Tuesday, July 8, 2008
On Not Being White
I am not white.* Nope. Not so much. This is something I've known (to some degree or another) since early childhood. Something that I am glad for (not trying to bash white folks here, just saying) and something that has caused some grief, at times.
However, I recently got involved in an online discussion about bi-racial folks (in the context of Obama) not "claiming" their white side - and there were those that argued that mixed (white and non-white) kids are "just as much white" as the race of their non-white parent. I would like to, respectfully, disagree.
Now, obviously, my inheritance - literally - is as equally white (from my father) as Chinese (from my mother).** No question there, and I'm not going to argue against that. So, if we're talking about blood, then - sure - that's the case.
Problem is, blood doesn't really have a lot to do with race in America (or outside, either). Plenty of science refuting claims of "race" being genetically traceable is out there, so most of us won't argue that blood and genetics don't physically make up race. When we talk about "race," we're talking about what somebody looks like, and that is not strictly linked to genetic background.
More importantly, race in America is an experience. Although it's great to say "other people should have no say in how a person identifies," that is not realistic. My EXPERIENCES (not me, personally, but my specific experiences) are based on how people perceive me. If somebody treats me as Latino, for instance, it really doesn't matter what my actual background is - because, for the duration of that EXPERIENCE, I will bear the brunt of Latino stereotypes (for good or bad). Now, those experiences certainly don't MAKE ME Latino (and give me no right to claim that heritage), but they give me a taste - one moment - of Latino racial experience, which then goes on to color (literally) how I walk in the world.
So -as somebody who has never been treated as white by other people - I have had little of the white racial experience. Thus, that part of the world has been largely locked out from me, in spite of my father's background.
Of course, racial experience is also built on a continuum of privilege in this country, which is more of a cultural phenomenon than anything else. All those arguing that there is no white American "culture" are deluded - white American culture is walking through the world with the privilege that comes with it. Class plays into it, of course - few poor white Americans are going to feel very "privileged," but they still have the privilege of physical representation. They don't have to seek out white faces in the media, in power. White folks will never have to try to find "their channel" or "their radio station" and fall short, frustrated. They won't ask why the books they read and the movies they watch don't have major characters that look like them. They may not be represented in a number of other ways, but - racially, physically - that's one major source of stress that won't hit them on a nation-wide level.
So, as far as white culture goes, where do I fall? To some extent, I have been a recipient of the pleasures of white privilege. My parents met in college, a bastion of white privilege (no matter what people argue). My father's successes in life were helped along by the fact of white privilege (sure, he worked hard as Hell, but he got higher than he may have otherwise without white privilege), and those successes trickled down to me in terms of (relative) financial stability. That stability gained me entrance into the white privilege of being college-educated. My steady exposure to white culture growing up enabled me to be able to master standardized tests to be academically successful, etc.
However, my experience was one of a fish-out-of-water, racially. One of my first real fights in school was with a white kid who told me to "go back to where you came from." As a child, kids told me to "speak Asian".*** When I was good at math, it wasn't because I worked hard, it was because "I was Asian." Playing football, I watched other Asian teammates stop playing; when I was really good at it, it was as a racial exception. In college, people assumed that I must be an Engineer or math major. People constantly asked me, "what are you?"
I was lucky enough to grow up in the SF Bay Area, so - although my high school was predominantly white - I was able to surround myself with a racially diverse group of friends (RIDICULOUSLY so, as I mentioned before - almost every skin-tone represented). I was comfortable in that social group in my school not because I "felt white" but because I didn't stand out, racially, with them.
When I lived in Tanzania for a year and a half, I was called out as "Mchina" ("Chinaman," more or less) in distinct counterpoint to the other ex-pats, who were called "Mzungu" ("white person"). I had to explain that I was still American, even though I was so obviously "Chinese" to them.****
And then I moved to Portland, Oregon. At last count (2003, I think), Portland was the whitest city in the U.S. (in terms of "major" U.S. cities). And it's pretty obvious if you stay here for a little bit. It's also ridiculously segregated. So here, above all other places I've been, my non-white-ness has stood out. I am ALWAYS the only mixed person in a room. Generally, the only person with Asian blood. Mostly, the only non-white person.
And Portland is so "liberal," so it stands out even more. When I hear people talk about "diversity" and see no other non-white people around. When I watch liberal white folks appropriate all sorts of different aspects of different non-white cultures without even thinking about it. When, working at a "liberal, progressive" non-profit, I have been mistaken for the other Asian employee multiple times.
And, oddly enough, I am thought to be Latino (specifically, Mexican) here more often than any other race or ethnicity. I have had random (white) strangers speak to me slowly in English, asking if I speak Spanish (and if you ever saw me in person, you would immediately understand how ridiculous this is). I've had Latin@ students bond and connect with me and then become shocked when they hear my actual racial background.
So here, more than any other place, my non-white racial identity has grown. Grown to encompass more than Chinese and Asian culture, but a more generalized "mixed," and - sometimes - "brown." This is where my politicized racial self has been mostly formed - in direct response to the naive, "liberal" whiteness I see all around me.
I can walk into a room of people of color (of any racial background) and relax my shoulders, instantly understood on a certain level - no matter the other variables that would have us be different. When I walk in a room of white people, no matter other commonalities, I don't fully belong. I get ready to hear something that's going to make me cringe.
And so - I am not equally "white" and "Chinese." In fact, I am more "non-white" than I am Chinese, in some ways (that's for another post). That is the fact of this particular bi-racial experience. And it may not be other people's experiences, but I have a feeling that - in this country - it largely is for other mixed folks with white blood.
So - what does it all mean? Where do we go from here? Nowhere specific. Just a place of better understanding. Somewhere where white folks will be able to understand why there's an automatic barrier between us (at the beginning) even though my father is white. And why my lack of claim to "whiteness" is neither self-hate nor some sort of "reverse-racism." Nor is it a denial.
For I fully acknowledge my white inheritance. I rooted for Russia in EuroCup this year. I celebrate St. Patrick's Day. And I love my father and would accept no substitute.
I'm just "not white."
* My skin-tone is closer to "russet" (bordering on "henna") in the summer months, fading to "sweet honey" or "creme caramel" in the dark winters, for those interested.
** A simplistic look, but we don't need a genetics discussion here.
*** I had a routine with one white friend in elementary school where I would make up all sorts of sounds and tell him I was speaking Chinese (although I knew almost none), and he totally bought it. I would say something in my made up language, and then translate it into English for him. When he had me do it for his mom, I thought my cover was about to be blown . . . but she bought it, too.
**** Interestingly enough - in Tanzania I showed some kids a National Geographic that had an article on Mexico. When the kids saw the pictures, they shouted out "Mchina" and pointed at a photo of a Mexican man. Since they had no experience with Latin@ people, non-white folks with black hair were automatically "Chinese" (which more or less stood in for all Asians).