Rebecca Carroll on Learning There Isn’t One Way to Be Black
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
On the problem of not perceiving race:
Not only did [my parents] not perceive race, but they lifted me in this way that made me special because I was different. So it wasn’t that I was a Black child and that was a wonderful thing, it was that I was different and that was a wonderful thing. So I internalized that kind of specialness, which was essentially exotification, and so when I experienced racism I was like, “That feels weird. That’s not my perception of myself.” There’s an anecdote I tell all the time about my fifth grade teacher telling me that I was very pretty for a Black girl, and I spent my childhood, my youth, my young adulthood thinking about that part of what she said, when really what I internalized was what she said after, which was that most Black girls are not very attractive at all. And the expression on her face.
On writing about her birth mother:
I was obsessed with her from pretty much jump. Because she was my birth mother, but also because she looked like this standard of beauty that I had been trying to replicate. When I realized (it took me a long-ass time to realize) she was actually not just trying to erase my blackness in encouraging me to replicate her beauty, but she was trying to co-opt whatever blackness I felt or had that’s part of me. It’s very complicated. I hope this doesn’t come across in the book, but I struggled with how to write about this relationship because it was so enormously complicated. I waited until I had the emotional fortitude and foundation to stand behind what I experienced and what I recall and how I recall it happening.
On the multiplicity of Black identity:
When my professor told me “you can be Black the way you want to be Black; there isn’t one way to do it,” I felt totally liberated. And like, well okay then, I will be Black the way I want to be Black. And I’ll start a Black student union so I can tell everyone else to be Black the way they wanted to be Black. . . . I knew I wanted to gather Black students, the few that there were, and engage and do whatever felt right. To create a space, before we had all of these terms of “create a safe space” or “create a community,” but it was that. It was truly that. I wanted to be in a room with Black folks, so I created a Black student union so I could do that.
Rebecca Carroll is host of the podcast Come Through with Rebecca Carroll, and former cultural critic at WNYC. Her writing has been published widely, and she is the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. Her new memoir is called Surviving the White Gaze.