“Nobody Mean More To Me Than You”
As of late, the desire to achieve political correctness when interacting with and speaking about other cultures and ways of life has become a major topic and caused lots of scandal and dispute. What’s lacking however, is the search for how to better accept different groups and cultural backgrounds. From years of grappling with my own internal dilemmas, and observing the progression of the current movement of acceptance, I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t a clear-cut way to how we should perceive others and their ethnicities. While it can be assumed that the melanin in someone’s skin creates cultural similarities and connections with others (which can then set them up to be in a certain discourse group), the observance of someone else’s skin does not mean, or explain what one’s group, language, or culture is because someone’s upbringing, life experiences, and community could change the way they communicate and affiliate themselves throughout their lives.
I grew up in Arlington Heights, a middle class town, just about a half hour outside of Chicago. While my Mom went to school to teach, my Dad stayed home and took care of me. This was during the time when my Dad had recently found himself out of a job, after an amazing opera singing career that began as a young boy and took him abroad, and ultimately allowed him to sing on the biggest stages. As one might expect, being the only little Black boy touring the world with an all white children’s choir had a big impact on his experiences and upbringing. In comparison to his siblings, my Dad was as he called it, “white washed.” Which is also a direct reflection on the way he raised me. Instead of teaching me the spirituals his siblings sang at church, I learned the 200 year-old hymns that originated from white European tradition from the time of Martin Luther that he sang on tour. Instead of managing my curly hair, my parents simply had no idea what to do with the “rats’ nest” that grew out of my head. So they brushed it out and put it in pigtails, making me look like every other blonde hair blue eyed girl in the neighborhood.
What simultaneously fascinated and confused me was when I would go with my Dad to visit his relatives in Philadelphia. It was as if my Dad shifted cultures the second he stepped off the plane. His language changed, which I ended up mimicking, finding it hard to talk with my other Black relatives in the language I had been using at home. When I got back home, my mom was surprised to hear her eight year old saying “y’all” or “you know what I’m sayin.” That’s the way that my aunts and uncles spoke, and that language stays in my vocabulary a decade later; however, I have to know when to use it. Unfortunately, the difference in languages can at times elicit an already tense social dynamic. As much as one can fight to learn a language which is foreign just to fit in, another challenge is trying hard to abandon what they grew up saying. At times, the way of speaking simply is forced to be shut off in certain situations. Especially considering the communication between minority groups and authorities. Over the years I observed that what my Dad did, was to maintain an amicable semblance. I saw that in order to have a sense of belonging or safety in a social environment, a routine of code switching needed to occur. The constant calculation of others in the environment, and their overall presentation, and then the decision to communicate in a certain way, can prove to be quite challenging and confusing for the individual. Like my Dad, Min-zhan Lu struggled in finding a set conjunction of the differing communication styles. Lu reminds us in her work that children tend to be the most vulnerable in this struggle, for they receive so much directed stimuli in a given day, that could come from frankly any group, language, or way of living that could contradict the other. What Lu learned is equivalent to that of my Dad, which is equivalent to that of me. “To identify with an ally, I would have grasped the distance between where he or she stood and where I was positioning myself. In taking a stance against an opponent, I would have to have grasped where my stance identified with the stance of my allies. Teetering along the ‘wavering line of pressure and counter-pressure’ from both allies and opponents.” (Lu 446). What’s interesting here is asking the question; when can one cross the lines? For some, an attempt to do so would be risky, especially in Lu’s story with her struggles growing up during the Red Scare in China and learning English. Or at times an attempt to do so to make a point or entertain a conversation may not work and backfire completely with no response, like Jordan’s example. I’d say in my experience, most tend to go with what is safe; sacrifice the usual mannerisms for those they are surrounded with, regardless of the language or discourse group. These stories, also speak very true to the topic of expectations, and can be put into context when understanding groups of, or within cultures. My Dad had a big build, dark skin, and a deep voice. Without knowing him, maybe you’d expect a chain around his neck, in a body builder tank, with some sunglasses. However, my Dad was quite the opposite, and was the biggest teddy bear around. He wore bright colored t-shirts, had square glasses, and never missed the opportunity to use his manners. Despite who he truly was, he found that at times he had to turn away from the latter, to feel comfortable with his family. These examples of my Dad may seem insignificant, however there is a lot to learn. It’s important when bringing people together to learn about one another, and to not leave anyone behind. In recognition or celebration of the African American ideals and culture, my Father and I are often left behind, given that the two of us wouldn’t necessarily make gumbo and chicken, or wear our Sunday’s Best to church. It is necessary to recognize the individuals, who belong, but don’t always partake in what is stereotypical to their discourse group. Because at the end of the day, the differences within a culture, is an actual part of the culture. These differences formed and occurred through the addition of ideals, stories, and meaning. Which is what culture should be all about. The intangible part of culture should be considered, instead of the constant attention to the materials that have unfortunately become the only recognizing factor of someone’s way of life.
Reading essayists like James Baldwin who describes the discrimination against Black English speakers in American schools and Min Zahn Lu who struggled switching languages and cultures from a Western English home-schooling to mandated Standard Chinese in public school in China during the 1949 Revolution, has made me reflect on how I use my own languages. This speaks to the necessities that need to be accomplished in the minimal everyday encounters, conversations, and exchanges in order to create a mutual association.
Laughs, jokes, and tricks are what bonded my dad and I the most. However, now there are so many things I regret laughing at him for. He was definitely your stereotypical embarrassing Dad that I made fun of, but I always chose to describe him as avant garde. He was that way because he had to be. This idea didn’t click for me until 2019 when my Dad got pulled over, while I was in the driver’s seat. After an odd exchange, the officer let my Dad go, but my Dad didn’t seem relieved. What was supposedly a warning for “stopping too far over the stop sign line”, was actually a biased check in to see if I “felt safe at home,” to see if the white girl belonged with the Black driver. The harsh reality is that from afar, my dad and I look shades upon shades different, but if you took the time to get to know us, you’d know that we have the same smile. One dark chocolate, one caramel, but both topped with sea salt. The discrepancy between these two sweets wasn’t just a one time ordeal however. And, it added white chocolate too. Since my mom was often teaching, she didn’t get to meet the parents of my friends or colleagues until special events. And even she was met with “Oh so you’re the mother.” Dark chocolate becomes lighter with milk, but is it still considered dark chocolate? It wasn’t until later that I found out that my dad had to lighten his skin on stage for when he sang in operas. The list of course goes on; the neighbor who encouraged my father to introduce himself to the police department when he moved in. Or the look that grazed people’s faces when they realized that the big Black guy standing behind me that I was introducing them to, was my Dad.
Sadly, what my Dad experienced also became a reality for me. Being a dance major, almost everyone asked me if I had plans to dance for the majorly colored populated modern dance company Alvin Ailey, and never addressed my passion for contemporary ballet. Additionally, one of my teachers who is Black, addressed the students who were visibly the same, assuming that those were the only members of the African American community in the room, but failed to realize he missed one: me, who was standing right in front of him. It is instances like these, that make the progressive motive to understand more about the people around us intractable. How can one get to know the other, if actions or comments are made that completely disregard the story of an individual? Should one create a story for someone before understanding what events and experiences make them unique? An abstinence and a humble approach, tends to be key in the phenomena of understanding, and continuing human relationships.
My four years at the 90% white John Hersey High School, the statistics left me with almost no people who had similar backgrounds and experiences. I was in this weird in-between where I wasn’t quite like my all white peers, but I also found myself unable to connect with those who were Black. I’ve never gathered the courage to join Black student clubs (like BSU or BSI) because I knew it would simply be too awkward and foreign. I didn’t grow up with the same hair routines they did, or the same food, or slang, or even the same music. I had a hard time interacting with my peers at those institutions when they asked me why I hadn’t joined their group. It was hard to find the words to describe my hesitance. I was also quite taken aback when someone asked why I hadn’t joined the French club. It was assumed that I would join because my last name (Honoré) is French. I didn’t quite know how to explain that my last name was given to my ancestors as slaves by their rich French owner. However, when trying to educate those people I was met with entitlement and racist responses. I found it wasn’t even worth explaining to them how their behavior was hurting others.
I have the same passions and understand the pain that people of color have when being faced with prejudice and stereotypes, but it’s difficult to bond with them simply because I have more privilege. This dilemma challenges me every day. I’m not white enough to dress like a stereotypical white girl or do all the customary “white things”, but I’m not Black enough either because of colorism. The color of my skin gives me an advantage over those who are darker. So the questions I ask myself constantly is, what exactly am I, and where do I belong? Gloria Anzaldúa in her book Borderlands (La Frontera) describes how she has found herself suffering with the same crisis as I, yet emphasizes the pressure put on the individual in their concept of self. “This voluntary (yet forced) alienation makes for psychological conflict, a kind of dual identity–we don’t identify with the Anglo-American cultural values and we don’t totally identify with the Mexican cultural values.” Not only does an individual not know who they are, but in turn has a hard time relating to others, which leaves them feeling helpless, vulnerable, and alone. What adds to the confusion, is the misunderstanding others have about who I am as an individual, whether that be from people within the group that I am trying to understand, or outsiders looking in. You may think that I could create my own community, and feel like I belong with the people I already know beyond race, but it’s not that simple. The United States is a country full of stereotypes, miseducation, lack of change, and a small handful of carmel within the population. The United States has evolved, but not necessarily in productive ways, but rather around the people who struggle to accept and understand their acquaintances. James Baldwin extends this notion:
Baldwin, James, “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me What It Is?”
New York Times, July 27, 1979.
Anzaldúa, Gloria Borderlands (La Frontera) Capitan Swing, 2016.
Jordan, June, “Nobody Mean More Than You An The Future Life Of Willie Jordan,”
Harvard Educational Review, Aug 1988; 58, 363-372.
Lu, Min-Zhan “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle .”
College English, 4th ed., vol. 49, National Council of Teachers , n.d., pp. 437–448.