O.C.D. (Obsessed w/ Culture Disorder)

Maybe "obsessed" is a strong word, but my husband definitely agrees that I think about race and identitiy more than the average person.

Last weekend I attended "So...What Are You Anyway? Harvard's 3rd Annual Conference on Multiracial Identity" (SWAYA) organized by the Harvard Half-Asian People's Association (HAPA).  Because many interracial relationships produce multiracial children or involve adopted children who are of a different race from one (or both) of the adults in an interracial relationship, I thought I'd come and be a fly on the wall.

Upon entering Holden Chapel, I took a quick scan of the room, realized I was the only monoracial person present, and began humming the "One of These Things Is Not Like The Other" song from Sesame Street.  I walked briskly across the room with my head held high and settled into a seat at the front of the room.  Soon after, the Harvard HAPA President delivered her welcome and I found it hard to understand some of the words that were coming out of her mouth (and the mouths of people around me).  I'd only recently read about the term "Blasian"--one who identifies as Black and Asian-- but never heard someone actually say it in conversation until that evening.  And while many people proudly embraced terms like HAPA and "Half" to as part of their ethnic identity, those labels just didn't still well with me.

SWAYA is not only a student-run conference but also a heavily student-attended conference.  During the "Dinner and Meet & Greet" portion of the evening, I met a number of students from Ohio State, the largest group represented at the conference.  Other campuses in attendance included: Tufts, Wellesley, Northeastern, Brown, Villanova, University of Hartford, University of Massachusetts, Perdue, California Polytechnic, University of Maryland-College Park, and a bunch more that I couldn't write down fast enough (not that it matters because I can barely decipher my handwriting).

I'm very much the Early Bird, not the Night Owl, so by 8:00 pm, after a long week and three slices of pizza, I wanted to curl up in the corner and fall asleep.  But I stayed awake long enough to watch the screening of "One Big Hapa Family," the first feature documentary by Jeff Chiba Stearns, a Canadian filmmaker of Japanese and European heritage.  His film explores the high Japanese-Canadian interracial marriage rate (almost 100%) and how his own family reflects this trend in that everyone after his grandparents' generation married interracially.  After the screening Jeff spent some time discussing his own personal evolution in indentifying as multiracial person.  He pushed back on the notion of people using fractions to identify themselves (1/2 black, 1/4 white, etc.), inferring that such an approach dilutes and weakens a sense of self and potentially creates a "cult of confusion" among multiracial children.

Day Two of the conference began with me suffering from another case of chronic earliness (I had about an hour to kill).  After a breakfast of fruit and Fruit Loops (I did mention this was a student-run conference right?), Dean Evelyn Hammonds of Harvard College opened the day with her talk "New Technologies of 'Race'."  A historian of science by training, Dean Hammonds provided a useful retrospective of the history of race and science in medicine, acknowledging America as a "profoundly mixed nation" and asking the question: "What will it take to bring America back to its unhypenated whole?"  When I asked for her thoughts on recent media headlines over the latest Census data she responded: "Categories create identity.  Those boxes will never tell the full story of identity in America."  She also mentioned the need for "more public and civil discourse" about "what it means to be American," and in light of the recent Jalen Rose-Duke University controversy, "what it means to be African-American."

Next was a panel discussion "Raising Mixed Race Children."  I must say, the panel definitely left me raise my children under a GEICO rock.  As I listened to panelists discuss the joys and challenges of raising mixed race children, I experienced a whole range of emotions.  Sadness, as I listened to a child say that her biggest cultural shock/challenge was that her mother can't "deal with black hair"  (I think I actually let out an audible gasp and an "Oh no!" while placing my hand over put my upper chest).  Shock, as I listened to more than one parent talk about how they choose not to emphasize racial identity in their homes.  Empathy, as I listened to a wife recall how her husband's family tried to stop their wedding.  Joy, as laughed over a father's story about his failed attempt to compliment his future grandmother-in-law's cooking in Chinese (instead of saying she had "fine food" he ended up saying she had a "fine a--").  And relief when a father corrected his wife's assumption that "education makes a huge difference in being more accepting" by pointing out that one of his most bigoted relatives earned a PhD from Harvard.

The last two presentations made me wish I'd paid more attention in freshman statistics and psychology.  Dean David Smith lectured on "The Challenges and Potential of Critical Mixed Race Studies."  Now, I'd never even heard of "Mixed Race Studies"!  I'm I the only person?  Gotta get out from under my GEICO rock more often.  Then Arnold K. Ho presented preliminary findings of his ongoing research: "The Categorization and Perception of Biracials in Contemporary America: The 'One Drop of Blood' Rule Revisited."  His talk focused on social dominance theory and how the nature of hierarchies impact how we see people from multiracial groups and how patterns of interracial marriage mirror prevailing hierarchies in society.  The term "hypodescent" was thrown around a bunch and I'm sure all the experts he quoted and cross-referenced were all really smart, important, accomplished people, but I had a pressing issue that I needed answered:

Me: "Hi! Um, thanks for your presentation.  It was really informative and I learned alot.  Now, you've quoted a lot of experts and social scientists, but what I'd really like to know is: what is your opinion of Halle Berry?"
Arnold: "Oh! Halle Berry?!"
Me: "Uh, yes.  Since you study this stuff for a living, what do you think about Halle Berry and the comments she made about her daughter's racial identity based on the one-drop rule?"
Arnold: "Oh.  Well the statement she made basically supports what I've been finding in my research."
Me: "Oh, how convenient!"

Overall, I found the conference a truly educational experience.  I applaud Harvard HAPA for all the hard work put into a really engaging and informative weekend and look forward to joining them next year.

"If You're White, Keep It Tight."

Yeah, my husband tried that "pretend yawn arm around the shoulder move" on me.  Obviously it worked!

When it comes to rhythm, "White People" get a bad wrap.  Try doing a "soul clap" with an interracial audience and if it veers offbeat, who gets the blame? The White People.  Lead a song in church with everyone clapping on the 2 and 4,  and if it turns into the 1 and 3 who gets the blame? The White People. Try leading the Electic Slide at a wedding reception, and if part of the group ends up in the wrong direction who gets the blame? The White People.  In fact the title of this piece came from a (white) pastor  attempting to "exhort" a certain population that gets a little too "free" when it comes to physical expression.

My husband and I didn't do much dancing while we dated because 1) we're both homebodies and 2) my husband used to be pretty averse to dancing.  In fact, the first time we danced together in public was just a few months before our own wedding.  We were attending a wedding reception for a family friend and when the song African Queen came on, the next thing I knew my husband was making a beeline to the dance floor, dragging me behind him.  Interestingly enough, we met another interracial couple while we were dancing, who suddenly turned an innocent celebration into a competition.  They were trying to show us up!  Well we couldn't have that; not up in my hometown, no sir. So from there it basically degraded into an outtake from You Got Served: Interracial Couple Dance Battle Royale.

Early in the wedding planning process, I had some concerns about whether my husband would survive all the dancing that a wedding entailed.  And when we started putting together our reception playlist and program these concerns only grew larger:

Me: "Okay, so after our first dance I'll dance with my dad, you'll dance with my mom, we'll dance with each others' parents, and theninvite the rest of our family up to dance."
My Husband: Okay.
Me: And then we have to play The Electric Slide, because you just can't have a wedding without The Electric Slide.  I mean I think technically in the State of Maryland your wedding is invalid if you don't do The Electric Slide at your reception."
Hubs: (Silence. Blank stare.)
Me: "Why are you looking at me like that? It was just a joke!  Well, that last part anyway.  So, then we should do The Cha Cha Slide..."
Hubs: (Silence. Blank stare.)
Me: "Oh! And then we should Step In The Name of Love! Oh wait, maybe we should do that first? Before The Cha Cha Slide?"
Hubs: (Blank stare. Crickets chirping in the background)

Rest assured, we arranged to have a friend stop by teach my husband and his family the basics.  In fact, my favorite wedding photo is of everyone doing The Cha Cha Slide showing how-low-we-can-go-we-can-go-down-low-all-the-way-to-the-floor.

So I don't need to tell you who won the interracial dance battle *wink* *smirk*, but more importantly, that moment confirmed once again that yes, my husband was the man for me.  It made no difference whether he could Pop and Lock, do the Kid n' Play, or clear the floor and bust out The Worm.  What mattered was his willingess to step out of his comfort zone and try something new so that we could have a good time together and make a memory.  And he's become quite the dancing machine! Particularly when we're in cities where no one knows us.  I'm proud to be seen with him on the dancefloor.  Much to my surprise.

And I now realize that "rhythm" has more to do with context and culture than simply race.  I might be able to hold my own at a Go-Go but if I tried to hold my own against either one of these guys, I'd look a hot mess.  And for some reason I just can't get the hang of Conga Lines or any dance that involves a large group of people moving in a circular direction.  Put me in a Lebanese Dance Circle or in the middle of a Texas Two Step at a wedding reception and I'm liable to sneak off and find another piece of wedding cake after struggling for about three minutes.  Even in my own family some of us are first on the dancefloor and some avoid it all costs.  I'm sure there are many musicians who probably can't even dance to their own music, preferring to just lean back, rock with it, do a foot tap or a head nod.

So if nothing else, I've learned the futility of writing off someone's rythmic ability based merely on where they're from, how they look, or how they move in a particular instance.  In fact, I think the best advice is summed up by the great philosopher Henry David Thoreau: 

"If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away. "

Or as stated by the great philospher Young MC: "Just bust a move."

10 Things Nigerians and The Irish Have in Common

Earlier this week I noticed the following update on a friend's Facebook Wall:
I wanna know how cabbage at Kroger goes on sale on Sunday for $0.37 and is all sold out by Monday?!? Seriously, sold out... How are these women on the ball like that? I need to step up my game!"

My response:
St Patty's Day is Thursday girl! You know us Irish folk don't play when it comes to our cornbeef and cabbage! You probably got punked by a gang of Irish grandmas!

Now I must admit, before marrying my husband, the extent of my Saint Patrick's Day celebration was digging out a green accessory to avoid serial pinching on the school bus.  Since marrying into a large, Irish family, I've grown a greater appreciation for the holiday because I see how much pride my husband's family takes in celebrating its ethnic heritage (particularly on Saint Patrick's).  Although most dialogue around interracial relationships focuses on differences, in the spirit of Saint Patty's Day, I thought I'd reflect on some of the quirky commonalities between our families of origin that we've noticed over the years.

10.  Lots of People Have the Same Name
Meeting my husband's extended family for the first time was like the "meet the parents'' scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding without the tiki torches, music, and whole baby lamb roasting over a spit in the backyard.  In the movie, the bride's father begins to introduce his siblings, their children (all named Anita, Diane, and Nick) and rounds out the introductions with “Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nicky, and Gus."  The Irish version is Jim, Jim, Jim, Jimmy, Jim, and James and the Nigerian version would include at least three or four of guys nicknamed "Tunde" or "Olu."

9.  A "Complicated" Relationship With Great Britain
Considering the history of the "modern" World, who doesn't have a complicated relationship with Great Britain?    During our last large family gathering one of my uncles-in-law made a joke about the family really being British and my grandparents-in-law were not amused.

8.  Racial and Ethnic Discrimination
Aside from slaves and indentured servants, most Irish and Nigerian families in the United States have the common bond of immigration.  My husband's ancestors came to America due to a potato famine while my parents came to secure educational opportunity for themselves and their children.  Although life in the America proved to be a vast improvement over conditions back home, my husband and I know stories from our respective families about the discrimination they faced like being called "N---er" for the first time and seeing "Irish Need Not Apply" signs in front of businesses that were hiring.

7.  The Color Green
Nigerians love the color green.  The Nigerian flag is, after all, green-white-green.  Ireland is also known as "The Emerald Isle," shamrocks are green, the uniforms for the Boston Celtics are green, and the Notre Dame mascot wears some green too!

6.  Guinness
Except for Heineken, you'd be hard pressed to find any other beer at a Nigerian party besides Guinness. And if my husband and I are in an Irish pub, I think technically its sacrilegious for him to order anything else.  Guinness has been brewed in Nigeria since the 1960s and allegedly, Nigeria drinks more Guinness than Ireland!
5.  Soccer
This probably ties back to #9.  Outside of the World Cup, there are only two places I watch soccer: 1) A Nigerian Party or 2) An Irish Pub.

4.  Catholicism
A few weeks ago I was listening to a North Carolina Public Radio interview with Enuma Okoro, author of Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community (a great read which I highly recommend) who spent part of her childhood in Nigeria.  During the interview, the host mistakenly referred to Nigeria as "a Muslim country."  While I sucked my teeth and rolled my eyes at what I perceived as a lack of diligent preparation on the part of the interviewer, Enuma graciously clarified that Nigeria is a country of diverse faiths largely (though not entirely) divided among geographic and tribal lines: the Muslim Hausa in the North, the Christian/Anglican Yoruba in the Southwest, and the Christian/Catholic Igbo in the Southeast.

3.  Patron Saints
Piggybacking off of Number 3, Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and Nigeria.  Clearly the connection between the two countries is on a deep, spiritual level.

2.  We Roll Deep
Nigerians call them "tribes."  The Irish call them "clans."  Whatever label you use, what matters is that you never walk alone.

1.  Mating With Each Other
The summer before my husband and I were engaged, I was living at home with my parents while interning in Washington, DC and my husband (then boyfriend) was interning in Northwest Virginia.  He would spend the weekends with me and my family, experiencing the fullness of "Party Season" among Nigerians in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area.  The season runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend and my parents' social calendar stays jam-packed with graduation ceremonies, engagement ceremonies, weddings, cook-outs, Yoruba festivals, anniversary celebrations, and birthday parties.  That summer most of our outings were wedding related, and we began running into more and more interracial couples.  About a year later we were planning our own wedding and knew three or four other couples that consisted of Nigerian-American girls marrying Irish guys from the East Coast.  At one point it got so creepy that my mom confronted me in the kitchen (in a very loving, motherly way of course), asking me to explain this "phenomenon among you young people."  I assured her that I was much too busy planning a wedding and studying for the Bar Exam to execute a large-scale, national, interracial hook-up conspiracy.

To all of you who are celebrating, Happy Saint Patrick's Day!  And if you make it to the Southie (South Boston) Parade on Sunday, I'll be the Black lady wearing the "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" button.

Jesus is Not Post-Racial

Poor Gary.  I think he may have been at my church growing up...

In May 2004, I met my husband right before I left town for Memorial Day weekend.  I'd just barely survived my first year of law school and planned to spend the holiday weekend in Maryland to detox my soul.  But over a three week period, every Sunday at church a different person would come up to me, insisting that I meet this guy from church who was starting law school in the Fall.  I knew it was really serious when a friend visiting from Nashville even insisted that I meet this guy.  So one fateful Sunday, a friend finally introduced us after church. There was no love at first sight; no fireworks.  But that meeting sparked the beginning of a friendship that evolved into a romance, engagement and marriage over the next three years.
Most people wrongly assume that my husband and I met in law school because we're both lawyers.  It's understandable--we did attend the same law school and overlapped by one year.  In fact, most of the lawyer couples I know connected over Torts or spent long nights "studying" Constitutional Law outlines together, but alas, we don't share the typical "Barack and Michelle Obama love story."  When I tell people that we actually met at church, I find it amusing how often people are taken aback.  I'm not sure why, but I have some theories: A) They assume lawyers are angry at God for law school and conclude that "Christian lawyer" is an oxymoron and our profession is full of soul-less, religion-averse, God-haters; or B) They think that God fits so snugly under the notches of the Bible Belt that He ceases to exist North of Maryland.  And if so, then surely Massachusetts is at the cusp of eternal damnation.
Moving to Boston after our first year of marriage entailed lots of searching: a job for me, a place to live, somewhere to park our car, the closest L.L. Bean for winter outfitting, etc.  But searching for a church proved to be an adventure far more hilarious than we expected.  First there was the church that packed us in like sardines, featured impromptu solos from the pastors in the middle of sermons, and took time to recognize "100% tithers" (I still haven't quite figured out the math on that one--how can anything less than 10% can still be called a tithe?).  Then there was the so-seeker-friendly-that-we-don't-make-any-definitive-statements church, where the sermon began with "Well, I think maybe what Paul might probably be trying to say here could possibly be perhaps..." but we really enjoyed the free bagels and the Starbucks gift cards!  And then the suburban churches we visited left us feeling literally and figuratively out of place at their disbelief that we drove in  "all the way" from the city (a mere thirty minutes).
You see, neither of us really had to "look" for a church before.  Growing up, we attended the same church that our respective parents attended, and in North Carolina I attended the same church for eight years.  So we came to Boston having done very little church research, with a few half-hearted recommendations from family and friends, and  a resigned "I wish I had a church I could recommend to you in Boston, but I don't," from one of our North Carolina pastors.  As we began church shopping, we talked about what we were looking for--how we would know when it was time to stop browsing the aisles and settle into a particular congregation.  Chief among our concerns was worshipping in a place where we felt accepted and affirmed as an interracial, married couple.  And very early into our relationship, I learned that nothing to do with the demographic make-up of a church's pastoral staff or congregation.
When my husband and I were dating, I expected some less-than-ideal reactions from family members, but was completed blind sided by the comments I heard from members of my church (many of whom had no idea I was dating anyone, much less, a White guy).  In one instance, a friend relayed a story about a disagreement with another church leader.  To drive home his point that the other person involved was everything but a child of God, he concluded: "AND he's married to a white woman!"  (Trust me, he didn't intend it as a compliment.)  In another instance, while chatting with a fellow graduate student, I learned about some church leaders who, when talking to their child about dating, ended the conversation with, "You want to marry someone who looks like mommy don't you?"

After we got engaged and entered the realm of church-based, pre-marital counseling, I noticed that none of our assigned reading acknowledged that two people who don't look like each other might actually meet at church and consider spending the rest of their lives together.  So I asked another classmate who was also engaged and in an interracial relationship if she knew of any books that churches or pastors used in pre-marital counseling with interracial couples.  Her response: "No, because there aren't any.  And I think that silence speaks volumes about how most churches really feel about interracial marriage."

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I realize that my shock had more to do with my overly idealistic and unrealistic view of church that was, quite frankly, unbiblical.  There is no perfect church because at its core is a community of broken people.  So even in a faith community that holds diversity and multi-culturalism in high regard as a core value, and boasts a congregation made up from every tribe, race, nation, and tongue, Jesus does not simply become a panacea for the racist thoughts and behavior to which we are all susceptible.  It's not enough to simply be comfortable with having lots of different people in the room (but it can be a great start).  In fact, if I hear a church harping on "racial reconciliation" for more than five minutes, I start to get a little nervous. 
Our search for a faith community in Boston included many twists and turns, but eventually led us to settle in a Presbyterian congregation where the dominant culture is Pan-Asian.  And on the one hand, I'd like to think that I could find out what our church leaders really think about racial issues by asking: "How would you react if your son or daughter married someone that doesn't look like you?" But the truth is, racism is too pervasive to have a litmus test.  It doesn't matter how many flags from different nations are displayed around our sanctuary; how many worship songs and hymns we sing in other languages; how many AIDS orphanages we support; how many East Africans or Koreans we adopt; how many Historically Black Colleges and Universities we reach out to; how many hours we tutor and mentor children from the local housing project; how many care packets we prepare for the homeless; how many outreaches we hold for the Spanish-speaking community; how often our sermons reference  Martin Luther King, Jr.; or how often our bulletins and announcements include imagery with different colored hands, rainbows, or kaleidoscopes.  But rather, our willingness to embrace and display grace in the midst of messy lives, full of  misconceptions, mistakes, misunderstandings, and missteps around race (among other things).

Black Birds and Doves

I guess ABC's What Would You Do found its sweet spot when it comes to plots featuring interracial couples and interracial families.  One of the more recent episodes, Interracial Adoption Under Fire, actually reminded me a somewhat awkward interaction during a recent trip.  My husband and I were getting ready to leave church one Sunday morning when we ran into some old college/law school  friends. As we chatted with one couple, I held their baby who is a couple of shades lighter than my complexion.  Then another old college classmate (who knows my husband's race) walked by, gave me a look out of the corner of his eye, and asked if the baby was mine and my husband's.  I replied no, and he said: “I didn’t think so. That doesn’t look like a mixed baby!" 

The only thing that kept me from going off on him right there was that we were in a church sanctuary.