Thursday, June 30, 2011

on being a minority (sort of)

I grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest.  A small town that was mostly white.  It wasn't until I moved to Baltimore that I finally lived in the middle of a diverse community.  I went to a church that not only represented more than one racial group but also more than one economic group.  My boyfriend lived in the inner city and I remember walking in his neighborhood and feeling like I was a minority, with my white skin surrounded by brown.  I remember feeling like I wanted to change my skin color and blend in, to not stand out so brightly.  Yet, at the same time I liked feeling different because I wanted to feel what it meant to be a minority.  I wanted to know what if felt like to be the outsider looking in, not understanding those on the inside.  I wanted to try to understand.

Well, then we moved to Congo and for the past four plus years I have been a minority in more than one way.  Obviously, being a person with white skin surrounded by people who have all different shades of brown and black skin has given me more than enough opportunity to experience what it feels like to stick out and be different.  Everywhere I go I stand out.  I am noticed any where I walk or travel.  Bukavu doesn't have a huge population of white people, it has even a smaller population of white children (nine to be exact, and after next week, that number dwindles to one child).  It has a population of one double bright blue BOB strollers.  There is one American family (ours).   And it has one adoptive family (ours again).   To say I stand out is almost an understatement.  I jump out.  Even to the chinese UN soldiers I am noticed.  They want to take a picture of our two little blond haired, blue eyed girls whenever I come upon them.  People stare at me everywhere, all the time.  At first it was unnerving, now I am used to it.  Sort of.

Even though I am used to it, it still bothers me.  Lately, I find myself wanting to yell, "I am not so different from you!  I am a person, a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife.  I am you and you are me.  We are the same!  I am not so different!  Stop staring at me.  Just let me be myself.  Don't just see my skin color.  Look at me, my heart, who I am.  Do you know that I love your country?  That I love the  beauty of the place?  That I also can't stand the problems, the water problems, the roads that are more like holes, the lack of good health care, the lack of free schooling?  That my heart breaks with yours as your babies, your mothers, your fathers die and suffer?  Do you know that I am embarrassed that I can't speak your language?  See me for who I am, please.  I am just like you.  I get frustrated, I get down, I am happy, I am sad.  I love my family, I want to see them happy and healthy, I want to find joy in this hard life, I want there to be peace.  Let me live.  Turn your eyes from my skin and see my heart instead.  Let me walk in freedom without judgement, without expectation.  Please, just today, don't call me mzungu (white person), today call me "mama" like you do the other women with children.  I know my skin color is white.  I know that it means so much.  I know I am wealthy and always will be, simply because of the country I come from and will go back to one day.  I know that there is much that divides us.  But, I am more than the color of my skin, and I am less as well.  I know that it is hard to forget the past, it is easier to put labels on me and to put your hand out in petition to me.  I know that there is a huge divide between your poverty and my wealth.  But it is only of our own making.  It is not real.  I know I am white and you are black.  And I know this is important and beautiful.  But there is more that is important and beautiful too.  Don't forget the rest of it.  Give me freedom.  Let me live.  I feel trapped by who you think I am, and I am suffocating. Sometimes I hate having white skin!  Sometimes I want my skin to be beautiful brown like yours.  I live behind brick walls and barbed wire, but more than that holds me back.  Your country has been my home for four years, and yet it hasn't.  And the truth is, I know my own heart as well.  Come to my country and if it had not been for this experience, I probably would still do the same as you are doing now.  But, now I know better.  Because the reality is that because I lived here, I won't fit in any longer anymore there either.  I think I will always feel adrift.  But I will blend in on the outside again.  I won't be movie star popular any more.  Will I find comfort in the anonymity?  I don't know.  I don't know. "

I often think about our two adopted girls who are congolese, with beautiful brown skin.  I think about their life in America that we will soon be forcing on them (I say "force" only because they have no choice in the matter).  I think about how much they will stand out, how much they might struggle to fit in, to feel like they belong.  I wonder if they will struggle when people make judgements about them based off of their skin color.  When people stare at them and try to figure out how they fit into our family.   I wonder if they will wish they could just fit in better, just belong.  If they will, like me, want to yell, "let me be free!"

I constantly feel grateful that I lived here for four years for many reasons.  One of these reasons is I have learned what it was like to be a minority (sort of).  I learned what it was like to stand out, to have people judge you for the color of your skin before knowing anything about you.  I know what it feels like to have people stare at you and talk about you.  I would never have known that before.  I would never have known what my daughters may feel like one day when I am no longer the minority, but they are instead.

It's funny, I have wanted to write this post of awhile now, but I was hesitant.  The reason is behind why I had to put a "sort of" in my title.  The truth is, I don't know what it is like to feel like a minority as it really means to most people around the world and in the states.  I don't know what my daughters will feel like one day and I'll never be able to completely understand what it feels like to be black in America or to be adopted into a white family.  All I can say, is I know what it feels like to be different.  And I hope that I will remember, that all I ever wanted for myself, was to be heard and listened to with compassion.  I hope this is what I can offer my daughters one day.  A listening ear, with a heart full of compassion and love.  Perhaps, armed with such things, one can change the world to a place where different is beautiful.

a picture I snapped of a good friend one day as we were driving to a wedding


Anonymous said...

beautiful, holly.

Shauna said...

You did a beautiful job of putting your thoughts and feelings into words Holly. I imagine this will be great to share with all your girls when they are older.

Moriah said...

Well said. Race, culture and skin color are a complex myriad of emotions. I have such a problem being able to put my experience into words being half Egyptian half Dutch and All-American. I find discussions online about how when you adopt children you deprive them of their culture and I get so frustrated because culture is over-rated I tell you. I have 3 and I think the best thing I have that counts is my family, not a culture.

Holly said...

Nadia--I appreciated your comment, and I totally agree. I don't know if I have ever felt like I belonged completely until I had my own family. And I hope that all our girls feel that way too. That, no matter what they face in the world and culture around them, they always have family to come back to.