their space, simply because of the first few cues they give, as a group, as to their broad identity, and my place in it. If I go to a Black church, even if it’s a style of worship I’m not familiar with, I feel a certain way. If I go to a white church, I feel a certain way. These ways are different, and they have everything to do with my sense of how others respond to the sight and presence of my self. They present in my body, in my viscera. Sure there are thoughts that attend this process, but I know something is going on because of what I feel. My visibility, and my identity within their worldview, generates a quiet but palpable atmosphere that I can feel.
I don’t believe it’s about me. It’s about their sense of identity, and how my presence amongst them rubs up against it.
There’s another way I feel the impact of identity. And it’s not so much the result of the negative or positive associations with my visibility in any given context, it’s something else. It’s the feeling of being visible. Now in the world of positive psychology and affirmative and aspirational first-world existence, we are told that everyone wants to be seen. We deserve to feel that it’s safe to be seen. And we need to be seen, to get the recognition we apparently crave as part of our social human needs. Being visible in this way is a basic human right, I guess. But for me, the feeling of being visible engenders also a feeling of being challenged, of being responsible to the queries of others, and even - if you decide to ignore those queries (‘who do you think you are?’) of being required to choose to push those queries away. It all takes effort. It doesn't allow you to completely relax.
In Jamaica, I was invisible. For me, perhaps, I learned that to be accepted, to be an example of the norm, is to be invisible. And now I begin to understand why people struggle to stand out, to offer something unique about themselves, or to present themselves in the costume of that which is receiving praise and recognition according to the current social fashion. They are craving recognition, visibility, identity.
Perhaps once that easy invisibility is acquired, there is a different way of being seen. For example, when people say they don’t see your skin colour, they just see you - or when, for example, I forget that my most beloved friend is quite a bit shorter than me. But these factors are still present, and we live inside them, just as we live inside our bodies. We bump up against them with surprise if we've had the luxury of a little time spent inhabiting that place in which love lets us forget the practical and political limitiations of physical phenomena, like the length of our legs or the colour of our eyes.
I feel myself to be alive. I did not know until the pressure was relieved that I live most of my life under the pressure of visibility. You will hear people speak of how oppression makes its victims invisibile. This isn’t so. They are rendered into caricatures, exoticised, commodified, of course they are, and in that way their humanity is erased. But it’s those who are at the cultural centre who enjoy a delicious kind of invisibiltiy shield. No one pays much attention to their foibles, because they are typical.
I wonder how that feels. You see, it’s impossible for me to forget the Jamaica experience, or the experience of returning to the U.S. after Jamaica. I will always feel the pressure of people’s curiosity about me. And this is where it gets a little bit dangerous. Because as long as I feel that pressure, consciously or unconsciously, I will seen as a commodity, and exotic thing, a curiousity. And I will feel that aspect of my social existence, somewhere within my self.
So now, let’s take the task of communication. Something happens inside me that generates a desire to communicate to someone else. This isn’t just an utterance for the pleasure of making noise. It has a purpose: to reach someone else in a particular way. I’ve done this a few times before, so there’s an automatic process that comes. I take that spark, that desire for communication as it sits within me, and I scan the environment which I inhabit, and which my listener inhabits. I taste the air between us to see what I need to wrap my little spark in, so that it survives the space between us with all its distractions and distortions. I want my spark to be received on the other side of its journey and unwrapped from it’s protective materials and accurately interpreted by my intended listener.
This is the first half of the communication project. I want to be heard the way that love hears, behind the masques of ‘identity’.
Can you see some of the challenges? Especially if I don’t understand how their perception of my identity is likely to affect how they unwrap my little spark? And the more visible my contextual difference makes me, the more I’m going to have to alter how I wrap my spark, and the more information I need to understand their likely unwrapping process before I even get started.
No wonder I spent the first half of my life being misinterpreted, and the second half studying the pseudosciences of interpretation.
No wonder I don’t want to leave the house most days.
So today, what I want to know is - what does it feel like, to be deliciously invisible, or made visible by the problem of identity you pose by your presence? Where does that feeling reside? Can you point to it, like a pain in your knee, and say on a scale of one to ten how intense the feeling is?
I don’t know why I want to know this. Maybe it’s because the one thing I know about all of us, what makes us visible to any extent, and the primary source of all this identity stuff, is our bodies. And we point to them and use them for all sorts of meaning making, but what does it feel like, to be able to say
I’m a Black woman
I’m middle class
I’m a college graduate
I’m a foreigner
I’m a traveller
I live here
I’m a sister
I just got here
I’m a writer
I’m an economist
I’m a waitress
What happens in your body, when you say you know who you are? I want to know. I don’t know why. I just do.
Do you see? Do you see what I mean?
Do you see me?
I am fascinated by the ways in which we do and don't embody our selves. I do my own kind of research, and coach people to live their truest lives. I practice healing and communication arts, and I write about all these things. I am a nomad, these days living and travelling on my boat in the U.K.
phone: +44 (0)7963898806