Identity / by Cameron Jarvis

I just finished reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates this week. Its an incredible book that I am already planning to read again. It made me wonder how much of the thoughts in the book, and especially the artful descriptions of America's warped relationship to race resonate with me because of my race and my natural sympathy for certain social causes. I believe that what Coates writes is objectively true, but are they truths that resonate with people who don't think about racism often? 

I have spent time in the past few months thinking about my identity and what it means in relation to my work, Black Lives Matter, living in America, and daily life. These are just a few inconclusive notes on what I have to consider when thinking about myself.

  • My skin is brown.
  • I grew up in a largely white suburb of the Twin Cities.
  • Most of my friends growing up where white.
  • My parents emigrated to the United States from the Caribbean island of Antigua shortly before I was born.
  • I haven't had to think deeply about race until fairly recently.
  • I was taught at home by my mom.
  • I've chosen to express myself through oil painting, historically a bastion of the old white man.
  • I dress in a style that would be described as "hipster" and is very different from the stereotypical image that comes to mind when you think "thug" or even "young black man".
  • My ancestors where most likely slaves, but did not help to build this country as they where brought to the Caribbean.
  • I feel a strong responsibility to make work related to race to make this country a better place for those who, unlike me, feel the societally imposed disadvantages of their race on a daily basis.
  •  I really want to reject this perceived responsibility. I don't want to be pigeonholed into being a  political artist just because of the color of my skin. Why can't I just be a black artist who gains success for painting really nice flowers or something equally vapid?
  • I studied at a private liberal arts school, and was not involved in any black student organizations (to be clear I shirked almost all student organizations. I was too busy painting and practicing.)
  • I catch myself defaulting to whiteness when thinking about a generic person or group of people because of the environments in which I spend my time.

I consider myself an outsider in many ways, but not necessarily an uncomfortable or complaining way. Just in the way that every human is not defined by their skin and labels are inherently flawed. Having brown skin immediately marks me as other in a fundamental way in this country, but a way that isn't always acknowledged. Then my mannerisms may preclude the assumptions that some people jump to. Being of direct Caribbean decent means that I am not African-American in the sense that I don't have the generational history and culture of living as a black person in the United States. Living in the suburbs and being homeschooled precluded my gaining knowledge about and assuming some of the culture and ways of being that I most likely would have as a person of color in a multicultural public school setting.

All this means that I'm coming to a lot of these issues of race and justice from a very sterile environment, and have to learn to be angry about a lot of these injustices which frankly, have been going on and intentionally evolving since the founding of this country. At the same time there is some sort of anger already there, even though it hasn't been put there by first hand experiences of injustice. I do know that my identity is not up to me in many encounters and first impressions, and I won't always get to choose my role asa person of color in this nation. This makes me worried and extra careful as I move through life.


I would love for you to share how you think about your identity, and whether it matches what people see when they look at you.