Reflections On (My) Race
I’ve struggled with angst and questions about race since I can remember. What I’ve not always said is — it’s personal.
In June 2020 I’m compelled to recall and reflect on certain facts and experiences of my life, some for the first time. What follows is an imperfect but honest attempt to examine my own ‘lens’, brush it off and adjust the aperture so I can see and show myself clearly. To quite literally put skin in the game. Because, though I can’t say exactly to whom or why, my gut says it matters.
It’s June 2020. I’ve just turned 55 -
I’m Jennifer, Jenni, Jen, Jenni Bauman, Jena Adams, daughter, sister, cousin, niece, aunt, friend, wife, in-law, mom, coworker, neighbor, community member, acquaintance, stranger.
To the world I’m White.
But that’s not right –
I’m not White.
A surprise to friends and family, even to some who used to know it.
I’m born in 1965 in San Francisco –
To Jennifer. Who’s beloved and brilliant. Broken by mental illness.
To the world she’s White.
She’s my half White.
Before that she’s my half-sister’s half White.
A surprise to friends and family who don’t know about Flora
Born in 1962 to Jennifer and Leo D.
To the world Leo’s Black.
And so then, is Flora.
Flora also has Down Syndrome. “Mongoloid” she’s called then.
Jennifer takes baby Flora to California, tells no one. Is soon hospitalized. “Psychotic” she’s called then.
Flora lives happily for thirty-three more years with her loving foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. D.
To the world they’re Black.
I’m born three years later –
To Jennifer and Leo D., says my birth certificate.
Just like Flora.
To the world I’m Black.
Two months later neighbors call social services and I’m placed in the foster home of Mr. and Mrs. M.
I live there for six years. Mr. and Mrs. M. are kind and caring. Also, poor and uneducated.
To the world they’re White. “White trash” they’re called then.
Raising Black me.
“Dirty foster kid!” jeer the neighborhood children. They’re not allowed to play with me.
In 1967 Jennifer tells her mother about me –
Valerie S., my grandmother.
To the world she’s White.
She lives far away but has friends in California. She sends one to see me.
“The house is very dirty” the friend writes. “Mr. M. is very objectionable.”
My grandmother sets about finding me a new home.
But first there’s a ‘misunderstanding’ to settle –
I can’t be Black.
My grandmother will fix it.
She hires a notary public and swears:
My daughter Jennifer has
Given false information which appeared on the birth certificate of this child.
Named Leo D. as the father.
Had not seen Leo D. for several years prior to the birth of the above-named child.
These are true statements set down by me, Valerie S., to clarify the true status of this child.”
[Affirmed and sealed by R.E. RANEY, N.P., Oakland County, Michigan]*
It makes her feel better.
In 1971 Gina and Larry Bauman visit my foster home –
They’re distant relatives in town for a work thing. Valerie’s asked them to check on me.
They’re a wonderful couple with three young sons back in Michigan.
To the world they’re White.
It’s LOVE at first sight — for them and for me.
They adopt me in 1972.
My new family is the luckiest thing in my life. For so many reasons including -
Now I’m all White, says my new birth certificate.
Though my skin hasn’t changed. It’s still Brown.
Browner than my family. Browner than my new small town. Brownest kid in school.
“N — — r!” sneers a first-grade classmate at recess. My mom calls the school.
“Maybe it would be better to keep Jenni out of the sun” the White teacher suggests.
* Postscript to notarized document, handwritten by Valerie S., November 1977: “The name of the father is VINOD MEHTA. He was a graduate engineer. He came from BOMBAY, INDIA.”
Not Black, then. Indian.
What is that? Is it Asian? Well, that’s basically White. Right?
First grade, second grade, third grade –
My family’s White so I am too.
The small town gets used to me.
To the world I’m White.
Fourth grade, fifth grade. A Vietnamese family moves to town. “Boat people” they’re called then.
To the world they’re Asian. I’m still White.
Sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade. A South American family moves to town. Their kids look like me. They open a restaurant, the Chilean House. “Mexican food” we call it.
To the world they’re Brown. Not White like me.
Sometime during high school. A Black family moves to town.
I wonder what the kids are hearing on the playground.
I’m in college –
Everything’s new and there’s a paper form for everything. I check the box “Caucasian.”
People keep asking: “Where are you from?” “No, I mean what are you?”
Oh. “Half Indian” I say. It feels like a lie.
“Cool! Full scholarship?” They inquire suspiciously.
Oh. “No, East Indian like Gandhi. But I wasn’t raised in the culture.”
“Yeah, I see it now” they say peering.
“I thought you were Italian” they say disappointed.
“That’s why your tan’s so great” they accuse.
I’m hired to lead summer orientation.
“Each team of four leaders is designed to be relatable to any of our incoming students” a pamphlet says.
I’m the Brown one on my team. I’m thinking the incoming Brown students are getting cheated.
I’m home for a weekend.
“You look darker. Are you getting too much sun?” worries a caring adult.
“How’s college?” asks a relative I love.
“So great” I say. “I’m meeting all different kinds of people. It’s cool.”
“That’s terrific” he says. Then out of nowhere “I don’t like Asians. I can’t help it. I was a kid during World War 2.”
“But I’m half Asian” I say after a beat “and you like me.”
“What? No, you’re not.” He looks confused.
“Yes, I am.”
“No, not really.” He looks hurt.
I’m back at college, hearing things differently –
“You’re from a small town? You seem so urban.”
“I wish I looked exotic like you.”
Pointing to a picture, “That’s your family?”
“Where are you from? No, I mean what are you?”
I’m eyeing the box “Other”.
After college, I join the Peace Corps. Am assigned to South America –
“You fit right in” say the other volunteers. “You look totally Paraguayan. What are you?”
“No parece Americana” (You don’t look American) say the Paraguayans sadly. “No es una Gringa” (You’re not White).
“Debes evitar el sol” (You should stay out of the sun) says a caring Paraguayan neighbor. “No quieres ser Negra como una Brazileira!” (You don’t want to be Black like a Brazilian!).
I’m back in the U.S. in graduate school for public health –
I learn about social epidemiology, social determinants of health, disparities, equity vs. equality, racism as a public health issue.
I live in a large undergrad residence hall where I’m Resident Director.
“I’d like you to start an Indian American student club” says Deba my manager.
To the world he’s Indian. Wearing a white dhoti. Pipe in hand.
“Thanks, but I don’t think so” I say, my heart racing. “I wasn’t raised in Indian culture. I’m not really Indian.”
He looks bemused. “Why not?” he challenges. “If a young man is half Black and raised in a White family, is he not really Black?”
I look bemused. It’s not the same. Is it?
I’m dating —
“You + me = a whole Indian!” my half Indian crush scrawls in his birthday card to me. I love it.
A Black classmate asks me out. I like him. I see him a few times and like him more. Then I retreat. Ashamed it’s out of my comfort zone.
“What are you?” the White guys ask.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
I see a therapist.
To the world she’s White.
“I don’t know what I am” I tell her “or who I’m supposed to be”. Then the worst, “It’s too hard trying to belong” I say.
I feel hopeful until halfway out the door. “Namaste” she says instead of goodbye. I never go back.
When I’m 33 belonging with Doug feels easy and amazing.
“I do” I say to him two years later. And I do. He’s the love of my life.
To the world he’s White.
We’re living in Los Angeles –
I’m a proud new mother out for a walk, pushing Haley in her stroller.
“What a beautiful baby!” says another mom pushing a stroller. She stops, head tilted. “Are you her nanny?”
“Que linda bebe!” (What a pretty baby!) say Brown nannies pushing White babies in their strollers. “De donde estas?” (Where are you from?).
At work I direct an adolescent community health improvement initiative with teens.
To the world they’re Brown and Black. “At risk” they’re called then.
They watch me for several months before opening up. “You’re OK” they finally say.
“What took you so long?” I ask.
“We thought you were some White lady” they say.
My heart melts.
We move to Massachusetts –
At the RMV I check “Other”. I always do now, though it’s still jarring. “What are you?” the boxes seem to ask.
Along comes DNA testing. I spit in a plastic tube, put it in the mail. Have no idea what I’ll learn.
The results are in and what do you know?
It’s for real. I’m half White and half Indian. An even split.
When I call my parents, they’re happy for me. My stomach flips with some other feeling, I don’t know what it is.
There are lots of Indian families where we live. I watch them with curiosity and some other feeling, I don’t know what it is.
My new doctor is Indian. She takes my health history, first the maternal then the paternal. “I don’t know” I say “I was adopted.” “My father was Indian” I add, surprised when tears fill my eyes. “But I didn’t grow up in the culture.”
My youngest is five –
It’s Diwali “festival of lights” “light over darkness”.
Her preschool assembles. Children of Indian descent are invited to stand.
My daughter stands.
“Sit down, Sidney” the school director says. “You’re not Indian.”
“Yes, I am” she says.
“No, you’re not. That’s being disrespectful.”
Sidney refuses to sit. Is led out of the assembly crying. Tells me later at home.
I take her in my arms. Tell her she’s right, that I’m very proud of her. But I don’t call the school.
Why don’t I call the school?
Haley’s in elementary school –
I volunteer in her classroom, love meeting her classmates. She comes home upset.
“T____ says I don’t look like you. He says I’m adopted.”
I laugh and make fun of T____. He becomes a family joke.
It’s June 2020. My 55th birthday –
George Floyd is dead. Everyone’s shouting. People are hurting. Burning things down. I can’t stop crying.
Black Lives Matter. I put a sign in our yard. Attend a protest with our now teen daughters, wearing masks because it’s also a pandemic. Re-post Black voices on social media, inviting reflection and dialogue. Feel the pain, knowing I can’t really.
I’m sick to my stomach. Can’t sleep at night. I want to do more. Say more. I’m not sure what it is.
What do I know? Is it my right? What’s the point? Who cares what I think? Who do I think I am? Who might I hurt?
I’m irritable and distracted, with myself, my family, my professional colleagues on a work call — until a manager bravely says, “It’s a terrible time. People are marching in the streets. We need to talk about racism, though it’s awkward since all of us are White with our privilege.”
The time is now.
“I’m not White” I say. “I never said I was. People just assume it. We make up stories about each other. It’s part of the problem.”
It’s very quiet. Then others chime in.
It’s a hard conversation but a start.
Because I brought my whole self to it.
It feels good.