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Home | Episode #65
Race, Place, and Me
October 15, 2020 | Student Producer:

Amulya Maddali
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Race, Place, and Me
Angela Nurse finds a sense of belonging through fashion and style in different communities. (6 minutes)
Angela Nurse

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Until the age of 12, I lived in Middleton, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. A very white, very upper middle class suburb. My white mom and black dad were an anomaly. Well, mostly my dad, myself and my sister-our blackness was profound. For example, in our elementary school, my sister and I were the only black children. The only racial, ethnic diversity consisted of us and what everyone called the Jewish girl. In that space, though I had a white mom and regularly identified as mixed, when I went out into the world as is dedicated or dictated by the one drop rule, there was no recognition by my white peers or anyone of my adjacent whiteness. My mixed identity was personal, not social and only recognized by my immediate family. Of course I tried. I mean, shit,I wanted to fit in as one does at seven and beyond for that matter.


I remember I used to scrape my very kinky, curly hair off my face and slick it down with water and hairspray into a low ponytail. Hair, of course, being an important marker of race. I thought that if I could hide it away, I might be closer to whiteness. It really wasn't working. I still had a very large curly Afro puff in the back. So in the fourth grade I cut off the ponytail, the whole thing. My thinking was the straight part would remain and voila, instant whiteness. Or, at least, a little bit of whiteness. That clearly didn't work either. As soon as I washed the hairspray out, my curls sprang, back to life. I was getting depressed. All of my attempts to embody aesthetic whiteness, this white ideal of femininity, weren't working- my Guess jeans, my Levi's jeans, my Vera Valley girl accent.


My white Keds sneakers, the haircut, my study of Saved by the Bell's, Kelly Kapowski and 90210's Kelly Taylor. I was still feeling dejected and rejected. My parents noticed and decided to move us to a more diverse city, Ann Arbour, Michigan. It was the first time in my life I was interacting with people my age, not my family, who were black. This was amazing to me. I can't tell you how happy it made me and how in awe I was. I had just never seen so many black people, mixed people, brown-skinned people, black people with freckles, with red hair, with black hair, blonde hair, tall, short, so many different types of black people. What I came to understand is how multifaceted blackness is. Back in Wisconsin, by default, my family defined blackness. I was the only reference they had. And my family was in many ways my only reference. I didn't know there so many ways to be black and that how I presented myself indicated maybe values or solidarity. I learned quickly that I projected the desire to be white. That had been so much a part of my Wisconsin life. In my mind, in the new context represented, I went through a fundamental shift in possibilities. Whiteness was no longer the goal. Now I knew there were other possibilities, but my self presentation didn't communicate that. How I talked, how I dress. All those efforts I made that didn't work in Wisconsin now worked in Michigan, but they were working against me. They communicated to my new black friends and community that I rejected blackness. Where they molded themselves from Aaliyah and TLC, I was focused still on Kelly Kapowski and Kelly Taylor. Where I was wearing Keds and Levi's, they had started starter jackets and Nike. Everything- my clothing, my hair, the way that I talked- communicated so much about where I came from, who I was. I was shocked how clothing could reveal information about who we are, even parts of us we'd rather forget, or parts of us that we no longer are. I adapted. I learned how to use the codes in my new black community community to demonstrate my appreciation for blackness and my solidarity with the black community around me. By 13, I realigned my bodily presentation toward a black aesthetic and found the acceptance I never had in Wisconsin. Listening to hip hop, dressing like Destiny's child, or at least trying to, getting my hair done finally, by a black person. As I grew older, my desire for acceptance shifted, as did the function of my clothing. My friendships and relationships with black folks disabused me of the notion that if I didn't dress right, I wouldn't belong in black communities. I had been a victim of white supremacy where I believed that my self presentation of race was central to who I was. It took me even longer to realize the amazing diversity of blackness went beyond even what I saw in Ann Arbor. And that there are hundreds and thousands of versions of blackness. Combinations of blurts, black punk, skateboarders, black vegans, engineers, stockbrokers. And now as I study the intersection of race and fashion, and I explore how clothing can be used to galvanize, make political statements, signal cultural belonging, what still excites me is that even though clothing can have a profound impact in our social interactions, we can always change our style and our outfit as I have done. And as I continue to do.