I recently read an article in The New York Times about a new, controversial, experimental, and growing in popularity procedure where one pumps an IV full of glutathione into their veins in the hopes of lightening their skin, and I thought, “Wow, the inability to live in one's own skin has come to this.”
Is that what this feeling is?
I am in the 5th grade when my father started pumping the rules of “pretend” into my veins. I have just seen Peter Pan, my first Broadway show, and I was smitten. I walk out the theater, arms in a T, flying through the streets of New York , pleading to the gods, announcing to anyone who would listen, especially my father, “That’s what I want, I want to fly around like I’m Peter!”
To which my pops responds, “Papi, that’s gonna be tough, Peter’s played by a white woman.” And before I can wallow in my defeat, he says, “Come on,” and he takes me to Central Park. He gets us two hot dogs and introduces me to a game (a game I still play to this day) called, “Where they going? Where they coming from? Why do they walk that way?”
You see, my pops was convinced that if you watched anything long enough you could begin to become an expert at it, get to know how it lives, how it breathes. He’d say, “Mijo, if you do whatever you have to do, you can become whatever you want. It’s not gonna be easy, but you can. It’s about seeing what people like and becoming that. You want to be rich, hang out with rich people. You want to be smart, hang out with smart people. You want to be funny, hang out with funny people… Fake it till you make it papi. You gotta play the part mijo, play the part…”
"Play the part," and just like that, all those mornings I spent watching my pops get meticulously ready, fresh shave, cologne, blow-drying his hair for that perfect coif, and putting a sharpie to any stray grays that might pop up on his goatee started to make sense. My pops was metro-sexual before that was even a thing, my pops took longer to get ready than me, my mother, and my sister combined.
“Mijo, you take the life you want and you make the life you want.”
My pops was the superintendent of a 164 unit building in Queens, New York. He knew everyone and everyone knew him, a version of him, the exact version he wanted them to know. He had as many characters as keys. I watched him chat, mimic, and play with everybody. One key at a time. The Russians, the Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans, the Jews, his white bosses, his Brown and Black brothers and friends, the hood rats, the young kids, the old kids, the senile, the clientele, the doctors.
I noticed early on how many different people my father could become. Sometimes it was a handshake, sometimes it was a head nod, sometimes his voice went low and sometimes it went high. Often it was him laughing at really bad jokes, sometimes it was a wider smile than I ever saw or got. He spoke Russian—“Do svidaniya, kak dela?” He spoke street—“Yo, get off my property!” He spoke Spanish—“Oye, Flaco, como estas?” And of course white—“Yes sir, yes m'am.”
I thought my pops was the coolest and flyest person I knew. I was 4 foot 10 going into 10th grade. I was not the coolest or flyest. I was not my father or the trendy kids at the park or anyone popular who I wished I could be.
But I still didn’t really understand why my cool as hell, Dominican Samuel L. Jackson (the Pulp Fiction one), mad wisdom, roller skating, DJ-ing Central Park parties kind of cool pops needed to be anything other than what he was. Why he needed to shape-shift and fit into so many different boxes. I would call him out on it, “Pops, why you gotta act so different with everybody?”
Every time, he’d say, “Hey, that’s not true, mind your business, leave me alone.”
It was true…Maybe, he didn’t even know.
Maybe his IV was so deeply attached to him, he forgot it was there, his many masks and personas becoming one with his blood.
When I told my father I wanted to play pretend for a living, that I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to go to Hollywood, he said, “It’s gonna be tough, but do it. Look the part. Pretend. Fake it till you make it, right?”
I wasn’t surprised. That game in the park was one of many games and lessons designed to teach me how to pretend, which for my father meant how to fit in.
While shining his shoes, my pops would utter proclamations like, “It’s all about how you enter a room, because people are always watching. Always. So enter with your head high and shoes that shine mijo. If you can’t afford much, get a great pair of shoes, and some shoe horns, always shoe horns.”
It didn’t matter that I didn’t look the part, I was gonna make my father proud, he was all I knew of turning nothing into something; and each and every one of us wants to be something. I wanted to show him I could do it too. I could play the game of pretend, I could build a life of fitting in and being like “them.” By any means necessary.
To accomplish this, I did exactly what my pops said, I sat and I watched. I would become what I wanted no matter what.
The great lecture hall where it all went down was the NYC Subway. For four years during high school my hour subway rides were my symposium. The tunnels and cramped cars were a master class on how to be something else. The focus I failed to bring into my schooling and classrooms was only because I was saving it for my real studies: watch the light skin ones who seemed to have it all figured out. I knew I had the power to make myself and remake myself over and over again. I walked the subways like I was about to be asked for a dissertation on what every Upper East Side and Wall Street yuppie who seemed to have cash and clout did, wore, and smelled like. I sat across from these chosen ones on the train, I mimicked their posture, I blinked when they blinked, I became a mirror. I was in tune with the rise and fall of each one of their exhales and exclamations.
I became this master chameleon, composing myself out of pieces of everyone else. Their ability to maneuver the world and have and take and have easily was the goal. I watched how the boys held the girls. I watched how the girls held the boys. When they whispered a joke in an ear that caused a laugh, I would whisper and laugh. If some dude is successfully mackin’ it to some girl, I could take the essence of that. If some guy laughed in a cool way, I could take the essence of that. Walk like him, smile like that.
At night I would replay these moments over and over. I was crafting a playbook. Plays and scenes that I would whip out in different scenarios, I would practice them so that when I had the last shot with seven seconds on the clock, and I was down three, I could whip this play out and execute it to perfection.
I was always watching, always adapting, always wanting and working to be something other than myself. I was an everything-man and a nothing all at the same time. I went to school in the Upper East Side and was chilling. I hung out with my best friend in the Bronx and was chillin’. I lived among wealthy Jews and went to at least 37 bar mitzvahs by the time I was 13, and it was all good. I went to so many mitzvahs, that when I turned 13, the Jewish after-school program I attended decided, “Chris needs one of these too!”—so, they threw me a Bar Mitzvah in the park: Grape juice, Manischewitz, challah, “Baruch atah Adoshem”—the whole nine yards.
The party, backyard, neighborhood, hood, school, social setting became my battlefield and language was my weapon. So my tongue was and is always sharp and ready. My tongue can wear many a disguise and mask. My tongue pleases and greets many a body, a gender, a sex, and a color. My tongue is my strongest weapon.
I had (still have) a wide repertoire of basic complements, head nods and all the tongues needed, not languages, but tongues. I learned to speak multiple tongues, like—“What’s poppin! / Oye Guapo! / Hey shorty! / Hello, how are you? / HOOTIE HOO!”
And yet, even after the Bar Mitzvah and all the pretending, I still never felt like a somebody. I never felt comfortable in my body. I never felt comfortable. I never felt home, I never felt like I found it.
I still rarely saw people who resembled me in the mainstream. None of the pretending stopped me from being followed in stores, it didn’t stop the Colombian drug dealer jokes, it didn’t stop my Dominican hair from curling (even after putting shaving cream in it, which was supposed to keep it straight—it didn’t). It didn’t stop my nose from widening, and it didn’t change the fact that my heroes and the spaces I was told to strive for were (and still are) primarily white.
Even though this inability to live in my own skin was still growing, I couldn’t pretend my way out of it.
Is that why the first time I landed in Colombia as an adult, a peace washed over me? All of a sudden I was resting, no longer pretending. Resting in my blood, resting in my skin, resting. I wasn’t Brown, I wasn’t special or exotic, I was me; and that me could rest. I thought, when I go home, I’m going to grab a white person and say, “I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin here, in this place. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”
Everybody tells me, tells their children, and tells the youth to, “Grow up and be somebody. Get the best, go out and get it.”
Get it. As if it is given to you. To who? To me? No. That advice is built for a very specific subset of society. The part of society that sees themselves in the world, in culture and in media actually being somebody, actually “getting it.” My education on the other hand is not one of inherent value.
It’s one of erasure and removal.
The best advice my pops could give me was to try and be like them, “Fake it till you make it, mijo. Pretend. Put yourself there until it comes true. Do whatever you have to do until it works.” Basically he’s saying, dress nice, speak white, fit in, don’t be viewed as threat, and everything will be alright; but I’m not so sure that’s true.
There is no road map for the Brown body that wants to be something. There are only ways to pretend to be something, somebody else. And so here I am, many years later, still pretending. Even when it hurts, and it does hurt—like the cold and burning sensation people feel as glutathione, a whitening fluid flows through their veins.
You know, there exists a medical term for people exposed to stresses stemming from social inequality, discrimination, and racism—John Henryism. It’s where a person tries and tries and tries to death in order to be seen, in order to be enough, in order to not be forgotten. When does the fake part end, and the make it part begin? What are the consequences and how long can I do this for? Most importantly, what is the cost of pretending for men and women of color, the bodies of culture, who believe they should be something other than who they are?
Sherman James, the researcher who came up with this term, tells us that the physiological costs are high. I have no doubt.
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