Told as if talking to her reflection in a hostel mirror somewhere across the globe, Yasmine Colijn's narrator darts through key moments of a history speckled with questions of identity. Self-conscious, honest, with peaks and valleys of confidence and uncertainty, race and sexuality are addressed in this monologue that wanders all around the world, through the warm sunshine of love, to the cavernous ignorance of malice, and most often, that grey tundra in between.
The words stung, leaving your cheeks flush, but not red enough to rise above your ethnically ambiguous complexion. You wondered if things were ever really going to change.
You wonder why when you read Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man you briefly wanted to embrace your vaguely Jewish heritage. You worried that if you brought this up with your mother, her Dutch Reformed Protestantism would rise to her usually frazzled surface and stoically insist that Judaism was no longer part of your family. Part of you understands this when looking into your grandmother’s eyes when she touches on what growing up during occupied Netherlands during WWII translated to in her daily life. Yet a larger part of you knows that your family has gone full-goy ever since your aunt married a Muslim Egyptian man twice her age. You know that some stones are better left unturned, especially when your Egyptian uncle uses everything within reach as a tool to strike his guilt into your aunt’s now veiled face.
You read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and cry. You watch The Great Debaters and cry. Then again, you also watch Grey’s Anatomy and cry. Before they can roll past the equator of your cheek, marked by 3 small freckles, you wipe away your tears, desperately hoping that they have gone unnoticed. Are you allowed to feel pain that you are not allowed to share in?
You write essays. You write songs, all the while certain that whenever you touch upon racial politics even a blind audience would see through you. They will point their fingers and laugh, mocking your supposed oppression by the white-capitalist-patriarchy. Knowing that you wouldn’t know discrimination if it lifted you up and deposited you at the back of the bus.
Obama is elected president, and Jesse Jackson questions his “blackness”. In the same beat you are forced to examine your own. Your Dutch Reformed Protestant background makes its way to the front, actively suppressing any outward processing of your inner turmoil. Instead of talking about anything, you work race into that neutral ground of academic writing. For a class titled “Violence and Political Order”, run by an enigmatic think-outside-of-the-box professor, you address the battle within as part of a governmental power-play to divide and conquer. You call the paper “Every Shade of Grey: Multi-Raciality and the Semantics of the In-Betweens”. It receives the highest grade on your MSc. transcript and allows your fears to breathe.
You find comfort in the grey. In a world which has been split into black and white ever since that little Bosnian boy shouted the only English word he knew to describe you, when you were 15. Nigger. It rang in your ears, sending waves through the perfectly white world which up until then had previously been your own. As you type that hateful word, you wonder why no little red line appears below it, indicating the wrongness which you know if to disperse.
So much of your life is built on worrying. Worrying that you are not black enough. Not white enough. Not intelligent enough. Not funny enough. Not gay enough. Not feminist enough. Simply not good enough.
You love school because it teaches you, guides you through opinions you previously didn’t know how to have. You love your friends because they challenge you playfully, never causing you to feel shame for any ignorance on your part, or any opinions foreign to their own. You are terrified of black people. Real black people. You regularly ask yourself if it’s possible to be racist against something that’s part of who you are. You comfort yourself with the belief that this is about as ludicrous as being homophobic while marching down European streets as part of LGBT pride parades. Every time you draw this comparison, you worry that you might be both racist and homophobic, hating so much of what you are.
Someone cracks a joke about the difference between religions. Your punch-line is that Protestantism teaches you that you won’t get into heaven, because you didn’t work hard enough. Failure is the most common of sins. You don’t believe in God, but fear that the sentiments might be mutual.
You move to Africa, hoping cultural immersion will bring out the black in you. That somehow being geographically closer to your roots will help you find that ever elusive sense of home.
You meet your first bonafide black friend. Everything about her unnerves you. She is loud, large, intelligent and confident. She tells you to embrace the 50% of your genetic pool that is 100% African. She insists you identify as an African woman. She might as well be asking you to identify as Asian.
Every second around her is a minefield of faux-pas.
The only place where you can hide from her is in the safety of your queerness, which her racial referee has no right to judge. You speak eloquently on topics of butch/femme dynamics, stereotyping, bi-phobia and anything else you happen to have read about online. She can’t judge you, or point out the flaws in your arguments because can’t speak for your queer experience. Just as you are afraid of her blackness, you avoid other lesbians. Most of all you avoid lesbian feminists. So certain of their convictions, your sometimes wavering opinions make you a prime target for a take-down.
You date a feminist. She is not a lesbian, preferring the label post-heterosexual, or more so no label at all. You disagree on what the face of modern feminism is or should be. You disagree on the relevance of political-correctness. You disagree on the importance of coming out. Neither of you ever wins the debate, but more than losing them you lose her.
You sit in a café, reading the lives of passersby more than the pages of your book. For a moment, you attempt to read yourself through their eyes. Not black enough. Not white enough. Not straight enough. Not gay enough. Not anything enough.
For the first time you embrace your failure to meet their expectations. You are the blank page upon which society attempts to draw its pre-conceived notions of identity and personhood. For the first time, it doesn’t matter. For the first time, you stop worrying.
By Yasmine Colijn
In her own words:
Born 22 years ago in fair the Netherlands, Yasmine Colijn calls nowhere and everywhere home. Hopping between Africa, Asia, and Europe, now with an MSc. in International Politics in her pocket, she continues to chase opportunities and adventures in whatever shape they may take.