When I found out my uncle was getting married, I could not wait to meet his fiance and my soon-to-be aunt. Not only that, but their wedding was going to be held on St. John, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands — talk about a beautiful backdrop for a wedding! Rachel Hastings-Timko, my aunt, grew up on St. Thomas, just an island away. Although they never married, that is where her mother and father met and where she was born. Her father is from Trinidad, another island in the Caribbean, and her Mother born on Long Island a year after her parents arrived there from Germany. I had heard so many great things about Rachel, but not until that trip did I grow a fascination with the island culture and Rachel’s background. I enjoyed listening to all her stories from when she was younger and exploring the place which she called home.
I finally got to extend my curiosity by interviewing her for this oral history report. Rachel was born on April 23rd, 1984 and grew up in a Christian, middle class household. Her parents met on St. Thomas, where Rachel lived until she was 12 years-old. At this age, Rachel and her mother moved to Maryland so she could pursue her passion for horseback riding in a more competitive environment. However, they only spent six months in Maryland before moving to New York. That is where her grandparents lived and where her Mom could continue her career as a dental hygienist without having to retake tests. She graduated from the College of New Jersey, and currently works as a paralegal in New York City, representing whistle blowers who have proof that the government is being financially defrauded.
Considering that Rachel is a biracial woman, I thought that she would offer interesting insight into what we have been talking about in class regarding intersectionality. I talked to Rachel about binary thinking and situational identity, which I was inspired to ask about after reading Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins. She also made comments about her hair, which made me think back to the poem “Biracial Hair” by Zora Howard. Finally, I listed possible solutions on how to stop the divide among people after reading AnaLouise Keating’s “Beyond Intersectionality.”
When I read “The Matrix of Domination” from Black Feminist Thought, there was a quote that caught my attention at the beginning of the text: “One must be either Black or white in such thought systems – persons of ambiguous racial and ethnic identity constantly battle with questions such as “what are you, anyway?” (Collins 75). With this idea in mind, I wanted to investigate whether Rachel had ever been exposed to this kind of binary thinking. This way of thinking is the idea that one can only be one of two options when it comes to race, usually defined in oppositional terms; one can not be “both” or “other.” Rather, one can only be “either/or.” When I asked Rachel how she would define her own ethnicity, she said:
R: Oh, I always say mixed. And I always check ‘other’ and if there’s an option to describe, I always describe accurately. I say Trinidadian and German. I don’t say black or white or whatever the other options are, not because I don’t want to associate, but that’s just how I see it.
I found this response interesting because Rachel referred to the boxes on a ballot and said that she resists from filling out just black or white, which are the main options to choose from. This is a way that society is exposed to binary thinking, and it shows that we may not even realize when we are being exposed to it at times.
When I asked Rachel about how she adjusted to school public school in New York, she mentioned the exact question which Collins states in the quote that people of ambiguous racial identities constantly have to deal with — “What are you?”
R: It was definitely a culture shock. I also remember this one kid being like “what are you?” and I was like “I’m brown!”
Collin’s quote hits the nail on the head. Hearing Rachel say this aloud made it real to me, because now I have my own confirmation through Rachel that multiracial people are constantly questioned on their identity.
Then, I wanted to know if she had ever felt torn between the two sides of her identity or felt as though she needed to pick only one side. So, I asked Rachel if she had ever experienced situational identity, where that when she is with one group of people she’s Trinidadian, and when she’s with another group she’s German American.
R: Well here’s the thing. When I look at my hair, I identify so much with my Caribbean culture because my dad is what they call “dougla” in Trinidad. The culture there is very mixed; it’s black, it’s Indian, it’s White, it’s Chinese, it’s Hispanic, it’s a little bit of everything. So my dad is black and Indian, and so when I look at my hair, I really have that Black part come through because it’s so curly and so thick and so difficult to deal with. But then when I look at my upbringing it was what I was used to with my mom, like never throwing anything away because my grandparents lived through World War II in Germany and they just saved everything because they never knew when they would need it. We recycled everything and my grandpa had this homeopathic medicine where he would soak these crazy herbs in vodka for a month and he would shake the bottle and then at the end of that month, it would literally be this liquid stuff that you would mix with water when you have a cold and you would drink it and get better. I know that my Trinidadian family would never do something like that, you know? So it was one aspect of my life I would identify with the German side, and then other aspects I would identify with the Trinidadian side.
Rachel’s comment on her hair in her response reminded me of the poem “Biracial Hair” by Zora Howard. Rachel talked more about her hair when I asked her if she had taken on any American traits. She responded:
R: The American traits I think I have taken on… Hmm, that’s really interesting. Probably my hair; it’s so crazy and curly and thick. I put a relaxer in it, and I have to apply it at least every two to three months. Actually, that’s what I had put in my hair right before I came to visit you guys. I got that chemical burn. I think that’s something that is more done in America, to have that non-ethnic looking hair per se.
Rachel says that the way she looks, particularly her hair, is not as accepted in American culture. She puts a lot of product in her hair so that she can blend in more with American norms and have that “non-ethnic looking hair.” In Zora Howard’s poem, she says “I dream for a time and place where maybe y’all accept me.” This is something that Rachel can connect to. She also relates to when Howard calls herself “Bi-racial who succumbs to the abuse from her peers in her middle school, Those whose who constantly called me an Oreo, Well she’s not white, its more like Reeses cookie, mixed breed or a mulatto” (Howard). In our interview, Rachel also discussed being bullied for the way she looked in middle school once she started attending public school in New York.
R: When the bell rang, there were a hundred kids in the hallway and everyone was looking at me because I was the “new girl” and looked different than everyone and dressed a little bit differently… I kind of think that I was bullied, but I don’t think I made a conscious acceptance of that at that time but looking back, it was probably a bullying situation. I remember one time I was standing up and this kid who was the class clown pulled the chair out from under me and I went to go sit down and fell on the floor.
Rachel also said the following when I asked her if she ever missed the islands:
R: I do recall missing it a lot a couple of years after we left and everybody I felt like was a little more judgmental up here then they were down there.
The fact that both Zora Howard and Rachel talk about abuse in middle school tells me that caucasian children growing up in certain neighborhoods may be sheltered from diversity and people of other ethnicities. This leads to ignorance. As Patricia Hill Collins states, “…we typically fail to see how our own thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination” (Collins 76). Rachel talked to me about trying to fit in at this age when she should have been learning to be confident in who she was. I believe that parents should start teaching their children to be more accepting of these differences at an earlier age.
This is a lesson that is listed among three solutions in AnaLouise Keating’s “Beyond Intersectionality.” In this text, Keating suggests three ways which we can get rid of the barriers which seem to divide the world: 1) Make connections through differences 2) Forge an ethics of radical interconnectedness 3) Listen with raw openness. By following these guidelines, we can learn to “stretch” ourselves by looking beyond intersectionality or the theories that construct the fixed categories we use to identify ourselves with (Keating 59). This will unify people and prevent children from feeling the way Zora Howard and Rachel did when they were around their peers.
When I asked Rachel who her female role models were, she mentioned another comment a classmate made which has stuck with her after all these years:
R: I mean my mom was one of my role models for sure because she was a single parent and she ran her own business and she gave me a life that a lot of kids who had two parents and were doing the same things I was doing were shocked about. I remember as a child, one of my friends asking how we, my mom and I, were able to afford what we had, so I remember that and it has really stuck with me.
Throughout history, males have always been viewed as the breadwinner of a family. It is a common misconception that the mother is supposed to stay at home taking care of the children and household duties while the father is supposed to be out working. This theory is probably what made Rachel’s friend ask her how she was getting by with the same privileges as her friends when she did not live with her father. In the chapter “Women At Work” by bell hooks, she states “Many men blame women working for unemployment, for their loss of the stable identity being seen as patriarchal providers gave them, even if it was or is only fiction. An important feminist agenda for the future has to be to realistically inform men about the nature of women and work so that they can see that women in the workforce are not their enemies” (hooks 53). Rachel’s quote proves that not only do working men need to be informed of the nature of women and work, but everyone needs to be in order to realize that women can make a living too. This includes ingraining this idea in children’s head at a young age.
Before taking this course, I rarely thought about the struggles and oppression that minorities, particularly women of color, have had to face even in today’s generation. Although Rachel and I are both female, I have white privilege, come from an upperclass family and have happily married parents who both make a living on their own. This course and project have allowed me to see from a different perspective and made me more aware of the problems that still exist in our society. Had I interviewed Rachel before knowing what I know now, I do not think that I would have absorbed it in the same way. I probably would have viewed her stories and hardships as ones that any other child growing up would experience.
It was easy for me to think from Rachel’s standpoint because I know her well. I have met her parents, as well as seen where she’s from and where she currently lives, so I was able to picture her life and be more understanding of her perspective. However, even though I know Rachel well, I was surprised to hear her talk about her hair. She has never discussed it with me before. I now know that Rachel views hair as a representation of who she is, yet I have never seen it in its natural form. It is always slicked back into a tight pony tail.
Rachel embodies the characteristics of a true feminist. From day one, it has always been just her and her Mom. She has never relied on anyone, men included. Although at times it may have been tough, she has grown up to be one of the strongest, most intelligent people I know, and has been successful in all that she has done.