Question: You grew up in a family not only defined along racial lines, a white father who is Jewish and a mother who is black, but also torn by divorce. Did you feel isolated from either side?
Walker: I was born in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. My dad had come from Brooklyn and my mom had come from Georgia. I was 8 years old [when they divorced]. They moved back into very segregated — not formally segregated but culturally segregated — parts of the country. In San Francisco, or when I was in a primarily black community, it wasn’t safe for me to talk about being half-white or Jewish. The same was true in Westchester [County, New York,] on the East Coast. My skin color identified me as somebody who wasn’t all white but I didn’t talk about it too much.
Q: Did that confuse you?
A: It was very complex. I had to go into a community or into a new school and assess how people were behaving, things they like to buy, words they used to describe things and their cultural activities. I felt I had to be constantly shifting to fit in and to be safe and accepted. That was very confusing.
Q: How did you feel about it?
A: It was awful when I was going through it. I’d enter into a new situation and I had no idea what was expected. That was very stressful. I ended up going to a new school almost every year. In all these schools, it wasn’t just racial differences; there were issues of class, religion, political persuasion. The leaps were huge.
Q: At what point in your life did you become aware that race was a factor in how people related to you?
A: The first moment was in fourth grade when I liked a boy and he told me he didn’t like black girls, and all the sudden I went into this panic. I had no idea. Is that what I am? All the sudden I realized people were seeing me in a way that I didn’t see myself.
Q: You have said that as you grew up people experienced you as “black or mixed or of color or Puerto Rican, Mexican, Egyptian, Indonesian, or Greek, but... I identified with everyone.” How have you “identified with everyone?”
A: It’s like I speak 10 languages. I can go to just about any community in America and feel I have some connection, be it conservative, Republican, blue blood, WASP, because I went to school or have friends from that world, or into a commune — quinoa-eating, anti-GMO [genetically modified organism] — or an inner-city black, Samoan, Dominican, Mexican, Laotian community. I spent a lot of time in a Muslim community in Kenya. In Mexico, I gained an understanding of intense Catholicism. I can usually find a way to communicate in a heartfelt way that lets people know I know and respect where they come from.
Q: Does that mean you can change your identity?
A: As I grew up I realized that racial and cultural identity are in some ways chosen, and that you can decide to participate in the script as it is given, or you can decide to create your own authentic script. I think people who don’t have the experience of having to adapt often don’t understand that you can rewrite it.
Q: You have said that “there has yet to be a way of breaking through the need to racially identify.” Do you see any signs of our society or parts of it breaking through?
A: I absolutely do. I’m shocked when I go to college campuses. When I was [at Yale], we would go into the dining hall and there were all these oil paintings of past presidents — all of whom were white. We had a critique of it, always aware of the racial struggle. [Recently,] I sat down at a table of all black students and asked “What is this like for you”? They said “Oh, we don’t think about it. We don’t talk about it. It’s not that big a deal.” That was just shocking to me.
I was interested in how they talked about race, but didn’t come from a place of grievance. These are the more privileged kids obviously but they don’t feel race is a deterrent they need to be angry about.
Q: Is that good or bad?
A: I think it’s good and bad. It’s what we want, but we don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that it’s not over. It’s very disheartening to hear people say “Oh, it’s just over; race is over; it’s a post-race world.” There are very real racial divides in terms of who has access to resources and real power. Culturally, we can’t lose sight of what’s happening beneath the surface.
Q: Should young people keep their cultural heritage in mind, how their forbearers struggled, or should they just let all that go?
A: I think both. I come from two groups that have been deeply identified with their historical struggles — slavery on the one hand and the Holocaust on the other. I feel people should honor and celebrate their past to the extent that it gives them positive self-esteem and something rich to draw from, but I don’t think it’s healthy to hold on to it so hard you are unable to experience a different way of being.
On the other hand, there is a problem of kids letting go of something and not having anything real to grab on to other than a problematic popular culture. I think we have to give them something new as they move into the world that is functional in its “Americanness.” We can’t ask them to give up their culture for mass consumerism and massive class stratification.
Q: Do you have a vision for a post-racial society or does it matter to the “success” of our society whether people are identified or choose to identify by race?
A: I think the most important thing for America is to articulate an identity that is self-affirming but not isolative. Issues of race can be used to keep us from the real issues of how resources are allocated, who’s getting educated and who’s not, and how competitive the United States is globally.
So post-race, pre-race, race — I don’t think any of that matters. I don’t want to take anyone’s sense of who they are away from them, but I do want to encourage them to focus on the deeper issues that need to be addressed rather than allowing themselves to get caught up and distracted and jumping on the race train. Divisiveness serves the purpose of disempowering us a nation.
Q: What does it mean to you to be American in a cultural sense?
A: That I have moved a lot and have multiple cultural affinities to me is very American. When I travel I am very aware of how people in different cultures are often mono-culturally identified. I think that as Americans we are encouraged to loosen our hold on our cultural identities to the extent necessary for the common good. That’s a good thing we need to see more of globally. So I feel very fortunate in that way, and a lot of others, too. I love being American. Could we do better? Yes. Could we do worse? Yes. Do we strive everyday to fulfill the promise of this country? Yes, I think most of us really do. And that spirit, the same spirit that elected President Barack Obama, makes me very proud.
Africa News Report