Thursday, May 21, 2015

Interviews with Friends: Audrey Jean-Jacques

I always enjoy in-depth celebrity interviews -- the one's where you just get to dive into their life and thoughts on all sorts of random subjects. But that got me thinking how I'd love to see one of those done with one of my friends. I have interesting friends! And I'd love to get the full backgrounder on their life stories and their opinions on the issues that move them. Thus was born what I hope will be a regular feature: "Interviews with Friends." It's just what it sounds like: I interview a friend of mine, then post the results on the blog.

Audrey Jean-Jacques and I met at Carleton, where she and I shared a major of Political Science and the status of east coast transplant. Audrey often self-describes herself as a gangly nerd in braces which is bizarre to anyone who knew her at Carleton, where she stood out as exceptionally poised and glamorous. She is also a devout Christian—an identity she grew into while attending Carleton—and a proud Philly native. Audrey returned to the City of Brotherly Love after college, briefly attending law school before switching over into social work, and continues to live and work in the city.

 Me: First, let's get the brief biography. I know you're a Philly girl -- were you born there, or when did you move?

Audrey:  I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. Moved to Minnesota for undergrad, and then returned to Philly for the rest of my life (to date, anyway).

Me:  Tell me a bit about your family and your childhood in Philadelphia.

 Audrey:  My dad emigrated from Haiti in his twenties, and my mom emigrated from Peru when she was about 14. They met at work (ooooh, scandalous), got married, and along came a daughter. My dad insisted that I be named after Audrey Hepburn; my mom was a fan as well. I was the only biracial kid in my school. I didn't quite blend in with any particular group, but had a few close friends of the Puerto Rican persuasion. Which is now actually really interesting to me, since Latinos don't have a "race," per se.

Me:  Any siblings?

Audrey:  I have five older siblings on my dad's side. Although I am close with one of my sisters, I think that the age gap prevented me from becoming closer with the others. For all intents and purposes, I was pretty much raised as the baby of the family/only child.

Me:  What did your parents do? You said that they met at work?

Audrey:  My mom was (and still is) a social worker. My dad did something with computers and consulting (which I never quite understood). Something about before C++ and up-and-coming tech in the '80s. He tried to explain it to me, rest his soul. But I am still fairly clueless.

Me:  When did your father pass away?

Audrey: He passed away on 1/27/2010, subsequent to a courageous battle with colon cancer. He actually lived for a few years past his initial 6-month prognosis. No complaints there! He loved music, was a polyglot, and played several instruments. I think that I get my artsy/creative sense from him.

Me:  Well then he's passed on a pretty solid legacy!

Audrey:  Agreed!

Me:  So, you mentioned that you were the only biracial kid at your school. What was the general demographic of your neighborhood? Was it wealthy, or poor, or middle-class, or a mix? Likewise, predominantly white, black, Latino, or diverse?

Audrey:  My neighborhood, at the time, was working class but on the lower side of the income spectrum. My school was pretty diverse racially; a few first-generation-ers, like me. A few Caucasian, Asian, Black, Latino. No biracial kids for some odd reason. I moved to a more suburban neighborhood during my freshman year of high school, which was very White. But my high school, which was a magnet school, was very, very mixed. I made a few biracial friends there!

Me:  Obviously, you're super-smart so it makes sense that you'd go to a magnet school. At the same time, not every smart kid decides they want to go to a school like that. What made you decide that was the right program for you?

Audrey:  Great question, and thanks! I went to Catholic school for 8 years, and knew that I wanted a more, um...open-minded learning setting for high school. Before we moved, I would not have survived at my neighborhood high school. I was a certified nerd, with the glasses AND braces to prove it, and I'm sure that I would have been shoved into a locker at my neighborhood high school. I also had the highest GPA in my class in grade school (can you be valedictorian in 8th grade? Because I was. I wasn't ever again in life...but I digress). So I thought that a magnet school, while public, would help me avoid being marginalized for my nerdiness.

Central High School is one of the best high schools in Philly. I hate to admit it, but Central is #2. Masterman is #1, and I didn't get in, so I chose CHS.

Me:  You can't feed me a line about "open-minded learning" without follow-up. What were your thoughts on Catholic school education, and how did you come to realize you wanted something more "open-minded."?

Audrey:  Um... I think that I just felt, as a 12-year-old, that the belief system was so...rigid. And I was really starting to question the whole praying to statues thing. Seemed like idolatry to me, I don't know. I have Catholic friends (I sound like the racist person at a dinner party now, right?), and I respect their beliefs, but I just couldn't envision myself growing mentally and intellectually at a Catholic high school.

Me:  That's really interesting, and definitely something I want to return to. But when you talk about being "shoved into a locker" -- you mentioned that you had just moved to a predominantly white neighborhood but that the magnet school was more diverse .Was there a racial element to your concern about going to the local public high school, or was that not really on your mind at the time?

Audrey:  Oh wait, backtrack. So before I moved to the predominantly White neighborhood, I was in the more racially diverse but also lower income neighborhood. So I think that the concern was that the kids at my neighborhood high school would have attacked me for being a nerd. I don't think that I had much concern in the way of racial differences. I think that my primary concern was bullying, and "fitting in." Not being popular, but just...not being teased incessantly. I was bullied waaaaayyyy too much (not that any amount is tolerable or reasonable). But it just happened like, every day.

Me:  Oh okay -- I was confused on timeline.

Audrey:  Yeah, I didn't move until 9th grade

Me:  That's terrible. Now you've pretty emphatically put the emphasis here on being bullied because you were a nerd, had glasses, etc., and not a more "racialized" story one sometimes hears on Fox News (though President Obama has sometimes said this too) about "acting White" by being studious. I've generally thought that "acting White" was just a localized version of "nerdy kids get bullied" -- which is still terrible, absolutely, but it isn't a specifically racialized problem. What are your thoughts on that?

Audrey:  These are great points that you raise. I do recall being told that I "talk White" or "sound like a White girl" or "act White." I probably didn't help my case by attempting to debate those fools on how asinine they made themselves seem, by implying that only White folks have proper decorum or command of the English language. So I suppose, in retrospect, part of my underlying concern was in fact racialized.  It was slightly more difficult for me, I think, because I didn't really have a racial niche.

Me:  Obviously your identity as a biracial woman is really important to you. And while we have a very famous biracial American now, in the form of Barack Obama of course, from my outsider’s vantage point it seems his rise to prominence has been a decidedly mixed bag in terms of how people think about bi- and mixed-race persons in America? How have you seen the treatment of that identity shift over your life?

 Audrey:   I don't really think I have experienced a shift in treatment. I find that people still want to categorize me, either as "exotic" or "mixed" or "Black." In the same way that Obama is biracial, yet referred to as the first "Black" president, I think that many followers of the "Coffee Drop" theory wish to label me as Black. Which, to this day, bothers me. Not because I have textbook self-hatred, but because there is an entire White half that, I feel, gets dismissed when I'm not referred to as biracial. I have seen, overall, a shift towards more people of color stating (incorrectly) that they are biracial, when I really think that they mean multiracial. I think that there continues to be a misunderstanding of what a biracial identity is, or isn't.

Me:  That's really interesting. It does seem like it's very either/or -- sometimes you see this sort of faux-play up of Obama's biracial background as a means of showing he's not really Black, which obviously he rejects and seems to me to be a statement made in bad faith. But at the same time, it's also clear that we're oversimplifying his identity in a way that doesn't really do his experience any favors.

Audrey:  Exactly. And I'm not sure what the ideal answer/solution is. But I do think that it's important that we continue to allow individuals to have their own identities, whether they be biracial, or trans*, or Asian, or whatever.

Me:  Agreed. Though I am deeply disappointed that we couldn't come to an ideal solution to the problem of American racial identity in the space of a gChat conversation.

Me:  So how did a Philly girl like yourself end up going to rural Minnesota for college? It seems there must be some sort of story there.

Audrey:  Correct. I was at a magnet, college preparatory high school. I was in class, and Todd Olson (former director of the Carleton Liberal Arts Experience) showed up with my guidance counselor, and asked for five minutes of my time. I was annoyed with missing part of my lesson, but agreed to meet.
Todd: What do you think about Minnesota?
Me: Minnesota? Um...never been there.
Todd: There's a GREAT school there. Carleton. Heard of it?
Me: No...
Todd: Well you SHOULD have. Come visit us. And we'll waive your application fee.
Me: Okay...
So I visited, sat in on a Poli Sci class, attended an Ebony performance, and loved it. I liked the smaller class sizes and reputation among liberal arts institutions.

Me: That's ... unnervingly similar to my experience (right down to the Todd Olson connection).

Me:  Now, I'm going to be straight with you: I think you would have stood out anywhere you went -- you've got this "Josephine Baker goes to Paris" thing going on that's just absolutely killer.

Audrey:  Well, thanks! I still feel like the scrawny, awkward nerd girl in glasses AND braces.

Me:  But I think it's fair to say that in super-Scandinavian rural Minnesota, you really stood out. Did you feel that way?

Audrey: Um...I don't really recall feeling like an "other" at first glance. I came from diversity, and while Carleton wasn't the MOST heterogeneous microcosm, it didn’t alarm me. I didn't start to feel like I stood out until second term, I think, because my White brethren kept commenting that I looked "exotic." I mean, I had gotten similar comments in Philadelphia from my browner-skinned folks as well... But it happened much more often in Minnesota.

Me: In general, did Carleton mostly lived up to your expectations?

Audrey:  Indeed, it did. I think maybe I felt like more of an "other" in terms of class/socioeconomic status. During my first week, I met someone whose family owned a small island. He had three televisions. In his dorm room. People were never rude or snobby, per se, but there were subtle reminders of my working-class, first-generation status.
;)
Me:  Now, the other part of your identity which perhaps isn't stereotypical-Carleton is that you're a very devout Christian. How did that play out in your college experience?

Audrey: You know, it's interesting that you ask this. And I'm finally not so super embarrassed to explain the connection. So yes, I was raised Catholic, and always leaned towards the Jesus camp. But I wasn't formally "saved" (Christian-speak for when you make it a personal decision to acknowledge, believe, and say that Jesus is God, etc.) until about halfway through college. I remember going through a pretty deep depression after my college boyfriend and I parted ways. I was searching for deeper meaning, etc., and whilst on a Habitat for Humanity trip with some Carls, I wandered into a Christian bookstore, picked up a Teen Study Bible (which I had never seen before; I had only read the sleep-inducing King James Version), and was HOOKED! I was actually teased by a few of said Carls for "believing in that nonsense" and not having more "common sense and logic." But a kind, Atheist classmate defended me, and retorted that I wasn't hurting anyone with my beliefs.

So right, read my Bible a lot, and then, during the summer of 2006, I visited a high school friend's church (he had been inviting me since high school, lol), and walked down the aisle and formally accepted Christ. I returned to Carleton that Fall very gung-ho about my faith, and was waaaayyyy too judgmental (but I was a newer Christian, and didn't quite know how to really walk in a non-judgmental, loving fashion as Jesus did yet). Oh yeah, and I fell off the bandwagon, partied too much, got inebriated, and made all-around poor decisions during my senior year at Carleton. But then I came home, got back on track, and certainly haven't been perfect since. The whole grace, mercy, and love aspect of God is still amazing to me. I'm totally imperfect, and there is nothing that I can do to be deserving of God's love, and yet...I accepted Him and He accepted me, and I am still His work in progress.

Sorry for the Jesus-freak moment.

Me:  It's no problem. One thing I liked about Carleton was that it really seemed to welcome all sorts of people. That's a cliché, but I think at a lot of places "welcoming" means a sort of performative leftism that isn't actually all that welcoming to, say, first-gen college students, or people of faith, or racial minorities, or anyone who isn't in on the performance. But Carls are chill -- not necessarily the most socially graceful, but genuinely non-judgmental about these sorts of things (with, of course, exceptions) That was my experience anyway.

Audrey:  Yeah...I think maybe some folks were also "Minnesota nice" about it? As in, there was a generally friendly aura, even if they disagreed with a certain lifestyle choice, or had presuppositions about race, etc.

Me:  I think that's true. I've heard mixed reviews about "Minnesota nice" -- some think it's just a cover for exclusion -- but I've always found it charming myself.

Me:  Anyway. After college you briefly attended law school [at Drexel University], then switched to social work. Why law school, and why the switch?

Audrey: Ah, my law school stint. Yes, I was fortunate enough to have a summer associate gig during 1L summer. I didn't feel that I was making a difference. I went to law school thinking that I would save the world, and somehow ended up in a posh office reviewing a multimillion dollar contract involving corporate buyout and I was like, "Oh no! I sold out!"

My dad became increasingly ill with colon cancer, so I took a leave of absence during 2L Fall. Then dad entered hospice, and passed away. Which caused me to re-think things. So I decided to become a counselor. Or at least, get my Master's in it. Which I did, and I ended up in case management, which is a good fit for me. It allows me to use my administrative and critical thinking skills, as well as my inclination to counsel and nurture people.

Drexel told me that I can return to finish my J.D.. And now that I've been roped into working with the First Judicial District's Mental Health Court, I have considered it

Me:  As a cheerleader for the legal profession, we'd be happy to have you back, but the important thing is to do what makes you happy.

Audrey:  Agreed. And thanks! At this juncture, I want to see how far I can go in my career without additional schooling. I don't want to be a "forever student."

Me:  ... she says, to the man about to return for his doctorate, Last  line of questioning before we wrap up: You've been very involved in the recent protests against police violence that have occurred across the US. How did you get involved in that?

Audrey:  Two words: social media ;). I would see random event info. on my Facebook Feed, or hear about preparation on the news and then re-post online. Also, working for the courts has its perks, in that we get inside information to ready ourselves for any potential traffic, challenges, etc.

Me:  It seems like this round of protests has finally put the issue of police violence on the public radar in a serious way. Why do you think that is?

Audrey: I think that social media plays a vital role here as well (coming from someone who recently deactivated Facebook). It has become easier to organize, assemble, and protest, and to know details about these events, because of sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In addition, it's difficult for folks to ignore, as legitimate news articles are posted, shared, and re-posted.

Me:  Are you optimistic or pessimistic about how things will progress on this issue in the near-term?

Audrey:  I would love to end on an optimistic note, so with that intention in mind...I am hopeful that, although in the short-term these challenges will continue to arise within our society, we will collectively develop better means to address issues of police militarization, and problems with institutionalized racism and socioeconomic/educational disparities.

Me:  Last question: What does the future hold for Audrey?

Audrey:  Having faith, helping folks in need, and happiness. And alliteration.

Me:  An excellent life motto if I've ever heard one.

This interview was conducted on gChat over several days. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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