Elise’s Interview with Shonda Buchanan

Introduction:

Shonda Buchanan is an author, educator, and speaker, and LMU alumna. She has taught both writing and critical race theory at a number of universities, including Loyola Marymount (Prof. Buchanan is my writing instructor for my first-year seminar)! She started writing early in her childhood and used writing as a survival mechanism- a tool to express herself and understand the world around her. Through her writing, she has been able to develop an unapologetic voice and empower and define herself. She now has a number of published works, most notably her memoir: Black Indian and her book of poetry Who’s Afraid of Black Indians?.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts:

Shonda was born the sixth child in a family of seven in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and grew up with the narrative of being mixed race. She is tri-ethnic, being of African American, American Indian, and European descent, but most strongly identifies with her African American and American Indian heritages.

Shonda Buchanan: (02:51)
“Yeah, no, I actually feel connected to both my, my Black, uh, my African American and American Indian. So I was raised, um, we were raised quote unquote in the African-American culture. So my nuances, my language, my upbringing, the TV programs we watched, um, you know, what we ingested socially, um, essentially dealt with the African-American side, the African-American community, uh, the underlying narrative was the American Indian heritage, but that also gave us the sense of identity in my family, because we, there were things we would say such as, you know, you’ve got that good Indian hair from your ancestors. Um, and so I grew up really identifying both with the Black and the American Indian side, and very, very little with the white blood or the white side, which my DNA tells me is Scott Irish. Um, uh, Scott Brit, I’m sorry, not Scott Irish, Scott Brit. Um, and, uh, but I don’t know any of those people, none of them showed up to the family reunions. I don’t recall having a White person allow me to call them Auntie or Uncle. So it was always just, you know, that Black, American Indian side that’s my identity.”

This intersection of identities shaped her and her world view in a way that is unique to people of mixed-ethnicity. There is a constant struggle of feeling like there is something blocking you from being able to fully embrace any of your ethnicities.

Shonda Buchanan: (04:49)
“And so that made me question my own identity. So for example, I’ve had friends who would, uh, ostracize me for being lighter than the “regular” dark-skinned black person. And I’m like, wait up, I look regular to myself. You know, this is how my family looks. So why, because I have long hair and lighter skin, am I being picked on or ostracized? And then I started to develop a bit of self-consciousness in the feeling of, well, am I not actually Black? Am I not fully Black? Am I not Black enough? You know, so there were a lot of questions about, um, you know, kind of the, um, I guess the, the validity of what, you know, my family showed me and told me, and then what society, or, you know, even people worked or children in my school, uh, or in then later in life, friends who would tell me I wasn’t really Black Black, you know?”

I really enjoyed this conversation because I, too, am mixed-race, and I related strongly to her statement about questioning the validity of her identity. There is a sense of tragedy in the feeling that one will never be fully part of one culture, nor will they receive the cultural acceptance which is so deeply desired. In class, we explored this topic when we read Anne Mai Yee Jansen’s “What Are You? chapter from Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism”. Jansen writes “[w]hen others look at me, they seem compelled- by curiosity, discomfort, or something in between- to ask me that most tired of questions: What are you? Too dark to be wholly white, too pale to be brown, I’ve come to the understanding that I’m ambiguously ethnic, and there’s something about ambiguity that makes people want more information” (Jansen 157). Shonda shares a similar sentiment:

Shonda Buchanan: (05:49)
“…I am a product of my ancestors. I am a product of decisions made before I even got here. And I’m sure you feel the same, the same way. So why is, why is this a continual issue that we have to, that we’re confronted with and that we have to deal with? And I realized that, um, a couple of reasons, uh, in my, in my writing and in my research, and then just, you know, being in psychology classes, um, human beings have a tendency to create community around the people that they are most comfortable with, that they feel safest with. And if they can’t classify you, and if you seem to be ambiguous in some way, shape or form, then it feels as if they can’t trust you. You know what I mean?”

In the “Shame, Guilt, and Apology, Then and Now” chapter of her book, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, Sonya Renee Taylor asserts that “[w]hen we don’t see ourselves reflected in the world around us, we make judgments about that absence. Invisibility is a statement. It says something about the world and our place in it!” (Taylor 31). Both Taylor and Buchanan assert that when people feel like they can “classify” you, they are able to better understand what their relationship to you should look like. We can subconsciously decide if a person is a part of “our” group (Taylor, 80). The absence of expectations forces people to question and look beyond their preconceived notions, which can be uncomfortable.

This question of “what are you?” (not “who are you?”) that Jansen refers to indicates that other people cannot exactly decide how to classify you and subsequently how to treat you. Shonda Buchanan describes her frustration at being asked to choose sides. Her racial identity is a culmination of decisions made generations before her. To ask her, or any multi-ethnic person, to chose one “side” to identify with is an impossible and unfair task. Our racial identities are inseparable from each other and that interconnectedness influences how we interact with each of our ethnicities. More importantly, the essence of a person, though influenced by the way their mixed identities allow them to navigate the world, goes far beyond ethnicity.

Shonda Buchanan: (09:29)
“And so, but then that becomes, that creates a schism within us as, as mixed people, you know, why do we have to choose? Why is that something that society, requires that we, we have to do?”

Although I, too, have experienced the struggle and affliction in coming to accept one’s mixed identity, that ambiguity can at times act as a shield. There are no assumptions to be made or stereotypes to fit into and/or dismantle when people do not have expectations of how you should act or who you should be. This begs the question of not only why do we have to choose between identities, but also who do we threaten when we claim all sides?

This made me think about the beauty of intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw describes intersectionality as the different parts of our identities colliding in our lives in ways we don’t always anticipate or understand (Kimberlé Crenshaw Discusses ‘Intersectional Feminism’). There is no need to compartmentalize the different aspects of one’s identity, nor do these aspects exist in a vacuum: we cannot separate them from each other. The intersection of identities and perspectives come together to create our unique experiences.

Shonda Buchanan: (07:24)
“And see, that becomes the part of defining yourself. When you decide that you get to claim both of your ethnicities and based off of whatever the background is that you were raised in, and then you get to say, no, this is all of who I am. And then you do not get to pick and choose nor do you get to, uh, ostracize me based off of what your parents have said, or based upon your feeling of being uncomfortable or lack of trust. I get to define who I am, and then I get to move forward, wholly, spiritually, culturally, and celebrate all of my ethnicities and all of my, um, my traditions and cultures”.

Knowing your worth:

One of my favorite books is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I am drawn to this book for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is its emphasis on the importance of knowing your worth as a woman. My favorite story from this book is called “The Red Candle”. In this story, Lindo Jong tells her daughter the story of her childhood and how she came to be the woman she is now. She recounts how she was forced into an unwanted marriage at a young age and tormented by an evil mother-in-law. She recounts the moments before her wedding, reminiscing “I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me” (Tan, 53). As I was concluding my interview with Shonda Buchanan, her words immediately reminded me of this passage. She states:

Shonda Buchanan: (33:03)
“I learned to walk into a room and to be unafraid. Uh, I knew that I probably knew as much as the people in the room, if not more. I knew that my cultural experiences, my work experiences, my travels, like I’m a, I’m an international traveler lecturer. You know, I knew that I was equal, you know, without feeling apologetic about it.”

Lindo goes on to tell the story of how she used her wit to escape her unhappy marriage and build a new life for herself. And even though she has left behind her childhood, she never forgets the night she looked in the mirror and promised not to forget herself. She tells her daughter “…every few years, when I have a little extra money, I buy myself another bracelet. I know what I’m worth. They’re always twenty-four carats, all genuine” (Tan, 63). These words have stuck with me since the first time I read The Joy Luck Club at 15, and I imagine if I could speak to the fictional Lindo Jong, she would echo Shonda Buchanan’s words, that will surely stick with me as well:

Shonda Buchanan: (32:30)
I would tell myself as a, as a woman, um, to make sure to pay attention to the opportunities that are, and that you saw other people receiving, but you might’ve been, you were too afraid to ask for it.

Shonda Buchanan: (33:39)
And so I, I would say this to my, my young women and- I don’t know who’s going to listen to this- but my young women at LMU, but make sure to, to take the opportunities that come to you. And if you don’t see an opportunity, create that for yourself.

As women, we must create our own favorable circumstances; they will not be handed to us on a silver platter. The change we so desperately long form must first come from within. Audre Lorde says “we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

Conclusion:

Oral history is a living testimony of a person’s unique life experiences, so who better to interview than a woman who has used writing to define herself and come into her own? Through this process, I have come to view Shonda Buchanan as more than a professor but as a role model and as a woman who deeply embodies the spirit of feminism in the sense that she has a profound understanding of herself. To be empowered and unapologetic is paramount to my personal understanding of feminism. This process (interview, reflection, analysis) has inspired me to continue to strive for that within myself.

Works Cited:

Hayet, Sara. Kimberlé Crenshaw Discusses ‘Intersectional Feminism’. YouTube, Lafayette College, 15 Oct. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROwquxC_Gxc&ab_channel=LafayetteCollege.

Jansen, Anne Mai Yee. “What Are You?” Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism, by Nikki Khanna, New York University Press, 2020, pp. 155–161.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Copeland Colloquium, Apr. 1980, Amerst College.

Tan, Amy. “The Red Candle.” The Joy Luck Club. Ivy Books, 1989, pp. 42–63.

Taylor, Sonya Renee. The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Berrett-Koehler, 2021.