Rebecca Walker
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AUTHOR OPENS EYES TO WORLD THAT'S NOT BLACK AND WHITE, As the biracial child of divorced parents, she had to handle cultural conflicts.
by Andrew DeBraber © The Grand Rapids Press, 2002


     
 

A crowd of 200 people turned out to hear Rebecca Walker's lecture "Bi-Racial Children and Families" on Wednesday.
What many of them found is a support network they didn't know existed.

After Walker spoke, she opened the floor for questions and comments. When a mother asked about how best to raise her 1-year-old biracial child, Walker offered advice. She then suggested the woman find others in the area struggling with the same questions.

No more had the words left her mouth than another woman raised her hand offering help.

While Walker signed books after her talk, a part of Diversity Lecture Series VII at Grand Rapids Community College, small groups gathered around the room: one for parents seeking schools that value diversity for their mixed-race children; one for biracial teen-agers who don't feel welcome in any group; one for parents whose pre-teenage girls are having trouble figuring out what to do with their hair if it has characteristics that are neither typically black nor typically white.

"The hair issue is so huge," said Walker, relishing the interaction. "This is like a movement meeting."

A movement meeting -- the civil rights movement in Mississippi -- is where Walker's parents met. Her mother, Alice Walker, is a southern-born black novelist, while her father is a white Jewish lawyer from New York. They married in New York because inter-racial marriages were illegal in Mississippi, but returned to live in Jackson, Miss., before divorcing when Walker was 10.

Reading excerpts from her book "Black White and Jewish," Walker, 32, described growing from a child who symbolized the ideals of the civil rights movement to an adolescent who tried to fit in everywhere but found herself struggling to fit in anywhere. Last year, she fit into Time Magazine's list of America's 50 future leaders.

After her parents divorced, Walker was shifted from one to the other every two years, especially challenging since each had gone to live in communities that were largely segregated into white Jewish upper-middle class and black.

"Suddenly, I had to move back and forth between these completely different worlds that both wanted to claim me in very specific ways and wanted me to act, move and think in very specific -- and very different -- ways," she said.

"I tried desperately to belong and be accepted. I had to really act to fit in. What I discovered is the performative nature of race, class and culture."

Whereas after she moved to be with her father she found herself concerned about her bat mitzvah, Guess Jeans, and the latest Police album, she couldn't have cared less about those things two months before.

"What came to me is we are all constantly performing race, class and culture," she said. "We learn how to move, act, and be in accordance with our culture and class. We do that to give us meaning and help us get through life."

The ways we are conditioned to act, think, believe, and move according to our culture, Walker said, do not reveal who we are at the core.

Walker has found peace in the teachings of Buddhism and accepting herself as she is.

She called people to break out of the scripts their cultural groups have given them.

"What happens to the self when it is not defined by one block, one culture?" she asked. "We need to be able to honor our history but also not be completely defined by it. We need to be open to something different happening in the future -- we're expecting it all to happen over again, and that's no way to live."

Walker emphasized that today she is comfortable with who she is, though getting to this point has been hard work.

"I have come to a place of radical self-acceptance, which has allowed the issues of fitting in to subside," she said. "Usually, I feel very welcomed where I go, and I feel very at home because I feel at home with my body and myself now. I stopped playing the fitting-in game because you can't win.

Walker suggested that separating people by race is a modern construct that does more harm than good.

"We all need to deal with the fact that racial purity is insane," she said. "What we need to realize is that all of us are mixed. The sooner we can get with that, the better it will be for all of us. The idea that we're all pure is an illusion -- we're all more connected than we realize."

 

 

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