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Interview with America.Gov

June 26th, 2009

After her parents divorced, bestselling author Rebecca Walker grew up alternating between white, Jewish and predominantly African-American cultures. While the ongoing process of shifting identities was difficult, Walker explains in an interview with America.gov how the multicultural experience shaped her more dynamic and inclusive worldview.

Question: You grew up in a family not only defined along racial lines, a white father who is Jewish and a mother who is black, but also torn by divorce. Did you feel isolated from either side?

Walker: I was born in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. My father was born in Brooklyn and my mother had come from Georgia. They divorced when I was 8 years old, and moved back into very segregated — not formally segregated but culturally segregated — parts of the country. In San Francisco, or when I was in a primarily black community, it wasn’t safe for me to talk about being half-white or Jewish. The same was true in Westchester [County, New York,] on the East Coast. My skin color identified me as somebody who wasn’t all white but I didn’t talk about it too much. There wasn’t a lot of language at that point to discuss the intricacies of the situation.

Q: Did that confuse you?

A: It was very complex. I had to go into a community or school and assess how people were behaving, what things they liked to buy, which words they used to describe things, and so on. There weren’t just racial differences to navigate, but differences in class, religion, political persuasion. The leaps were huge, and I felt I had to shift constantly in order to fit in and be accepted. That was difficult to manage as a young person.

Q: At what point in your life did you become aware that race was a factor in how people related to you?

A: I was in fourth grade and had a crush on a boy, who told me he didn’t like black girls. All of a sudden I went into this panic, asking myself, is that what I am? A black girl? I realized people were seeing me in a way that I didn’t see myself.

Q: You have said that as you grew up people experienced you as “black or mixed or of color or Puerto Rican, Mexican, Egyptian, Indonesian, or Greek, but... I identified with everyone.” How have you “identified with everyone?”

A: I feel I speak 10 languages. I can go to just about any community in America and feel I have some connection, be it conservative, Republican, WASP, because I went to school or have friends from those worlds, or a Berkeley commune — quinoa-eating, all organic, polyamorous, because I’ve spent time there, too. It’s the same with inner-city black, Samoan, Dominican, Mexican, and Laotian communities. And then, too, I’ve spent a lot of time in a Muslim community in Kenya, and a Catholic community in Mexico. The end result is that I can usually find a way to communicate in a heartfelt way that lets people know I know and respect where they come from.

Q: Does that mean you can change your identity?

A: As I grew up I realized that racial and cultural identity are in some ways chosen, and that you can decide to participate in the script as it is given, or you can decide to create your own authentic script. I think people who don’t have the experience of having to adapt often don’t understand that you can rewrite who you are. You do have a choice. You are not the story other people have written for you. And so yes, the identity I write every day is that I am connected in some way to all human beings—that cultural and religious differences, while very real, are not definitive. There is always a way to connect and find common ground.

Q: You have said, “There has yet to be a way of breaking through the need to racially identify.” Do you see any signs of our society or parts of it breaking through?

A: I absolutely do. I’m shocked when I go to speak at college campuses about race and racial identity. When I was [at Yale], my friends and I were very aware of race—each time we entered the dining hall we couldn’t stifle a comment about the wall to wall paintings of past presidents, all white and all male. But recently I sat down at a table of all black students at Yale and asked about their experiences. They all said race wasn’t an issue they dealt with every day. That shocked me.  

Of course they were very interested in talking about the problematics of class. But when they talked about race, it didn’t come from a place of grievance. These are the more privileged kids obviously, but they don’t feel race is enough of a deterrent for them to be angry about it.  

Q: Is that good or bad?

A: I think it’s good and bad. It’s what we want, ultimately. But we don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that racism is still real. It’s disheartening to hear people say we live in a post-race world. If that were true then prisons wouldn’t be disproportionately filled with black and Latino men, and so on. There are very real racial divides in terms of who has access to resources and real power. Culturally, we can’t lose sight of what’s happening beneath the surface.

Q: Should young people keep their cultural heritage in mind, how their forbearers struggled, or should they just let all that go?

A: I think both. I come from two groups that have been deeply identified with their historical struggles — slavery on the one hand and the Holocaust on the other. I feel people should honor and celebrate their past to the extent that it gives them positive self-esteem and something rich to draw from, but I don’t think it’s healthy to hold on to it so much you are unable to experience a different way of being. To, as I said earlier, write a different script.

On the other hand, there is a problem of kids letting go of something and not having anything real to grab on to other than a problematic popular culture. I think we have to give them something new as they move into the world that is functional in its “Americanness.” We can’t ask them to give up their culture for mass consumerism and massive class stratification. There’s more to America and we need to take the time to flesh out what that is in a way young people can understand.

Q: Do you have a vision for a post-racial society or does it matter to the “success” of our society whether people are identified or choose to identify by race?

A: I think America needs to articulate an identity that is self-affirming but not isolative. Issues of race can be used to keep us from the real issues of how resources are allocated, who’s getting educated and who’s not, and how competitive the United States is or is not globally.

So post-race, pre-race, trans race -- I don’t want to take anyone’s sense of who they are away from them, but I do want to encourage all of us to focus on the deeper issues that need to be addressed rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up and distracted by the never-ending loop of racial discourse. Unresolved divisiveness is poison to our national identity.

Q: What does it mean to you to be American in a cultural sense?

A: That I have multiple cultural affinities to me is very American. When I travel I am very aware of how people in different cultures are often mono-culturally identified. As Americans we have had to loosen our hold on our cultural identities to the extent necessary for the common good. That’s a good thing we need to see more of globally. I feel very fortunate in that way, and a lot of others, too. I love being American. Could we do better? Yes. Could we do worse? Yes. Do we strive everyday to fulfill the promise of this country? Yes, I think most of us really do. And that spirit is the same spirit that elected President Barack Obama. And it makes me very proud.


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Comments:

Comment #1 by Amy on June 29, 2009 - 7:19am

I just found this interview through your twitter site. You made so many good points, but I think my favorite was "I think America needs to articulate an identity that is self-affirming but not isolative." I can't even express how true this is. You leave me speechless.

Comment #2 by TRC on January 2, 2011 - 8:03pm

I can appreciate your interview as I, myself am a white male, married to a black female with a child together.

You said..

" It’s disheartening to hear people say we live in a post-race world. If that were true then prisons wouldn’t be disproportionately filled with black and Latino men, and so on. "

I'm sorry to say that this has little to do with racism and more to do with the fact that there are more black and latino men in prison because they commit the most serious crimes.

There are idiots in every race that hate based on anything but for most everyday white Americans, race means nothing. Mistake or not, the election of Obama proves that fact. If you want things to get better, the black community needs to instill education into their children. I don't know how many times I personally witnessed black children failing classes on purpose because it would mess up their reps or it would get them picked on or bullied by other black students.

There is a such an "Anti-White Male" sentiment in the black community that anything a black male or female tries to do that's good, will make them appear "Booshie" or an "Uncle Tom" or whatever else.

Last but not least.. I for one, am tired of hearing about slavery. It was wrong. It was also 260 years ago. White Americans are not the only ones who've ever held slaves in the history of the world. I was born in the 1980's. The closest thing I've ever had to a slave was a backup hard drive. I've heard someone say " You pay for the sins of your father. " Okay, I'll buy that. My father was born in the late 1950's. He didn't own slaves either.

I was once in a gas station in Nashville, TN and there was a black male inside and he was obviously stealing merchandise from the shelves. He was stuffing bags of chips and candy bars into his pockets. When he walked towards the door the white clerk stopped him and asked him to empty his pockets.

You know what the first thing the man said was ?

"Are you asking me this because I'm black ? Are you a racist ? "

As long as this type of thing happens, This country will never live in racial harmony.

Comment #3 by rebuilding credit on July 18, 2012 - 12:15pm

This conversation is really too good and I am so impressed to read that totals sequence. Actually that moment is very crucial, but that time their answers are very positive. This is a very strong and brave person, so she perfectly handles this complete situation.

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