Engaging a New Narrative: The fluidity of identity & the kindness of strangers

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Picture of me (photo credit Stacy Keck Photography)

Race. Class. Gender. Political Party. Religious affiliation. This list of identifiers could be stretched for a very long time and in a seemingly endless number of directions.  So when I was asked to tell my story of identity I was a bit leery at first.  Would I have something to say that hadn’t already been said several times over? Would it be strange telling a room full of strangers – and who knows how deep a virtual audience – about my personal experiences around identity?  In the end, I decided to join the “cast” of the New Narrative for an evening at Bread & Salt in San Diego’s historic Latino Barrio Logan neighborhood, because I think society limits our conversations about what makes us who we are; and this was a chance to stretch those conversations.  I decided it would be worthwhile to change the identity conversation to something richer. Here’s how it went.

The photo on the front page is me.  What do you see? What jumps out first? If you described the person in the picture to a friend, what would you say?

Why Tell This Story?

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New Narrative attendee pondering the discussion (photo credit Stacy Keck Photography)

My story of identity isn’t summed up with the external markers in that first photo.  And the truth is, no one’s identity is adequately captured in some externally driven descriptive grouping.  Take a moment and think about all that we say about each other based on characteristics that are, quite literally, skin deep. I told this story – posted in the video below – because I find the narrative of identity in this country stunting and limiting for meaningful social and human progress. If you are reading this, chances are you have more in common with someone who looks nothing like you than the doppelganger image your co-worker may have emailed you last week. If we gave ourselves the space to try, we might learn that the white kid from rural West Virginia and the Latino kid from Phoenix, Arizona actually have more in common than these identifiers might suggest.  The brown-skinned Latina transgender woman and the cis-gender Korean immigrant may find more similarities in their real identities than in the external qualifiers a mirror reveals.  Watch or listen to the video below – and decide for yourself what you think about identity before your next conversation about race or gender or class.

The Story I Told

Wendy and Kevin Best

Wendy and Kevin Best

The heart of my story was a couple I met during my first year in college in Atlanta, Georgia, named Wendy and Kevin Best.  The photo above captures them when they were in their early 30’s.  At that time, they were successful professionals with no kids, an unending well of discretionary time, and the freedom to do basically whatever they wanted. So in retrospect it was no small matter that at the height of all this freedom they chose to open their hearts and their home to an 18-year-old kid with no family or friends east of the Mississippi. You can’t see their identity in this photo, just some superficial identifiers (and warm smiles).  They played a big role in an important part of my life and, maybe a bit oddly, a bigger role in my life as I’ve aged.  Our experiences are, I suppose, a bit like a really good wine. The character, complexity and importance they carry can change and deepen over time.

This next photo is for me both tangential to my story of identity and also at the center of it.

A photo of my biological mother

A photo of me at around 4 years old with my biological mother

To really have a foundation for my contribution to this ‘New Narrative’ about identity, I had to start with Carrie Belle Carter, the woman who brought me into this world in 1975. I couldn’t really talk about her story in depth while telling my own because I had some time limitations. She grew up poor, lost her hearing and her own mother at a very young age, and then suffered through abuse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy until she left the segregated world of Little Rock, Arkansas. Her contribution to my identity is imprinted both in my DNA and in a familiar story of generational poverty whose roots are in chains, trees, and denied opportunities.

My story begins with the kindness of a stranger when I was an infant.  That kindness began in a foster home.  During my Narrative, I told a story about my early foster brothers and sisters and the bewildered expression that adults would have when we’d all yell ‘mom’ at our mother in a public place but our external appearance didn’t match the expectation of what a family ought to be. The picture below shows a few of my siblings.

A few of my siblings and my mother's biological grandchild

A few of my siblings and my mother’s biological grandchild

 

And at the core of every positive thing I strive to be and every aspect of my identity is this incredible woman.

My mom, Phyllis, and one of her many foster children

My mom, Phyllis, and one of her many foster children

A woman whose kindness and capacity for love could fill volumes in the Library of Congress also carried the legacy of generational poverty. She was raised with very little, as were her parents and their parents. It’s not the same as bondage, but let’s just say if you are poor and white it doesn’t feel much like that whiteness is much of a leg up.  This wasn’t a talk about who has it worse off, I just sometimes think we let the media (and the extremists) drive the narrative rather than telling our own.  In an age when we talk about white privilege or male privilege and allow ourselves to get lost in blame, my mom and her struggles are never far from my thoughts. In today’s America we reduce identity to focusing on external markers of sameness. We judge each other and we allow external characteristics to stop us from seeing real identity. And at every turn I can’t help but think about Phyllis Passons, my mother. Hers is the story that never gets told. The more than 100 foster children she opened her home to don’t have a microphone from which to simply say this: thank you. She was the first of many strangers in my life who proved the existence of a more important identity than you can see on a TV screen, in the church pew behind you, or sitting on a park bench. That identity can’t be reduced to a slogan or a political chant or some oversimplification we use to keep from examining the depths of who we really are. The world my parents created fostered in me a deep realization – reaffirmed by the kindness of friends and strangers and neighbors alike – that identity is a powerful and fluid thing that isn’t imprinted on us at birth and left untouched. It is instead defined in all of us over time based on who we become.

If you want to watch (or listen to) the entire video, you can click below for the 15-minute presentation.

 

I gave a piece of who I am to this New Narrative because I think we’ll be better off as a community and a society if we have better, deeper conversations about who we are as people. I shared this story with the hope that even a few conversations might result that cause us to choose to look at the kindness around us and talk more openly about the vulnerabilities and hopes that make us similar instead of the external differences that keep us apart. And if an added bonus is that a few people see that the foster system can do amazing things if we really support it, then that’s great too. Have a good one.

This smile seemed to capture the spirit of the night (photo credit Stacy Keck Photography)

This smile seemed to capture the spirit of the night (photo credit Stacy Keck Photography)

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