Saturday, December 14, 2013

Black, White, Other

I got this email the other day: 

Hi Nya,

It was so great to hear from you, and I appreciate your following up on this out-of-the-blue request. Here's what's going on and what I'm asking:

As I probably mentioned, on (roughly) the 20th anniversary of its publication, I decided to put out an ebook version of Black, White, Other. People of all ages still come upon it and find it relevant and affirming. Other new readers write to say it speaks to issues beyond the black/white binary, a view I agree with. I published it on October 1.

So much time had passed, though, that I wanted there to be a way for the 46 original interviewees to add in their current perspectives, to either hold to or evolve from what they said back then. You were fresh out of college when we spoke, for example, so that was a significant part of what we talked about and what I chose to use in the book.

I've made a (free) website page dedicated to these 20-year updates, and people who read the ebook find a link to it at the book's end. Some comments have already gone up (I started posting them last month), and whenever possible, I like to include a current photo alongside the comments. If you want to take a look at what I've uploaded so far, you'll find those updates here:

My hope is that you will look at your original comments (which I've pasted into the body of this email, below) and then share reflections on what you said then and what's happened since. If that's too general or vague, I've set up some basic prompt questions. Feel free to respond to none or one or all. If you decide it would be eser to tell me your comments over the phone, I'm happy to arrange that. And if you are willing to send a photo, please attach it to the email response.
Here are the questions.
Current Age:
Current Residence:
Current Occupation:

What is it like to look back on the comments you made 20 years ago?
What has changed or stayed the same since then, in terms of your personal connections to race and identity, and then in terms of race and identity in our country?
What was it like to participate in this book project, to be in this book?



Parents and Family

My mother's sister, she's black, and she used to say to me, "You're going to have to decide what you are, if you're going to be black or white." I remember all these Christmas things with her, like if I wanted to get a black Baby That Away, or a white Baby That Away. She would call up to ask, and I would say, "Okay, I want the black one." And then I would call up, "No, no, I want the white one." My parents were just too intelligent that way. They got me this Sasha doll from London that you couldn't tell if it's black or white. They really picked everything, so she has kind of my color skin and brownish hair and she could be Italian or Greek or black, who knows?—Nya Patrinos


Nya Patrinos

Age: 22

Residence: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Occupation: Theater wardrobe supervisor

Nya Patrinos grew up in an integrated section of Philadelphia called Mount Airy. Her parents—her father is white, half-Greek and half-Jewish; her mother is black, has a Cherokee great-grandfather, and is from South Carolina—met "around the Left in Philadelphia," Patrinos says. They married when they were thirty; both had been married before, she to a black man, he to a white woman.

Patrinos's mother, a psychiatric nurse, hoped for her daughter to identify as a multiracial person. In the last few years, Patrinos has started identifying as an African-American, and she says that makes her mother mad. "She said, 'You shouldn't let society define who you are,' " Patrinos remembers. "And I feel like, How can I not? I have to live in society. But she says, 'You're letting a racist world define you,' and she hates that and we fight over that issue if we ever talk about it, when we talk about it, but I don't know any other way to walk through the world. I identify as I do mainly because the outside world says I have no choice. And I think my mother's sort of upset by that. She doesn't think you need to identify like that, and that I should have gone through the whole world, my whole life, saying, 'No, I'm mixed, I'm mixed.' But I don't scream about it that much anymore, or bring it up before somebody else does.

"There was never a time when I would go into a room and say, 'I'm mixed,' but if there was any kind of discussion about it and people were saying what they were, I didn't want to deny anything. And I don't deny it now, but I don't know if I want to talk about it to everybody. I think I have more private zones than I did then."

Even as she settles into identifying more with African-American, Patrinos refuses to relinquish her personal connection to being mixed, based on her relationships with her father and his side of the family.

It's different when you have two very active parents who are claiming you, as opposed to maybe a woman who's been raped—like in slavery where a lot of women were raped by their masters—who has an interracial child that way. Or you have my father, who went to all the home and school association meetings. At certain points in elementary school I would have liked to have hid that I had a white father, but he was so active in everything! He would always be at this and that and everything. A lot of people always asked if I was adopted. I would never hide my father now, but I think: You're eleven, you're a shithead.

My elementary school was very white. It's a Quaker school, so you learn a lot and the teachers are pretty dedicated, and I remember feeling really odd there, just not really a part of what was going on. I remember sort of being an outcast until fourth grade. I remember people stepping on my coat and not having anybody to play with. I don't know if that has anything to do with being interracial or just maybe I was kind of a weird kid, but I do remember not really feeling very good there.

As I got older, I felt like I fit in a little bit more, but I remember when I left at the end of fourth grade, I didn't feel any kind of loss, like, "Oh, my goodness, I'm leaving all my friends." I was really fine about going somewhere else.

I really never found a community of people in college. I lived in a group house off-campus for a while, with eight people. I guess I knew all the fringe elements, the people who were writing, the painters, the acting people, the people in the philosophy department—all the people sort of falling off the edge of the mainstream. But I still don't know what frat house was which, which you're supposed to know at Penn [University of Pennsylvania]. I failed. I failed.

The African-American community at Penn is pretty militant, and they don't want you to hang out with white people. There was a W.E.B. Du Bois House where you lived if you were a "progressive" African-American. I could never find out when black student union meetings there were because I lived in High Rise North and they didn't want to put signs there because they were afraid that white people were going to come. I know because I asked the guy who was the president of the African-American student union, and he said, "We can't get anything done with those people crashing the meeting. You know how those people are."

I feel like I can never be a very militant African-American person who hates white people because I'd hate fifty percent of myself. So I couldn't really participate in that world at Penn because I'm not going to hate white people; it's just not what's going to happen. I can't accept that, being mixed.

I think the black students just wrote me off. I'm sure people knew who I was, because African-American men on the campus kind of know who the African-American women are. I'm not overweight, I'm okay-looking, so sometimes I would walk home from the library and some guy would come and talk to me and say, "Are you a graduate student?" And maybe I'm making this up, but I think they saw me a lot of times with white people and I got blacklisted. Maybe it wasn't as intentional as that, but nobody talked to me besides the one guy I asked about the meetings.


Friends and Strangers

I cooked one summer in a place in Connecticut, and a woman said, "How do you know how to make kugel?" My grandmother taught me how to make kugel, and I told her that my grandmother's Jewish. I've known this woman for years, and she could never remember that about me. That door opens and it just closes again; she could not process the information.—Nya Patrinos

Here are my answers:

Name: Nya Patrinos

Current Age: 43

Current Residence: Los Angeles

Current Occupation:Set Decorator and Yoga Teacher

What is it like to look back on the comments you made 20 years ago? 

They seem accurate.  I don't regret any of them.  I think I was in pain then about my racial identity and I am still in pain.  The world has changed a lot though, I am sure if it, but, sometimes I realize I haven't changed as fast as the world has. I carry my scars and my hurts still even though it would be much more beneficial to let them all that go, to clean house.  I often wonder why am I holding on so tight to the hurt.  What am I afraid of letting go.  I took a class a couple months ago called "Who Am I: The Basic Goodness of Being Human" and in one exercise we wrote ten phrases/nouns about how we define our identity and at the end of the exercise we crumpled them up one by one.  Two of my self definitions had race in them.  One was "exotic black chick" and another one was "inter-racial child of communists."  When I destroyed those pieces of paper I felt so good,  I can't explain, there was a weight lifted off of me.  So I know that if I could release the racial pain of my childhood out of my mind-heart I would feel so much better.  I just haven't gotten there yet.  But there's still time.  I have faith in myself that I can move forward and just be Nya one day. I want experience the lightness of letting go of race.

What has changed or stayed the same since then, in terms of your personal connections to race and identity, and then in terms of race and identity in our country?

I married a white man so in some ways I have remade my parents interracial relationship with me playing the role of my black mother and my husband playing the role of my white father.  We don't have any children so no-one is playing me.  As I get older the world around me which is mainly my workplace has gotten whiter and whiter.  I miss my childhood in Mt. Airy and my schools that were so mixed.  The neighborhood in Los Angeles I live in is very mixed so I enjoy that.  I still think of myself as sometimes black, sometimes interracial.  I never caught a hold of the word bi-racial.  Maybe it got popular after I had already formed my self-description, my story I tell people about me.  Or maybe I have never felt bi-racial because I feel like I have never gotten to know what it is like to be white even if I am half white.  I can't pass for white so I have never really experienced that half of my racial identity.  I would love to be white for a day and experience what that really means.  But, sadly, it's not going to happen. 

When Obama got elected I was really happy.  I am happy to see so many successful mixed people: Obama, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Mariah Carey, Halle Barry. It helps a lot to see really visible people who look like me and must have experienced some of what I experience. Those people weren't around when I was growing up.

I went to Cuba in the late 90s and it seemed like the whole country has interracial.  I felt like I saw myself and my brother everywhere.  It was s great feeling.  I have never felt so at home, so relaxed.

I went to a People of Color Meditation Workshop last Saturday and it felt really good to be in a room of like minded people of color (asians, latinos, african-americans, the group was diverse).  I didn't realize how starved I was for it.  They all expressed what I had been feeling that it feels really good and safe to be in an environment that is not almost totally white and even more so when you are trying to do your spiritual practice.  I am going to explore doing more spiritual work in the "people of color" environment.  I realize that I like to be with my fellow people of color. It is where I feel the most at ease.

What was it like to participate in this book project, to be in this book?

It was flattering to be in a book.  I still have it somewhere in my bookshelf along with the other book I am in "Mothers and Daughters."  I will always keep the book although I might not know exactly where on the shelf it is.  It is something I am very proud of.

I hope that helps.  Let me know if you want to ask me anything else or have me clarify anything.

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