Dear white people, this is what it's like to be a person of color in America

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

The recent film Dear White People only showed at four Chicago-area theaters, but it has gotten a lot of buzz. Among other things, the movie is making the statement that the times in which we are living are still not "post-racial."

Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider declared, "Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows 'that is not me.' In america [sic], this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian [sic], and financially secure."

What follows is testimony from individials at different stages of their life journey, confirming that what Dear White People and Sister Outsider are saying is true. Their stories also chronicle the various ways people of color adapt to that reality and their attempts to answer the question "who am I?"

Marti-Kate

She was 4 when she made the transition last year from an orphanage in Ethiopia to her new home on Humphrey Avenue in Oak Park, from a country where everyone looked like her to a place where most, even her new parents, did not.

"With Marti-Kate," said Katie Wilson, her adoptive mother, "one of the biggest issues has been her hair and being in a family with three white siblings who have straight hair [the Wilsons also have two other children adopted from Ethiopia]. The first time I took her to get her hair braided, she became upset because she thought she was going to get her hair done straight and long."

"At different times," said Katie, "Marti-Kate will be very proud of Ethiopia and will want to wear her Ethiopian dress clothing, and at other times she doesn't. I think it's just kind of stages — of not only grieving but also being thankful for her heritage."

Sam

Sam Chadri, a senior at OPRF, moved here with his parents from Kenya 10 years ago. Sam says identity is not a big problem for him, that he is used to switching from one culture to another.

"Who am I, African or American? I do think about it sometimes," he acknowledged. "I'll see other people like me in my school, people who have two cultures within them whether it be African or other countries. I would say I'm more American than I am African. That's just being realistic. I've been here longer than I was in Africa."

He is near the top of his class academically and participated in an AP class at Stanford this summer. His father tells the story of how none of his classmates wanted him in their small group in class because they stereotyped him as an underachiever — until they saw him excel in academics. Now everyone wants him in their group. But Sam acknowledged that all of his best friends are either African-American or mixed race.

Peter

Satugarn Limthongviratn, aka Peter, was born in Chicago in 1990 to Pongsak and Monta, two Chinese-Thais who had at the time only been in the states a few years. Seven years older than Sam Chadri and a member of St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church in Forest Park, the question "Who am I?" is always on Peter's mind.

He acknowledged that at times he resented his parents for being foreigners. 

"When I was a kid," he recalled, "I blamed them for not understanding. I knew I couldn't rely on my parents to make meaning out of my experience. Now that I'm older, I understand there are a lot of gaps between my understanding of my experience and that of my parents. They never grew up in America as a kid, so they don't know what that means, and I didn't grow up in Thailand. I also don't know what it means to live in one country and then move to another."

Peter attended Northwestern University after graduating from high school, an experience that turned out to be life-changing. 

"Twenty percent of the students going to Northwestern are Asian-American. It was a space where I was not an 'other' for the first time."

But even attending Northwestern has been a half full/half empty experience. Because he is no longer fluent in Thai, there was always a limit to being able to connect with the students from Thailand. And he couldn't connect with many other second-generation Asian students because many attending Northwestern grew up in affluent families.

"Identity is so fluid, so complex," he said. "You seek out people with whom you don't have to explain how you feel. They just get it, and that's something I'm always trying to search for." The problem for this 20-something, second generation, part Thai, part American is that he has never found 100 percent of what he longs for.

Stephanie

This portion of Stephanie Escher's story is in her own words:

I was born on a reservation in North Dakota, right on the border with Manitoba and was adopted right after being born by a good German family in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The Indian Adoption Act in 1969 encouraged adoption away from tribes.

The adoption agency in Madison told the Eschers, "You're getting a minority baby. The best way to make her thrive is to have her assimilate." It's around adolescence that you start asking questions. Growing up, I always thought there was something wrong with my spirit.

At the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in the Turtle Mountain area of North Dakota [where she went as an adult after learning her birth mother's identity] they gave me an obituary cut out from a newspaper with a photo of a woman who looked like me. She had died a couple months before I arrived.

I went to where they had buried my mother and sat at her grave. It was getting dark. I had nowhere to run. I had been running my whole life. This is the one place where I belonged without question. I didn't have to do anything. I didn't have to be anything. An amazing feeling of connection came over me. The best part of sitting at my mother's grave was that I had finally stopped running. Sitting there didn't end the quest, but a major new plateau had been reached. I had a sense of connection which I needed. I didn't just drop out of the sky.

But the feeling was going away. It occurred to me that it was dark out, and I'm sitting on my mother's grave and that I couldn't hang onto it. I couldn't put up a tent there, and I realized I didn't feel completely connected there either. This connection was neither what I had expected nor what I was yearning for. I thought I would have this perfect situation where someone would perfectly understand me, but I didn't fit there either.

What I found was not my mother but me. The medicine man said people let out death cries, and they call people home. I think the greatest gift she could give me is the way she called me home. Home isn't any place at all. It's everywhere. I had to go through that struggle. I had to question God. I had to be angry at God. I had to yell.

Bob

Bob Sherrell was born in 1939, a time when, on the one hand, race relations in the United States were improving slowly, enough that a black kid growing up on Chicago's South Side could be audacious enough to maintain a world view that included hope. On the other hand, he learned that he would have to figure out how to navigate what historian John Hope Franklin called "the experience of living in two worlds."

In grade school, Sherrell pictured himself as half white. He had straight hair and lighter skin, like his father. His childhood heroes included Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry, Superman and Captain America. Oakenwald Elementary School in Hyde Park was mixed racially, so no one skin tone stood out.

At the same time, he saw himself as half black. His mother, who was dark-skinned and a fighter, was very conscious of race and demanded that her oldest child comport himself in a way that would be a "credit to his race." 

"My mother hated the word 'Negro,'" he recalled, "and would never allow her children to use the term when filling in the place marked race on forms. 'Negro is the white man's terminology for us,' she would say. 'You're black. You're not a Negro."

Sherrell talks about living in parallel worlds in those days — in terms of music, in terms of speech, in terms of class — and the two worlds never met. Psychic integration would have to wait. Even God was foreign to his reality, the Father depicted in stained glass as an elderly white guy with a beard and the Son with flowing blond hair. Robert Sr. was the father he trusted, in whose image he knew he had been created.

Until 1965, race was a relatively minor issue in Sherrell's search for identity. Then he decided to join the march. "Selma was the first time I had seen racial hatred," he recalled. "Selma opened my eyes to who and what I was in this society."

After Selma and while going through a divorce from his first wife, Robert Sherrell Jr. made a decision. "I will be somebody," he vowed. "Before that became Jesse Jackson's mantra, I said I will become somebody. I will be a mister, though at the time I didn't know exactly what that meant."

As he was climbing the corporate ladder on the way to becoming a vice president at Illinois Bell, he also got more involved in the black community in Chicago. 

"That's when I 'crossed over.' I'm no longer this white mixed kid, this white Hyde Park guy," he recalled. "I'm now black."

He and his wife Kathleen, who is white, moved to Oak Park in 1977. Soon after arriving, they started attending the Family Mass in the gym at St. Giles Parish, another game changer in terms of his identity. Not only did three other multiracial couples join the Family Mass community after they did, which made him feel more at home, but he began participating in a committee in which Family Mass members would discuss the text for the next Sunday and then designate one of their group to give the homily.

That proved to be a godsend because it gave him an opportunity to integrate his theology with his experience. 

"There was a sense of safety in that committee," he said. "It was OK to be who I am and speak as I felt motivated to speak, but then I would listen to the others as they had listened to me, and somehow it all got assimilated. We talked to each other in ways that moved away from black and white and got to the human, and all that other crap began to dissolve and I felt bigger as a person as a result."

God, at that point in his life, had no color.

Now 75 and a lot closer to the end of his life than the beginning, Sherrell is looking back at his life and reflecting. 

"I'm a combination of all these experiences. I have always sensed myself to be my father's son. Building on that, the person I have come to be is composed of multicultural experiences, working in a corporate profit-seeking environment, being elected as a village trustee, raising children, having grandchildren. Identity is about trying to bring all those pieces together.

"There's a peacefulness now where I don't have to be fighting and struggling and worrying and questioning. It doesn't mean I don't do that, but I don't have to. I don't have to be anything other than a human being willing to collaborate, willing to be a part of this fabric."

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