A Reading and Discussion of Leesa Cross-Smith’s essay “What Are You?”
(AQR Vol. 34, 3&4)

Event participants (top left to right): AQR Editor-in-Chief Ronald Spatz, Anchorage actress Vivian Kinnaird-Melde (Bottom left to right) Panelist Rayette Sterling, Alaska Humanities Forum; Panelist Shirley Mae Springer Staten, Keys to Life; Moderator Löki Tobin, Anchorage Museum; Panelist Julie Varee, Anchorage Museum; Panelist Kristin Hall, Alaska Public Media.

Lessa Cross Smith, author of “What are You”.

Listen to a Reading of “What Are You?”

Read by Vivian Kinneard Melde

“What Are You?” Panel Discussion

On April 6, 2018 at the Writer’s Block Bookstore, Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR) presented a reading of Leesa Cross-Smith’s personal essay “What Are You” (AQR Vol. 34 No. 3-4 Winter & Spring 2018) by Anchorage actress Vivian Kinnaird-Melde. The reading was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Löki Gale Tobin (Anchorage Museum) with panelists Kristin Hall (Alaska Public Media), Shirley Mae Staten (Keys to Life), Rayette Sterling (Alaska Humanities Forum), and Julie Varee (Anchorage Museum). The discussion that follows was edited for length.


Löki Gale Tobin: Although I don’t want to talk about racism, that’s what we’re up here to do. So, what are your first impressions of the essay?

Shirley Mae Springer: I was reading the essay, I was thinking how relatable it was to me. Then I put it away and I read it a second time and I began to write notes, and then I read it a third time, and a fourth time to really embody the material. It’s hard to say what you think about such a tender place for me as an African American woman.

Rayette Sterling: I did the same thing. I read it, I put it down, I read it again, and then I kept coming back to that what are you phrase. My family is multiracial, so my brothers and sisters are all– we have a cornucopia of skin tone, hair textures, and that really resonated with me because that’s something that we were asked a lot as kids. So, what are you, you look like you’re something– yes, I’m human. Especially at the end there’s that call, that what are you, how do you stand in this? That was really impactful and empowering because some of us have had to think about who we are for our entire lives, and another folks walk in the world never having to answer or address that question. I appreciated that specific call-out, tell me who you are because it matters.

Kristin Hall: The first time I read the essay was after I was asked to be on the panel, so I approached reading it thinking, am I to be qualified to speak on the subject matter? After I read the essay I didn’t really have an answer to that question. My reaction was no, I don’t want to speak on the panel because overshadowing those feelings was the thought and the worry: Am I black enough to speak on this panel? Because I am no stranger to questions like: are you black black? Is that your real hair? We live in a world where we have people think that you’re inherently something because you’re black or you’re black black or they’re white or you’re a man, you’re a woman. Even though these misconceptions aren’t true we still adhere to those misconceptions. That’s how we make decisions. So, I was a little nervous after reading the essay and having that reaction. But even though we don’t want to make decisions and find ourselves or explain ourselves through racism, or talking about racism, it’s kind of hard not to.

Julie Varee: The first thing that struck me about the essay was about what adults inflict upon children. The stories really resonated with me from when I was younger; it was painful to read those stories. But as hard as it was to read about other children saying things to her and being cruel to her, it really struck me how the adults talked to her, and as adults we model things that are not so good about bias and racism. The other thing that struck me was the sexism– how there are some of us who move through the world having to confront both those things all the time. It made it really difficult to read the stories.

Löki Gale Tobin: In the essay there is the line that says, “it’s not my job to make white men feel better.” It’s not my job to make white people feel better about this country’s history.  It’s hard because I feel like since November (2016) it’s kind of been my job to make progressive white people feel better.  Is that our job? Is it our responsibility to make people feel better to answer these questions that they have about race, to answer questions about being other, and what the experience is like now? Or is there something else that we should be doing? Should we be handing them this essay, or the collected works of Roxane Gay, and just call it good?

Kristen Hall: No, I don’t think it’s the responsibility to educate the majority because it’s exhausting. When someone assumes that I am mixed race it’s easier not to than to have a conversation about black people being all different shades. If I took the time to educate every single time I had the opportunity, it’d be exhausting.

Julie Varee: I do think it depends. We all have a certain level of responsibility to educate each other and so it depends on the situation. I was thinking about how that level of trust with people has a lot to do with what your answer is going to be. I have a friend here tonight. We were talking about a movie we had watched, and she said, in my hometown there were no people of color. When she said that I thought, I have to remember that sometimes when I’m talking to people– In terms of sharing stories so that people learn something, sometimes I do feel responsibility.

Rayette Sterling: That’s an interesting question and my response is no, I don’t. I sometimes don’t care if you feel better.  Why should you feel better? What I care about is, are we making an honest human connection, and do you see me as a full human being? If we can get to that point, then we can talk about education and what my lived experience was. But no, I don’t have a responsibility to make you feel better.

Löki Gale Tobin: I’m going to read a quote here that gets to the heart of some of this. Steve Bannon said, “the longer we talk about identity politics, I want ‘them’, [meaning Democrats and progressives], to talk about racism every day – if the left is focused on race and identity, then we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Is he right?  I send my friends, about once a week #Black Facts, and it’s either about Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, or the anniversary of his death, but is this helping? Is this keeping the conversation going? Is this a good thing to do? In the essay Leesa Cross-Smith talks about how she’s tired and she’s angry and she’s sometimes weak, and she doesn’t need to always be the strong black woman. I wonder, is that detracting from the conversation? Is that adding to it? Is it right to talk about these things or is it something that you don’t just ignore if we focus on it all the time, does that mean we’re not focusing on other things?

Rayette Sterling: I want to focus on the things that unite us as people, as Americans, as Alaskans – the commonalities – and not the things that divide us.

Shirley Mae Staten: I have lived with racism for almost 72 years, and sometimes I think that we should talk about the commonalities in who we are. I also think it is imperative that we talk about race because it is institutional, and it is like breathing.  It is always there, whether I want to acknowledge it or not. And most times I do not, because it takes a lot of energy, but that does not mean that the conversation should not happen. What I have noticed in this political climate, is that we don’t want to even say the word racism when we know that behaviors are racist. We skirt around the conversation because we don’t want to make a politician feel bad, but if we don’t talk about it, it is continuously the elephant in the room. And it’s not necessarily the responsibility of I, as an African American woman, to talk about it. I just got burned out because it is the responsibility of white folks to talk about racism, not all the time my black face showing up.

Julie Varee: Did anyone read Roxanne Gay’s New York Times review of the reboot of Roseanne? She said it was brilliant and funny, but she was never going to watch it again.  She said, and this has really stayed with me, that what bothered her more than anything was this assumption that ‘real Americans’ are working-class Americans – meaning white Americans – and that there aren’t people of color who are working class or who are real Americans. You know there’s an assumption that if you are not conservative that you don’t care about economics, or that you can’t care about both things. It’s a problem when we decide that because of someone’s political affiliation, or their race, that they’re not also concerned about economics and race.

Kristen Hall: I think a lot of the issues that we see with racism are rooted in economic interest. Although I don’t want to publicly admit that I agree with Steve Bannon, I think he’s making a valid point, that racism and identity are really polarizing.

Löki Gale Tobin: I don’t like it when people try to speak for me, and I don’t like it when people ask me to speak for all black women or all millennial women. But every time I read Leesa Cross-Smith’s essay, I do have to wonder, what do white men think? What do white women think when they read this? What do other people of color think when they read this essay?

Shirley Mae Staten: I was curious on, why this essay? What would white men get out of this essay?  I know when I read the essay, that the question was kind of lurking, and that is how would it look different if this panel was all white people? How would the conversation be different if it was all white men talking about the subject? Because as white, you don’t have to think about being white, ever. Yet people of color are constantly navigating that territory all the time, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. I remember one time I took a group of women to Africa. It was my first trip to Africa, and it was 37 women and probably 10 women of color in the group, and I kept hearing these white women say, we need to go to the Hilton because we need to get our ‘centers’ back. I didn’t understand why they needed to go to the Hilton to get their ‘center’ back. Well, I went to the Hilton, and it was all white. This is about how do you think about your whiteness in the world? I’m working on this project interviewing kids of color, and I was telling some friends about, saying we need to get immigrant kids and kids of color, so that we can get their voices. And the person said to me, what about white kids, and I said, your stories are already there. We have been reading your stories for years. We are capturing the stories for the voices that are often not heard. I said it to another person, and they said, what about white people? As if there is going to an omission there.

Rayette Sterling: It is very perplexing, and I still think about the stories that each of us carry within us. The thing that strikes me is that there’s a line in the essay where she says she was invisible, yet she had people who was looking at her but not seeing her, because she was invisible. That’s what happens when you live in a world where there it that default for what people are like, what stories are like, what children really are like. People question you because, why don’t fit in this story? The reality is there are multiple stories. There are stories of white children who grew up in poverty that don’t look like those stories in the books, and they never see themselves. There are stories of transgender kids who don’t see themselves. There are all these stories, but we allow ourselves to accept the default. That is the thing I struggle with. Why do we have to accept that default and why can’t we embrace all that richness and make sure that it shows up in the tales we tell ourselves?

Julie Varee: One of my first few days on campus at Indiana University, this is in 1976, I remember taking a tour and we got to this part of campus, and the tour guide said, and that’s the African American Cultural Center, and this other guy on the tour, a parent, said, where’s the white culture center? The tour guy said, your kids enrolled in it. When you’re born with privilege, and you’re born with that default, it is so shocking to be told something different.

Löki Gale Tobin: We purposely didn’t introduce anyone on this panel other than name and workplace, which is not who you are. So, what are you?

Kristen Hall: I will say I really hate this question just because I don’t think I’ve ever been asked for the right reasons.  I’ve never been asked this question with the thought, what are you as a person, what are your attributes, your characteristics? I’ve been asked this question many times and it has always been to be able to put me in a box for that person. I will say that I find that question hard to answer any time anytime it’s asked of me. I’m a woman, I am a Chicagoan, I’m a lifelong learner.  I know that’s not the answer they’re looking for and as a Midwestern woman I don’t want to disappoint.

Julie Varee:  I think it’s circumstance and who is asking and how much you can tell what the reason is and the trust level. There’s circumstances where it’s kind of unbelievable that someone asks that question because you don’t know them. We’re all so many things, so to ask, what are you, it’s just kind of a bizarre question. I will say when I was growing up there were many times when I would surrender this information in the beginning because I would be in a group of people and I was not in a place where I could hear a racist joke, or I knew I wasn’t going to respond well to it.  There’s that fatigue thing again.  I have told a story or done something that lets a person know I am a black person. I would just interject and say, as a black woman…. I think it depends on the situation where you want to talk about that question or how receptive you are to that question.

Rayette Sterling:  I agree with both of you, and I will say that no one is entitled to know that, no one has a right to my story. It is for me, and who I choose to share it with. I say, you know as a black woman who grew up as a daughter of a farm worker— it is better to stop people before they put their foot in their mouth. Sometimes it’s also that shock value. I have worked in Universities, I’ve got a master’s degree, and when you say that they’re like, oh. So yes, it does depend, and no one is entitled to know your story.

Shirley Mae Staten: Obviously nobody ever asks me, what are you, because I show up in this black skin, kinky hair, big lips, and I don’t fit any stereotype of whatever beauty is supposed to look like. So that question I have never had. But I can define who I am. I am a woman. I am African American. I am curious, I am a thinker. I was born in New York, but I was raised in Georgia. I was raised during the time that communities were divided by a railroad track, and I was on the other side of the railroad track. That was a defining entity in terms of who I am. I saw those very clear lines in my community, and I worked across the divide. I am many things, and I have the privilege of defining and redefining that all the time.

Löki Gale Tobin:  I’m going to answer this personal question because I don’t think I’ve ever answered it. I had a lot of people ask me this question. I was born and raised in rural Alaska, to a black woman and a white man, and the minute I came out of my mother the first thing they said was, oh she looks like us, and I’ve been assumed to be an Alaskan Native ever since. There was a point in my career where someone outed me as not Alaska Native and I remember being so angry because, what right did they have to tell other people who I am? Who I am, being the daughter of black woman, meant there are many different things that define my ethnicity. One is the fact that I am American Indian. That was not allowed to be talked about, because that wasn’t something that was ever brought up– we don’t mix races in the black culture. When my parents got married mixed races wasn’t something anybody was allowed to talk about, so my parents picked up from New York and moved to Nome, Alaska to have their choice. I grew up with one black person and that was my example; this smart, well-educated, beautiful woman, and that’s what I thought black people were. One of the lines in the essay that I have not been able to not think about, is that I married a white man. I think about all the things that my family has called me in love, but they still call me Halfrican, an Oreo, and they make comments about the man that I married, thinking it’s funny that they’re relating to me. Because my mother did it, so clearly, I was going to do it.  It’s all those things that you just put back in a little box and you hide away and you think nobody knows, and then someone sends you an essay you have to read, and then talk on a stage about. My last question is, what’s next, where do we go from here?

Shirley Mae Staten:  Well I answered that question already: we will have a panel of white men.

Julie Varee: And a whole black audience!

Shirley Mae Staten:  I like that idea, that’s really a good idea! Because when I show up in my blackness, talking about racism, it’s like, they’re talking about it again. I really don’t want to talk about it, because I’m tired of talking about racism, I live with it every day, and in addition you want me to explain it? That’s asking a lot of people of color.

Rayette Sterling: I think that the answer to that question is why I do the work I do. It’s important to me to get people to have authentic conversations. It’s about who you are as a person with all those facets. When you can get people in a room really listening, there’s magic there and that’s where there are real solutions to our bigger problems lie.

Julie Varee: I think people who really care about their own experiences, and the experiences of others, have always been there talking about things that matter. I feel fortunate to be part of the nonprofit community, to be at the Anchorage Museum. I feel fortunate to have the friends I have, so that those conversations are happening all the time. We’re talking about this in authentic ways and I think that’s what has to happen. We have to put ourselves in situations where we can have those conversations and encourage others to think about these things that are so important for the future. The part in the essay about her experiences as a child just hit me so hard, because I thought, if this is going to be any better we have to keep doing this, we have to keep having these conversations, and making sure that we’re thinking about how this impacts children and our community. All children are our children. What kind of lives do we want them to have, and how do we want them to be able to not go to that default.

Kristin Hall: I think a big part of that is making sure that our education system is teaching facts. NPR had great coverage on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s death, and they were interviewing a boy and his mom, and the textbook that he was learning from, printed in 2012, and didn’t have the date that Martin Luther King Jr. died. The boy was talking about how he learned so much more from his mom than he did in school about black history. We have to encourage empathy when we’re educating our kids. Empathy will change the world. I remember as a kid that I got a scholastic magazine and it was talking about George Washington’s birthday, and they were talking about how the slaves made President Washington’s birthday cake, and it was a great day for the slaves. We need to stop telling each other these lies and perpetuating these misconceptions.

Shirley Mae Staten:  People sometimes say, you are preaching to the choir when we talk about these hard things like racism. I have a new antidote for that; the choir learns a new song every week, so they can become better. There is no Nirvana you’ve reached, some pinnacle because you’re liberal, or you are a woman. We are always learning about one another. I, as an African American woman have my prejudices against people for various reasons. When you are open to the possibility that this is difficult, and I may have to look at my own self, then you are evolving. It is a continuous conversation about who we are as people occupying this planet.

Löki Gale Tobin: I would like to have as a next step, to encourage everyone in this audience to listen to NPR’s Code-Switch, which I probably shouldn’t be plugging a public media program, but it is a great place to start. I also encourage you to send “What Are You?” out to your friends, and to your family, to people who you don’t know what their political stance is– they should read this. Everyone should, and, all the works by Roxane Gay . Thank you all for coming and thank you, panelists, all for agreeing when I asked for taking on such a stressful task.