I spent last Saturday working on a video about a grad of ours. Her name is Marleen Moore, and she’s a big talent. She’s a visual artist, and like many other artists, she’s shy about being in front of the camera. Her art speaks for itself, and that’s the way it should be, I think. Still, it’s important to help young people realize how talented they are, and sometimes that means encouraging them to tell their stories on video. There’s just something about being interviewed that makes you think about who you are and what you are about. Our short film about Marleen will come out in mid-May, and my hope for it is that Marleen will see how talented she is as an artist and, maybe even more importantly, how interesting she is as a person.

Like a lot of our students when they are with us, I know them only in the classroom. Some I get to know better. Some graduate and I don’t see them ever. I don’t see Marleen often, but I’ve always been proud of her because she is one of those rare people who is brave enough to be who she is. She doesn’t fit in to categories, and she doesn’t let people try to fit her in there.

If you think about it, no one really does fit into any one box, but a lot of us allow people to try to stuff us into one all the same.

Marleen is biracial. She’s a black woman, a Latina, too. Her favorite band is a Japanese art-rock band with a French name. She also loves David Bowie and Anime, and she loves working with kids. She doesn’t show a lot of people her art because she says, “they might think she’s weird or dark.”

Now, I shouldn’t be surprised by a student who loves stuff that I’ve never heard of. I’ll admit that maybe I put people in boxes, too. What does a young woman of color, raised in Vallejo, have to do with Japanese comics or David Bowie?

Nothing?

Everything?

Who cares? She likes them. That’s enough. Or it should be.

But during our interview, and we have another part of it to film this weekend, I got the feeling that Marleen has often felt like she didn’t fit because some of the people she meets are confused by her. They look at her and they don’t expect certain things from her. And it’s not just white or Anglo folk, either. She told me about growing up in a mainly Latino neighborhood surrounded by kids in school who did not embrace her as a sister. Because she is half-Latino, she didn’t have the choice to throw in with the African American kids in school and turn her back on half of who she is. She’s proud of her family background–both sides.

This is not easy, and if you don’t think it’s important, think again. The truth is that no one is pure-anything. You might think you are, but let me tell you that somewhere in that family tree of yours, someone from one group hooked up with someone from another. That’s what happens.

We usually think of racial identity as being one thing or the other.

You are this.

You are that.

Marleen, partly because she’s brave and partly because she just is who she is, does not hide the complex nature of her identity. Marleen is a lot of things. How do you put her in a box? And if you try, you soon find out that she’s a bad fit. I bet this is part of the reason that kids she knew as a young person didn’t know what to do with her and made fun of her as a result. I don’t want to call these young kids racist. I don’t want to use that word here because I don’t think it’s that simple. That’s the whole point here. We are complicated. We don’t “make sense” and maybe we shouldn’t try to.

If you know me, then you know that I love stories. I think people are stories, really complicated and beautiful ones. And you have to listen–really hard. So listen to Marleen when her film comes up next month. You won’t regret it.

And in the meantime, below is a video by that Japanese band she likes. Give it a listen. You might like it, too.