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An Imitation of Life

15 February 2023

As a kid, I watched clips of the 1959 film "Imitation of Life" with my mom. It's a black and white movie that tells the story of two families. One, of a single white mother (Lora) and her daughter Susie, and the other of Annie (a black widow who works as a maid to Lora) and her daughter Peola. Peola, is light skin with fine straight hair and easily passes for white. Because of this, she faces extreme challenges with her identity and grows to hate her mother. Peola grows resentment towards her mother for continuing to engage in her life. Peola was often assumed by other people that she was white and would reap the benefits that came with this. Entrance into white schools, white friendships, even a white boyfriend. This acceptance by white people made Peola feel valued. But when her mother Annie would come around and refused to deny her relationship to her daughter as she loved her fiercely, Peola's illusion immediately would crumble, and she faced terrible ridicule and shame. One time, when her boyfriend who was white learned the news, he ended the relationship and beat her for not telling him that she was really black.

When Peola comes of age, she informs her mother that she is leaving town to live her life as a white woman and that she never wants to see her again. Her mother, devastated, keeps trying to find her and pleads with Peola (who by this time changes her name to Sara Jane) to let her be a part of her life but Sara Jane refuses. Every time her mother finds her and reveals her true African American identity, Sara moves and starts over again. By the end of the film Annie dies of a broken heart and at the funeral Sara Jane cries in the street as her mother's casket is driven away demanding she see her and crying hysterically while saying, "Mama I'm here! Mama, I didn't mean it. I DID love you!" The film ends with this scene. While it was considered to be an extremely controversial film for its time, there was no denying the barrier that race created for love between a mother and her child and a woman's ability to love and accept herself. And despite the story being one of fiction, it was inspired by very real experiences of people living in America.

For the majority of my life, predominantly within grade school and early college, my peers and even some adults would call me white. "Kristin's so white" they would say. She's black on the outside but white on the inside. Sometimes it would be delivered as a compliment, "your not like the OTHER black people. Your different" some white or Asian people would tell me pleasingly or relieved. "You're pretty for a black girl. Are you mixed?" As if being black alone you could not be pretty. Or "Kristin's not like that," in reference to my absence of attitude or being what some might call 'ghetto'. These are just a few examples where I would be lifted up for my seemingly "white" qualities.

Other times I was beat down. "Why do you talk white?" Other black people would say to me. "You're parents are still together? You're so white." "We know you're 'DIFFERENT’ ” one of the black hairstylist’s said to me as she did my hair. "You've never heard this song? You don't know this rapper? I'm blacker than you!" Some of my white "friends" would say. "There Kristin goes, trying to be white again" in reference to me performing well in school and wanting to go to college. One time, I was just sitting in my dorm in college my freshmen year and one of my roommates (he was white man) said to me out of no where, "you’re just so white!" in a very hateful way. I attempted to standup for myself but he insisted on putting me down and naming all of the things wrong with me. I left the room upset but for the first time in my life heard someone else stand up for me. It was one of my other roommates who was a black man who was considered "cool" by others and was familiar with what I was going through.

My roommate, the white man who made all of those hurtful comments, never apologized to me and so for the remainder of the semester we didn't talk. My roommate who stood up for me told me that the person felt bad for what he did and that I should be receiving an apology, but it never came.

For a very long time I felt like I was on trial daily for presenting myself authentically. I couldn't help that my family structure and my Christian faith ingrained in me a certain set of moral values that made me feel fraudulent if and when I deviated from them. I also have drive and ambition. I wanted more than what I saw in my environment and what others around me saw in, and thought of, me. I didn't believe that this desire made me less black. Less African American, but instead, I believed the image of what "black" is, needed to change.

Living here in Korea has exposed new layers in challenges to my identity. Living here I am bombarded by Korean language, food, cultural traditions, holidays. I've visited temples and even was able to visit a palace that was built in 1395 that housed several dynasties. The experience is AMAZING and I've grown to really enjoy my experience living in this country. But at the same time, the experience is a daily reminder of this question, "what do I know of MY culture?"

I am both African and American but am commonly referred to, seen and often identify as "Black."

As an American who is black and also a woman, I've known and experienced myself to be viewed as someone at the very bottom of the social system. Inferior to everyone else and having to work hard to earn anything I have, to include my humanity; my rights and to be treated respectfully. My physical attributes are not attractive unless they are on someone else or someone else of a higher social status says they are. Academically and career wise, I am not considered to be intelligent or competent until a white man or white woman or white institution says that I am. What I consider to be reality, good or bad or true is not determined credible until validated by someone else. As always, a white person is best, but really, anyone other than me is better. And when I look at my black American heritage, while there are infinite amounts of accomplishments, everything is a fight. Every situation requires one to prove themselves to others. To overcome. To work. To serve others. Is this my identity?

I used to feel so much shame because the painful truth was, I knew so little of my African heritage. I don’t know what my native tribe, or language would be. Outside of a few generations, I have no concept of what my lineage is. Cultural traditions such as food, music, holidays, nothing was passed to me or my parents or theirs when it comes to our African heritage what we have today is so rooted in slavery or adopted by what we were "able to earn" from white people. Even attempts to create something that is your own are often hijacked or put down.

Back in 2020 the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) released a curriculum to help those who are interested in having conversations about race. The content on the portal had material to aid discussions on the following subjects: bias; race and racial identity; the historical foundations of race; whiteness; being anti-racist; community building; social identities and systems of oppression; and self-care. But the largest area of outrage and debate was the subject of, "whiteness."

As a part of the portal's curriculum, they included a graphic titled, "Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture." The graphic was pulled from a 1978 book by Judy H. Katz which aimed to outline qualities of an ideology of what is considered to be "white" in America under the system of "white supremacy." One source explained that the graphic was attempting to highlight attributes that, “have been normalized over time and are now considered standard practices in the United States. And since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we all have internalized some aspects of white culture, including people of color.”

The outrage was massive. Donald Trump Jr even tweeted the graphic with the following message, "These aren’t ‘white’ values. They’re American values that built the world’s greatest civilization. They help you succeed here, no matter your color."

In response to the outrage, the NMAAHC took the graphic down from the portal, apologized and explained, "We have found it’s [the graphic] not working in the way we intended. We erred in including it.... We’re trying to talk about ideology, not about people... We are encouraging people to think about the world they live in and how they navigate it. It’s important to talk about it to grow and get better.”

I was disappointed that the graphic was removed as I found it to be a constructive tool for discussion on the subject matter. However, the outrage and the decision to remove it is very reflective of the TIME we were in. I think many people in America were not ready or willing to do the work to have that conversation; to question rather than immediately defend. To look inward and ask themselves if this ideology has affected them and those around them in anyway, and if this model of values is truly representative of them as an American or is it simply an Imitation of something or someone else? We return to the question I asked months ago. What does it mean to be an American? Donald Trump Jr. stated that this graphic does not reflect white values but American values. My question is, which Americans got to decide this? Who was in the room to decide?

Judging by the rise in job resignations during this "Great resignation" era and the spike in demand for mental health care, I think it may be time to revisit this subject in order to move forward and heal. It may be time to bring more Americans of all races, religions, sexuality, socio-economic backgrounds, gender, etc. to decide.

In the James Baldwin documentary, " I am Not Your Negro," he explains that "white" really is just a metaphor for power. I look at myself and I have been black my entire life but my identity has been in such a turbulent state because so much of my actions have aligned with the ideologies communicated in this graphic but my heritage aligned differently. It wasn’t until my family unit was/is at risk of looking differently, it wasn’t until my values changed where I started to be viewed as "black."

Is the world ready to revisit this conversation? Is this the only acceptable model for success or can other models be acceptable too? What is the cost?

**Quoted text from the African American museum graphic was pulled from here:

Photo: The graphic defining "Whiteness" originally posted on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but was removed following complaints


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