Alexis my half sister on my fathers side, also a biracial was only able to do an interview and one portrait as her self before leaving for an artists residency. I state that she is my half sister legally but in all other respects she is thought of as a sister both by my brother and in the eyes of our respective parents. Only very recently have my sister and I discussed race in terms of our family and our racial identification. Our interview therefor was really eye-opening both personally and objectively as a researcher.
Alexs first memory of race and what race meant came when she was about six or seven. She was on a subway with our father when somehow, she cant remember, the discussion of race and who was black, and who wasnt, came up. There was a black man on the train and, either unprovoked or not, Alex leaned over and told my father that she wasnt black like that man. My father, turned to her and said that she was.
Alex grew up mostly with her mother who didnt have a lot of black friends. The neighborhood, Hoboken New York, Where they lived prior to moving to Brooklyn, was a predominantly white neighborhood. She was about seven or eight, she said, when she moved to Brooklyn. It was also around the same time that she began to discern the meaning of race for the first time. She described the area as being heterogeneous ethnically during the mid 80s with the first flux of gentrification. She found it most prominent at school where, she described the large split between the white students and their parents and colored students and their parents. In that environment peoples differences or how they were perceived where magnified to her. She felt as if there was a definitive choice that she had to make between what group or identity she should align herself with. The decision she made (and this was a little difficult for her to say) was that she chose to associate the white children in her class. She had taken notice of the difference in social status, the white childrens parents were doctors, and lawyers and (they) were pushed to do well in class. Now I understands she says the economical and class privilege that allowed for those white students to have better math scores and such but the guilt she says, or making the decision, still haunts her, because she feels there is something self hating in it.
I asked her if she had any black role models when she was young, and she said yes, and smiled, because that is the person I am named after. It is interesting to note that, though I knew this my image of the woman I was named after, in my mind, looked like a nice 80s sitcom teacher. The kind with big glasses, a bad haircut, pastel sweaters, dumpy skirts and a pasty white complexion, and yet cute nonetheless. She was also friends with an African girl who after moving away told Alex people treated her as if she was dumb because of how she looked. Alex told me how ridiculous that was since her friend was extremely smart.
When asked why she identifies as being biracial she says shrugged and gave a quick laugh and said,theres no choice I just am. She said that because I am close to my father and my siblings that I would feel it would be a negation of part of myself. She also felt that, if she were to base her identity off of external sources, which we tend to do earlier on in our lives to determine who we are. she said it wouldnt be the right decision. Also because she feels that her experience in life and how people perceive her isnt solely white. Instead people assume her to be Latina or Puerto Rican and if not that some other guess, but usually, she said, if not always it is a monoracial guess. Her answer as to why people may immediately assume shes monoracial is because of the lasting remnants of the taboo of black/white relations. We are however in her estimation moving away from the cultural exploitation of people based on their color, and that as more people of color begin to have financial power, and power through wealth, this gap may close. the further away we get from segregation, and race as a symbol (the more) we get comfortable with who marries who. After that it becomes more about class for Alex race and class are completely intertwined.
We go back to discussing her experiences in school. After her education in Brooklyn Alex went to a boarding school called Polly Prep where once again she was placed in an even more categorical environment than her first home in Hoboken. In Polly prep everyone was supposed to adhere to their type. This is when she was first greatly affected by media in its representation of beauty, which at the time, she explains was white, tall, thin, blond straight hair. She definitely felt pressured by the images and her self-worth was affected because of this. Because she didnt look like the 90210 stereotypes that her and her friends were watching at the time. For her now, it seems almost comical the regurgitation of the teen soap opera, which has been done a thousand times with the same stereotypes until it literally repeated itself with a new 90210 she laughs. Its become apparent to her that those who get exorcized and fetishized, as well as what is the staple of beauty, hasnt really changed all that much.
Alexiss problem with the media is that it quotes itself as being essential and real and that we must take it as such, but really its heavily edited and controlled.
When I ask her who does she think controls it she says laughing at herself, probably mostly white men but I doesnt really know, I just like to assume that.
This avalanche of mediated standards gets poured on us she said, and it gets even worse when men prefer these standards, or are possibly taught them. When she was at Polly Prep she noticed a correlation between mediated standards and stereotypes when noticing the treatment of women of color. She found that her male classmates often treated and over sexualized by both white and colored men. She, to her own amazement, that this treatment extended to her as well, even though in her own summation Im naturally uptight. On such an occasion a 7th grade boy came and stuck his pen in her mouth out of the blue. Even then she thought he may have not done that to her if she were white, or at least he wouldnt have done it to the other white girls.
In her own research she has found that because the media has been primarily used by white males the ties to our historically racist past and the makings of race and difference are naturally still apart of its makeup, that everything that has come after is in its own way still circulating these ideals. I think it is a construction she said that is tethered to our history and its a reproduction of it because it is comfortable and its what we know. It exploits those expectations and self consciousness that we have. But, more importantly it is selling us our insecurities and to sell people their insecurities is a sure thing.
I ask her if she feels racism will ever not be an issue in America. She told me that racism wont go away until imperialism and the act of exploiting people based on race and lower economic standing goes away. and continued to say that Race and race as a negative is made in this way so that someone else can put you in a position to create wealth for themselves off of you, there is a need to devalue those who are doing the work. How well get past this, she said, is probably to take a large step back from media, because it makes it too easy to exploit people. For example she gives the ubiquitous black rapists that was so popular during the 80s and 90s or even today the whitewashing of colored women in fashion magazines.
When asked about her opinion on biracial or multiracial people in the media she felt that we are un-addressed. When she was younger it made her feel in a way an even greater pressure to choose, which was delegated by what was safer or available. Now she sort of feels as if its a negation of race and feels privileged in a way because she can be honest about race related things, such as when someone makes a comment that they may not say in front of a black person. That she can discuss, and change a persons mind, not in an angry or aggressive way but with more calm and understanding because she comes from both sides.When I asked Alex for any parting words she said to the camera, stop watching television!
Our Photo shoot took place the next day. It was a sunny day later in the evening, the sun was coming down giving everything a red cast. Alexis was a little reticent to be photographed because she felt generally she didnt look good in them. So it was difficult to get her to put an effort in how she wanted to represent herself. I ended up photographing her in the attic of our fathers country house. My sister who is an artist stores her work there. She however did not want to include any of her art in the photograph. She said that she felt awkward but I didnt want to impose myself on her, through direction. She ended up relaxing into the singular chair in the attic and gazed away from the camera. This was a quick shoot taking at most fifteen minutes.