White Girl

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I am a white girl. That is one aspect of who I am, and though I vacillate on how important an aspect it is, I won’t deny that being a white girl, both in my home country of the USA and abroad, has a big impact on my experience of life.

I can’t remember ever being unaware of the weight of this particular quality. The elementary school I went to was the “alternative” public school in a university city that pats itself on the back for its progressive values. My formal education was a funny mix of strong progressive curricula taught by somewhat clueless, sometimes guilt-stricken white teachers (that’s how I understand them in retrospect. As a child they controlled knowledge, though rarely had a good grasp over the classroom). In high school I noticed, and enjoyed, when I was the only white student in a class. As a young adult, I roamed the hemisphere of the Americas, living in Trinidad, Brazil, Louisiana, Colombia and elsewhere. My self, my race, and how these shift meaningfully across political communities has always intrigued me.

In recent years, the way I think about being white and female has been jolted. The jolts come cyclically and sometimes unpredictably, the early contractions of the birth of something new. Mixing metaphors, my self conception, especially as it relates to my race, feels like the little silver orb in a pinball machine, bouncing up against walls, flying up ramps into new realms, and dropping down into the darkness of disappointment and shame.

The thing about being me, a white girl (and I’m not every white girl), is the ease with which I move through the world – sometimes doors are opened in front of me, sometimes hands are held out to help me up. Sometimes people smile. Most of the time I feel safe, at least as safe as possible in this world.

But I think about this ease, and the cost of it. As an individual, I want to be known for the qualities I have developed in myself, and for the blueprint my family layed down for me to build upon. I want to be comfortable. As a member of a society, I want to be respectful of the lives and the happiness of others, of their families and histories. I want to work for our lives and our collective and individual happinesses. For me, being white sometimes means that the two lived experiences are contradictory.  I think I’ll have to give something up of myself for the health of this society.

But what? Is it my eager voice that I should quiet when I’m in a group of many other white women and a few women of color, shifting my self from expressive individual to listening demographic? Is it my delicacy that I should trash, as I interpret the critics of society as personal affronts? Should I stop asking for answers from people who have their own shit to figure out? Yes.

If I were me

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If I were me…

I have a little book, the collected writings that Brazilian author Clarice Lispector used to publish in the Jornal do Brasil, short little mediatations on the cotidian life of a bourgeoisie woman artist. For some reason, I find them very relatable.

One of my favorites is titled Se eu fosse eu. In other, English words: “If I were me”. Lispector writes that sometimes, if she’s looking for an important paper that she’s filed away and cannot find, she asks herself,  “Ïf I were me, where would I have put it?” And then she becomes so fascinated by the possibilities of “If I were me…” that she entirely forgets about the paper.

“I think that if I were truly me, my friends wouldn’t recognize me on the street because even my physiognomy would have changed.” That unrealized doppelgänger, the true me, the possibilities! Why not just live as her, the “me” who exists outside of time and history? There are no limits to what I would I do, if I were me!

Perhaps we cannot imagine the extasy of life as ourselves, the things we’d do and wouldn’t do. What I love about Lispector is her depth: in a few casual paragraphs, she brings the idea around. She realizes, “I know that, after the first calls to crazy celebration that being ourselves would be, in the end we would have the experience of the world. Better said, we would experience the full pain of the world.” Because what is this me that is sitting here, half undressed in the heat of Saturday morning, writing, if not the me I have created to avoid some of that pain? We learn to position ourselves in ways that protect from the full blast of life as we hurtle into it day by day. A crouch, a slant, a shadow to lessen the blow. And though the protective crouch means I don’t constantly launch into the largest, most graceful grand jeté, the leap is still there, ready when I am.

 Know yourself

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I try to sit quietly and find myself. I imagine I am somewhere inside, buried beneath years of social survival. I am like a firefly nestled in the pocket of the patchwork dress of my life, the pieces sewed together to create planes and correct mistakes, no grand design guiding it.

There is something true about me. Whether I was born with this truth, or if it was forged over time I don’t know. I am trying to return to this truth, because it is awkward living stretched beyond it. I have learned to be loud in a loud world: I am not loud. I have learned to be aggressive: I find no joy in controlling another person. I push the walls of what is true to me. But flexibility without strength causes long-term damage. Instead of stretching beyond, I want to breath into what is essential.

 

 

 

Who are you?

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“Who are you?”

The question hits you like a slap. Why are they asking you this? Don’t they already know? You’ve been talking together for hours now.

“I am Sofia.”

They ask again. “Yes, Sofia, but who are you?”

You try to relax into the simple answer for this simple question. “I cook for the church. I go there every morning to prepare food for the men who pass through, endlessly. Men who are looking for something better.”

“We know about the men. We want to know about you Sofia. Who are you?”

Perhaps relaxing was a mistake. Something that you’ve held, frigid, for a long time. A hard, protective coating. It begins to crack and to melt. The crack sounds like a sob. The melt looks like tears.

You cannot speak.

“Who are you, Sofia?”

You smile. You are embarrassed to cry in front of this stranger. You are embarrassed that this stranger has opened you up so easily. You are ashamed that this stranger is the first one who ever tried to do that.

“I don’t understand.” And though you will not answer the stranger now, their question will continue to echo inside of you, causing an avalanche that will not be held back.