Who am I ?

As Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12 grapples with her own complex racial identity, she implores others to take a look in the mirror, as well, and ask themselves this loaded question.

Early in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, before clips of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s more polemical sermons looped endlessly on cable television and Obama was forced to publicly denounce his pastor, the neologism “postracial” was on a lot of lips. A hopeful word with an elusive definition, it seemed to have as much to do with Obama’s fair skin and poise as it did with any message he espoused. Indeed, postracial was more about what the junior senator didn’t say than what he did—here was a man of color who appeared to transcend his mother’s whiteness and father’s African heritage, an editor of the Harvard Law Review who could acknowledge the tribulations of being a black man in America without letting it consume him. In short, a man who had moved beyond race. The implication being, so should we.

Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12 hasn’t moved beyond race, and she’s determined not to let others move beyond it, either. Mozambican born and Brooklyn raised, she shoulders a complicated identity: Her maternal grandfather was a black African revolutionary, her maternal grandmother a tenacious, white Indiana girl. Her mother is a multiracial world musician; her father is white Portuguese. From this vantage point, Rodrigues sees an America and a campus still struggling to address racism and privilege. To her, talk of a post-racial era is a way of silencing an argument mid-sentence.

Much has changed since 1965, when James Baldwin told Time magazine, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” But much has not. Rodrigues doesn’t mind being an angry, black woman—what concerns her is being called “an angry, black woman.” She says that speaking out about your most intimate frustrations often earns you a pejorative label. “I don’t want to be the face of racial harmony at Middlebury. People have gotten tired of listening to me talk about race.” She pauses. “But if I walk away from it, it only perpetuates the idea that race is something you get tired of.” And that’s the paradox of being Janet Mondlane Rodrigues. How do you talk about race—and engage others—in what was supposed to be a postracial America?

For a young woman with so unquiet a conscience, Rodrigues wears a disarming smile. Her gregariousness is charming. She dresses like a New Yorker who realized too late what “Vermont winter” means. And with a fair complexion and raven hair, she says that people often assume she’s Hispanic.

Ask where she’s from, and Rodrigues will usually tell you she’s from Brooklyn—Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rough neighborhood that gave birth to Spike Lee and hip-hop. She adds: “Then, whoever’s around, especially if it’s an international student from Africa, [that person] will say, ‘Where are your roots, girl? She’s lying to you: She’s from Mozambique.’” Brooklyn is Rodrigues’s topsoil, but her roots extend much deeper. Home is perhaps the place we long for most acutely, and for Rodrigues that would be Mozambique’s capital, Maputo.

As the Facebook generation understands: It’s complicated. In pure semantics, she’s an African American. Which makes her. . . black? “I feel like my color, my speech, my backgrounds, my roots are not definite; it becomes difficult for me to explain to others how I feel—and for me to understand how I feel. I’ve never been black enough for the black community, but I’ve never been white enough for the white community.” Rodrigues alternately describes the privilege and pain of straddling so many racial identities. “I feel like I’ve been spread too thin.”

When she engages the Middlebury campus about issues of race, Rodrigues is plumbing the depths of her own identity. She asks provocative, uncomfortable questions—without claiming to know the answers. But then, she’s not the first in her family to look at the way we live now and ask, Why?

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  1. What a fascinating article! Janet, in case I haven’t told you this yet, you’re amazing. Thank you Janet, and Kevin, for sharing this perspective. It’s a much needed one here on campus as well as in our daily lives off-campus. Let’s keep the discussion going, forward.

    Dilanthi Ranaweera’09

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Janet (and nice writing, Kevin). A lot of what you had to say really resonated- from a very different place, of course, but I also feel like I live my life constantly through the lens of identity (religious-national-ethnic). It is very different for me, because I don’t have the same physical un-choice (if I wanted to be a non-Jew in the public eye, mostly I could, although I do have the nose…), but I am fascinated and dominated by my identity nonetheless; I feel that most of my breaths are Jewish breaths, and I think in that and in your article there is an immense amount for us, and for others to discuss: and

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    I agree with Dilanthi- this is a much needed discussion.

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  3. Amazing stuff Janet!!!

  4. Thanks to Kevin Redmon for accurately interpreting Janet Rodrigues as a young woman growing into a spectacular person. She lends a voice to the discussion of race to the rest of us who become tongue-tied when faced with delicate and brutal questions. Her many-hued cousins, children of her uncle and aunt, have faced and are facing the same questions that she must answer from chilly Vermont since they, too, chose to study in the United States. The grandparents Eduardo and Janet Mondlane earnestly believed that their children would grow to be citizens of the world. They did. The same is becoming true of their grandchildren–Janet is a case in point. Perhaps the grandparents did not sufficiently emphasize the need to

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    hold tight to the sailing ropes of the caravel that is whizzing them through life, the wind of change singing through their hair as new horizons rear up to greet them. Shall we call those ropes, roots? That would be okay. Janet melts her experiences into a love for life. I know, because I am her grandmother.

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  5. [...] Though I have often felt that I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortably middle-class American family, I had never thought of my life as one of privilege. I had always associated that word with “wealthy,” and while my father’s job as a tenured professor at a leading liberal arts school and my mother’s position as a clinical psychologist in private practice meant that my sister and I never went without, wealth was certainly not in our vocabulary. Comfortable, yes. Fortunate, sure. Privileged? I had never really thought that way, not until I read Kevin Redmon’s profile of Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12, “Who Am I?” [...]

  6. [...] Who am I? [...]

  7. I identify with this young woman more than I ever could have identified with my classmates in school growing up, or even my classmates at Colby-Sawyer College. People even insist I have to be Hispanic, I don’t look “black.” I talked about race frequently in my classes, and one time I was incredibly angered by the lack of respect by Caucasian students during a video lecture about race featuring Stuart Hall. “Race: The Floating Signifier.” They would sit and talk through the video without even being interested in the topic, and quietly snickered at the ideas he was discussing, insisting they were “boring, and insignificant.” I was often told I “talked too much about being biracial

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    and my struggle” by a few fellow students, and being the minority, probably one of a handful of multi-ethnic students at the school, I felt uncomfortable even openly reacting to their comments. I don’t live in a time where I can’t speak, but the fear is still present. And it’s stereotypical and painful to always be called “an angry black woman.” We have a right to be angry, but why does that have to be the stereotype? It makes us sound negative instead of women trying to create awareness. I also can’t stand when people only identify Obama as “black.” He’s biracial or multi-ethnic like me, like Rodrigues. Half the time, it seems as if multi-ethnic is not significant, it’s how black or white you are. Whether you pass on either side and if you do, you have to stay with that group, or we don’t accept you.

    Very good article, thank you for this!

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  8. Janet,

    I think you find the community and roots that you are comfortable with, and work to develop them, without worrying about what the greater ‘white’ community thinks. In Canada, instead of a ‘melting pot’ model of racial mixing, we have ‘patchwork mosaic’ of different cultures. I’m Canadian/Chinese, and feel no need to seek approval or merge with the still-majority-but-declining white population. Think of the other side of being ‘white’ was not the norm but actually a distinct racial identity. Would you be happy to see the establishment of Harvard’s Institute of White American Studies, and take a course on ‘Advanced White Intellectual Thought”. I thought not. White americans, and in fact most americans, have

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    accepted that the white identity become a non-racial identity, a post-racial identity, and hence acceptable as a national norm. That is why Barack Obama is the identity of our times. So the question is, what identity do you really want to move towards?

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  9. Janet must be a very young girl, I wonder how old she is.
    And what a rich life she’s having!
    I understand her mother, being a daughter os Eduardo Mondlane, has a very strong importance in janet’s life.
    What about her father? He´s only mentioned once in this article, Doesn’t he support his daughter, or his wife, in their lives?

  10. I guess you could say-I come from a privileged “white” family. Though I can remember a Christmas when there would have been no presents under the tree but the the largess for of my mother’s college classmate-nonetheless I come from that ” white privilege” side.
    .
    I have never been one to mince words so let me start with this. I resent the label “white privilege.”
    In Rudolph Harle’s sociology class about prejudice-I learned stereotypes or labels were…
    I forgot what we learned but let me tell you what I know them to be: Stupid, meaningless empty sometime hurtful pejoratives that add nothing to any conversation.

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    I come from Maine & grew up in Maasachusetts suburbs. Myself and none of my friends cast themselves as being “white.” So in a very large way-race is not a burning issue. Should it be?
    My answer is no & I’ll tell you why. Do want me to tell you Janet who you are? Fact is-only YOU can. So don’t put the onus on me. If you MUST use race as your frame of reference-how can it be otherwise that your race & wrongly-my race. will always be an issue for you.
    Diversity is just another lousy label for classifying people by race, color, gender, sexual preference, or creed. It is invidious terminology that too many people hide behind. I really would like someone to tell me just what it means. Is it a means to an end?. What end? An end in itself? Does it mean one group is supposed to mover over & make room for 10 other groups?

    I had the experience of living in Brooklyn this past year. Diversity in action. Fifteen nationalities or more talking different languages often living together in certain neighborhoods-none talking to each other as nobody could understand another. Diversity in action instead of some insipid meaningless term.

    Now-if sometime you want to talk about giving people-or perhaps even groups of people-the dignity and respect that every human being deserves, I would then know what you’re talking about. Meantime-treat everyone you meet how you would like to be treated. No “diversity” needed.

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  11. Portuguese East Africa. (Today, we call it Mozambique)- from the article above

    The current name of Mozambique is Republica Popular de Mocambique, it was Mozambique for many, many years not just now.

  12. Clotilde, are you serious?!…..Republic Popular de Mocambique? It is Mozambique now and has been for many, many years.
    Janet, well done! You share some very provoking thoughts from an iintelligent and young (also) proudly mozambican mind.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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