I can pass as normal. In fact, I’ve spent a great deal of energy in doing just that. Perform. Achieve. Smile. This comes easily to me; I’ve had lots of practice. Different, Inadequate, Plain. They hide behind the curtains. Part of what I’ve done for the last four decades to present as normal is tied up with the fact that I’m obviously in my own skin and that’s a complicated subject.
Especially in my youth I wanted to pass as just like everyone else – except when I didn’t and then I wanted to be exotic. Not a small-for-my-age girl with dirty blond hair and blue eyes. I wished I could be what I was not. Large. Open. Dark. You know the woman who made national press a few years ago for pretending to be black? Rachel Dolezal took it as far as getting a leadership role within the NAACP, checking boxes on forms that was she black when in fact she was born to Caucasian parents. She was mocked and ridiculed for her deceit, but there is part of me that gets her. I grew up juggling the seemingly contradictory balls of wanting-to-pass-as-normal and wanting-to-be-exotically-different. And part of that juggling left me, a middle-aged white woman, staring at the two dropped balls on the floor, just realizing I’ve been blinded to my own privilege.
I wrote a whole book about my family of origin but I’ll reduce it (to what seems like a ridiculous degree) to some of the factors surrounding me growing up in Topeka, Kansas that made me feel so different. Single parent home, alcoholism, gay dad, mental illness, mixed race family, depression, dad’s death from AIDS, suicide attempts. I now know that many families share some of these struggles but that the reason we think we are alone in them is that we hide. We’d rather pass as normal than come out as real. The passing as normal can feel like slipping on just the right jacket, it looks so good on you and takes off the chill you are standing in. Never mind that you tried it on inside of a store and walked out the front door without paying for it. It’s not your jacket, you know that, but you don’t care, you wear it anyway, constantly checking over your shoulder, certain that you will eventually be found out. But the truth is, you may never get found out. You still look good and feel warm but the tradeoff is that you know it was never yours to have.
I never got very far at passing as exotic, my study of ballet was the closest I could get to feeling like a different creature all together. On the stage I was expansive, greedy even, filling the space with the version of me that was coiled within my small frame in regular life. With ballet, I let it out. But alas, most of my life is not spent on the literal stage. I can still perform in other ways – I’ve often said that the act of writing of my early life’s events is a verson of performance – but I’m still left with the same physical shell that is recognized as Molly Krause. That shell is white.
I’ve held blackness as Special. Not the disapproving kind of special that Dana Carvey so hilariously portrayed as the church lady with a sneer. No, the specialness of blackness to me was the flip side of ordinary, a condition that I desperately wanted to shed. Spending a summer studying ballet at The Dance Theater of Harlem when I was thirteen only reinforced these thoughts. I was surrounded by black dancers who were so strong and so beautiful that I was jealous that they got to use face powder to darken their pink pointe shoes in to something that matched their skin tone. In ballet it’s important to extend the line as long as possible from your hip to the end of your toe, which is why matching your skin tone to your shoes is used to reinforce that vision. I didn’t identify the fact that the shoes only came in the lightest of pink as a form of racial bias against those dancing in them. My pointe shoes pretty much matched the pink shade of my tights and skin. In my immaturity, I was envious of the accessory that they used that I didn’t need. That’s how easily privilege can insert itself – the assumption that normal color of tights is pink.
I never went very far down the trail of making my shell exotic, hair length and color has been where most of my attempts have landed – very short, copper red, streaks of blond. My desire to be exotic has been tempered by my longing to pass as normal; it’s the two forces working against each other that have shaped my personality. And it’s only in my forty-seventh year that I’ve realized what a unique perch I have to work out all of my inner identity issues. I have to acknowledge that part of my ability to pass as normal is that those pink tights do indeed match my skin tone.
Writing has been my tool of coming out. I’ve written about and made public most of the topics I’ve kept quiet about for the majority of my life and it’s been a freeing experience. What in the world was I so worried about anyway? The process has ignited a powerful urge to help others put their arms around their own stories through the written word. Words matter. The stories we tell ourselves are important. The stories we write for others that are rooted in truth can be transformative. What I now know about my own writing-as-coming-out is that it emerges from the fact that I can pass to begin with. I can find the right jacket to slip on; I don’t even have to think about my skin color, my otherness is not visible.
I have had the liberty to hide the invisible otherness that I have always felt. That feeling is real, but it’s certainly not the weight of systemic racism. I can never know what it was like for my black sister to operate in the white world that our family inhabited, even as I was right beside her. I can bear my own witness, but I cannot know what it feels like to have dark skin, even if part of me longed for it.
So here I am, again, coming out with my words. When I teach memoir, I often urge writers to be radical truth-tellers. It is tempting when you hear this to envision the person you want to write about – your mom, your lover, the one who failed you. We rarely picture the hardest person to be honest about – our self. It’s a painful task and it’s never fully done.
So, I’ll go ahead and write it: I’ve been so acutely aware of my own sense of not fitting in, I’ve failed to see what is so obviously true: life is easier for me because I’m white and it grieves me to say that I’ve only recently fully realized it. I will always be a work in progress and now my work is to keep seeing now that my eyes are open.