Authenticity, philosophically speaking, is “relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.”
I especially like the part of the definition that refers to being emotionally appropriate and responsible. That captures my personal feeling of what it means to be authentic, but I know I struggle with staying authentic regularly and experiencing my authenticity without the kind of anxiety that not only sends me into paralysis but that occasionally makes me pass out cold.
I am a known people pleaser and that sometimes makes me choose someone else’s feelings over my own. That’s a symptom of adult children of alcoholics. We spent so much of our childhood wondering how we contributed to our life situation, constantly reassessing and negotiating our way through chaos, trying to find the path to stability and calm. Oftentimes, even in my child’s mind, I realized there was no such path and that I had only hurt myself in my choices and made no good change in the process.
My biggest fear as a child was abandonment. I thought that one wrong move would leave me at the side of a road in the country, an unwanted waif wandering alone. Then there were the daydreams I had as an adult, oftentimes when I was traveling for work and away from Ronald and the girls: becoming a homeless bag lady in an unknown city, lost, and no one looking for me.
When I cater to everyone else’s needs and desires I tend to leave my own like forgotten dust bunnies under the bed. Inevitably my anger grows until it explodes.
Then the people around me think I am an emotional mess, and no one ever understands that I gave up my authenticity in the effort to please, and that it has not only caught up with me, but also consumed me.
You’d think that since I am about to turn fifty-five, I would have this under control by now. But I am a product of my upbringing, gender, and of society’s expectations, and I am of shy temperament, hating confrontation.
So in the end I am often left alone. My greatest fear manifested.
I have my immediate family, Ronald, Cara and Mackenzie. They are always around, and we support one another emotionally and in many other ways. Then I have a few close friends, but distance keeps them from everyday interaction.
My sister said, after Ronald and I had moved south, “You seem lonely.”
I am, but I didn’t tell her how she contributed to my loneliness. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
People, who are not in an interracial relationship, can never totally understand what Ronald and I face everyday. Simple things, like having couples friends. It doesn’t happen that easily, especially at our age (of a certain generation) when most people have a group of long term friends around them. Then there is the fact that I work at home and Ronald is retired, and that both of us suffer shyness and anxiety about acceptance every time we go someplace new. But mostly I believe it has a lot to do with being interracial. People don’t know how to take us or can’t see us fitting into their social circles. Most times they can’t even explain why they feel that way, but there it is.
Once we held a kids Halloween party at our house. Everyone had a great time. When it was time to go home, one of the neighbors announced they were going to an adult party and everyone was invited except for us.
“The host would be offended,” he said in explanation. Everyone said thank you for the wonderful time they’d had at our party and went off to the second one. No one wondered if our feelings had been hurt or refused to go because of the insensitivity displayed by making such a statement in front of us.
How cool it would have been if even one had said, “I wouldn’t consider going to any party where Dianne and Ron aren’t welcome!”
Ronald captured my mood in a photo after everyone left. I sit glumly on the couch, my eyes moist, and my hand cradling my chin so it won’t quiver and give away how forlorn I am.
Yesterday on the golf course, as I walked with Ronald while he played a round, we met up with the group of black guys we had played with a week or two back. One kept stealing glances at me. Another one asked me if I wanted to ride in the cart alongside him for the last couple of holes. It was hot and windy, and pollen had scratched my eyes raw. I jumped in. I gave him a fist bump after he’d driven his ball off the tee.
I saw the other man give me that sidelong glance.
Later I said to Ronald, as we headed home, “That guy doesn’t know how to take me. He couldn’t believe I got into that cart.”
“And that it was okay with both of us,” he added.
Those black guys have probably never met a white woman who wasn’t tucking her purse more tightly under her arm and race walking to cross to the other side of the street, while juggling her keys to discreetly lace them through her fingers as a weapon to at least slow him down should he attack. No matter that he just happened to be crossing her path to get to someplace else. But that same woman might claim she is no racist. Were it a white man, she might be wary, maybe clutching her purse a little tighter, but later she would describe him as eccentric, not dangerous. She doesn’t even understand how deeply and subconsciously the image of the “sexually dangerous” black man has been pressed into her brain. No wonder I seem an oddity.
I once heard an expression, “He’s an asshole, but he’s a good asshole.” I think I heard it from the white firefighters, talking about other white guys. If you are of the same race, it seems that you can be difficult, eccentric, even hostile, but still liked. I see that all the time. Like when family members accept and embrace the spouse of a child or sibling even though he or she might not have been their pick, just like I tried really hard to get along with my siblings and their spouses. But it doesn’t seem to be like that in my experience as an interracial couple. The person of the other race doesn’t get to be an asshole, ever, without serious repercussions, like abandonment.
The standards are different and, therefore, we are judged differently, as both individuals and as a couple. That makes life difficult, especially in families where dysfunction is a norm, and interaction is already precarious. When siblings or parents claim to be liberal, but still harbor these differing standards, they talk a certain way but their actions aren’t always in alignment, like that woman crossing the street but claiming she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body.
You know what? We just want to be assholes, but good assholes. We don’t mind when you are.
Also please understand that sometimes we just want to unload on someone we are comfortable with, or thought we were, and with people we trust, or thought we did. Racial occurrences happen to us regularly and we get sick of having to put up with them. Many black people would never dream of sharing with whites what they experience daily in a society of white privilege, but, because we are both, we tend to share, if not one than the other. Our choice to be together has opened us up to being in both arenas. We can’t just stop talking to everyone, or can we?
But just because we chose to be together, doesn’t mean that we ask complete strangers to offer their opinion, “Shame on you,” or try to run us down with their car, or decide we aren’t worthy of buying that house. It gets stressful sometimes and we need to talk about it.
What we don’t want to hear is, “I have a black friend, and that’s never happened to him,” or “I can’t believe that happened here. My community is not like that,” or “How come everything always happens to you?” We’d rather just hear, “Wow, it sucks to be you sometimes.” Because when you say the other things, you diminish our credibility and our life experience and pretend that your world is too great for stuff like that to happen. But it isn’t that great and it does happen, only not to you.
Also don’t expect that we will attend social functions separately because one is preferred over the other, one causes less trouble by fitting in better than the other, or because you think one of us is an asshole but not a good asshole. We are a couple, we actually enjoy doing things together and celebrating special occasions together, and we are well behaved and sensitive to social cues. We’re done worrying about whether or not others are comfortable having us around and whether or not we’ve done anything, like just being together, for example, that might be considered offensive to others attending the function. We feel the favor is often not returned and therein lays my explosive anger.
[Side note about my anger: Cara and Mackenzie have a great deal of fun reenacting occasions of my expressed anger from when they were children. They imitate my tiny voice with made up swear words (turkey lurkey!), my left eyebrow raised, one hand on my hip, a foot stamp, and the other hand wiping spittle off my chin. I agree that my outward expression of anger is mostly comical, but I promise you that my inside anger can be a lot like Katrina reaching the shore of New Orleans, ready and strong enough to devastate, mostly me – I have weak levies.]
That leads me back to abandonment and authenticity. Ronald and I talk about our isolation over and over. We talk about how important it is to remain true to ourselves in spite of, and because of, our experiences. We’ve cut ourselves off from people who don’t get that about us. It often feels like we are the only ones who understand what we go through. We won’t leave one another, no matter how alone we are together. Sometimes he or I apologize to the other, “I’m sorry you have to go through this because of me.”
We both know no apologies are necessary, though. It still feels good to know there is at least one person who truly understands, appreciates our authentic selves, and who actually cares enough to say, “Wow, it sucks to be you, and us, sometimes.”
That’s when I’ll know we really live in a post-racial world – when every one of us is free to be an asshole, but a good one.