In a vivid and sometimes playful account, cultural critic and ‘master code-switcher’ Désirée Wariaro explores racial mixedness. ‘ Ontological doubt’ is a constant companion for the ‘tragic mulatto’ when ‘much of the world is blind to the inherent genius of the way my body dissects and pollutes tradition.’
“Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” James Baldwin
“History’s thorax considerably cracked. The Hottentot clickcalled undeveloped.” Cathy Park Hong
The Mulatto boys drew a line in the gravel in the schoolyard, “this is a Mulattoes only zone.” I watched them. Unsure, hesitant. They looked over at me. “To the Mulatto Island!!!” they screamed. “Is Désirée allowed in the Mulatto zone?” a Nigerian boy asked. The alpha-Mulattos looked between me and the Indian girl skipping her rope beside me. “No way, look at her.” They ran off together disappearing into the wooded hills circling our school. Shrieks of “Mu-la-to!” puncturing the four walls of my head, I went to the library to be with those who loved me back: Nancy Drew and Holden Caulfield, my body and vocabulary swelling to twice the size of my classmates.
My fingertips are all tingle, tingle — white sheets sit like milky layers of sediment on top the roofs, on top my knitted red hat, on top of the working-class suburb of Stockholm I’m in; the cold screams like a harpy through my legs fleeing up my wheezing chest — I go see a doctor.
“Blood clots?” “No, but you should be moving around more at your age.” I smile, fantasizing about cutting off the fat braid draped over the doctor’s shoulder. I could Google circles around this consultation. I won’t pay for this, I should jump off the tray and walk out of the tiny, plastery practice. Past the oily-faced lady on the sidewalk picking at a cinnamon bun, past the glassy office with the smooth marketing execs: out of this false embrace. Every single person is in a dark duffel and looks like a Bergmanesque suicidality slapped them awake. They have volumes of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda slotted into bookcases. The spines are never cracked, as if they bought Zadie as a tasteful ornament to display their magnanimity. Everybody loves the soft furnishing of a preternaturally gifted black women, blasting their sensorium.
I can tell from the way the doctor frowns at me, dismissing me quickly before slinking away to lunch, that she can’t take me seriously. I smile the way I smile whenever I get coated in layers of wet and discombobulating snow. Like a black Ophelia wringing sweat from her drippy dress. I board a plane to the place outside the binary and check my privileges in the baggage department. I walk across the love bridge between Orlando’s bouncy castle and Ford’s conveyor belt logic. Othered from Beijing to Nairobi to Toronto to London and back to Stockholm – no place is home, conversely, the world opens up. Everywhere has bits and pieces of homeliness. And my counterfeit personalities come readily. I’m referring to scraping by using mirror-images of myself in popular culture, and Toni Morrison and the Zadiedom (the Zadie Smith fandom). Administering CPR. Learning to love myself on a daily basis after someone snatches the love away.
In my primary school class there were five, sometimes six, other mulattoes – yes, mules, I am going there – we spoke a combination of English and Swedish, svengelska. There were Phillipino-Iranian kids, Brazilian-Swedish kids, Muslim kids, Jewish kids, Scottish-American kids. The mulatto kids had their own island, though.
Once, a fun, creative guy, from a multi-ethnic background, cupped my head forcefully in his hands and told me he was “looking for my Kenyan features.” He seemed sober. “I can tell that you’re part Kenyan … the way your lips are and the shape of your face.”
I wish I had walked away — he was obviously accustomed to passing for white — but he was slippery and a lot older. I heard myself describe my Dad’s facial features in excruciating detail. He was riveted. I was seething, quietly. It felt like a Sauron-like omniscient force had crept up behind us, blocking out the sun in a rose-tinted Shire. Why was I so nice? Intra-racial racism is something black women get to know far too well.
I went to a party with a friend — the people there were a smattering of entitled, upper-middle class types who couldn’t spell white privilege if it bit them in the ass; we’d mistakenly trampled onto the champagne-swigging set of a dazzlingly stylish photo shoot. Our ethnicity and bookish dispositions set us apart, the hosts of the party were barely present — oscillating from front door, to the back of the apartment– where some contented-looking toads sat gripping their drinks. My high spirits downgraded amid the stink of conspicuous consumption and entitlement. I felt nauseated by the behavior of people who had never had to lift a finger to find a place to live and spoke nastily about the vulnerable and dispossessed. I went to the bathroom to look in the mirror, as I stared at my complexion and the hair I had straightened, I knew I was a disruptive abomination that buzzed around in the periphery of their vision, impossible for them to control. Swarming out of the sewers like a million Gregor Samsas.
It was not that I disliked them back, I wanted them to be happy. But they stuck up their classist noses at people who had to struggle for decades to get what they took for granted, who didn’t have influential mentors opening doors, or parents who bought them homes and educations. This land doesn’t feel like my benefactor: it is raping and pillaging to shelter and feed a select few within the confines of a small Mac-encrusted radius.
At the party an invisible velvet rope materialised between us and them. Freaks and Geeks. I had never felt as unattractive in my life. I looked at my brilliant and unhappy friend and longed for one of those white hipsters to walk up to her. As we gathered our jackets to ditch the clusterfuck we passed by two strangers in their mid-thirties. They glanced at us icily and through the throng of the music I discerned a remark: “Två förortsjejer här” “Two non-white suburban girls here.” I turned and gave them my most super evil look. Although they didn’t see me, it was all I could do to fight back. The roads they travelled were straighter, less bumpy, and lined with the same ancient oak trees their ancestors had walked past. Our roads were stranger, potholed, narrower and winding — overlooking precipitous, murderous canyons.
The freedom in self-identifying with many different types of people is lost to racists. And it is lost to those anxious about upsetting racists. It is clear we don’t often have what the author F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind”, when we meet or talk to people from a different background to us.
The black Swedish tragic mulatto typing in English is a master code-switcher. Like a Russian doll with many selves, I can peel back the layers to unearth dark and painful secrets that threaten the love I feel for myself. Ontological doubt can be unsettling — much of the world is blind to the inherent genius of the way my body dissects and pollutes tradition. It is an avant-garde body. Moulded off a hyperconnected world full of parallel streams parasitizing off each other I’m more at ease strolling through an ethnically diverse Stockholm suburb than I am when buying dinner in an all-white inner city grocery shop. It shouldn’t be this way for me. Walking around in a country where I was born shouldn’t feel like navigating land mine territory. This country is such a heartbreaker. Yet, because my heart is forever in this place, even when I’m far away from it, I’d like for it to stay here when they burn me in an incinerator or cryogenically freeze my wrinkly corpse.
— “Zoo” by Cathy Park Hong
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Désirée Wariaro is one of the editors of Media Diversified. She writes cultural criticism in English and Swedish that is literary and feminist with leftist vibrations running through it. Her reviews and personal stories have appeared in the New Statesman, This Recording, Feministiskt Perspektiv.
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