I’m a white mutt. Growing up, I longed to be one of the kids who belonged to a group, a category, a culture. Kids who, for their Cultural Fair project, could describe their family’s Vietnamese roots, or trace their lineage in a straight line to Norway, or cook five Chinese recipes for us to sample. Instead, I’m a smattering of basically every European country. When people ask where my family’s from, I often reply “white trash”—with no offense meant. I don’t know of a term that paints the picture as quickly and effectively.
In college, I took an African-American literature class and was stunned, while reading a book by black author Charles Chestnutt, to turn it over and see a photo of a white man.
I raised my hand to ask the professor what was going on.
Wow did her answer blow me away. Apparently a “drop of black blood” made you Black in the eyes of the white establishment. Therefore, Charles Chestnutt was African-American.
Adding to my confusion, my classmates—about half of whom were Black—said that being light-skinned often got you preferential treatment. One girl shared that her younger sister, who was lighter and had straight hair, was the favorite of the family, the pretty one, the one who got all the attention.
At that moment, race felt so fake, so wrong, like a stupid game we all played even though no one knew the rules. My understanding of skin color had just been demolished.
Reading Waking up White added another layer: the term “Caucasian” comes from the Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe.
I don’t come from there. None of my ancestors came from there. To mark Caucasian on a form now feels very, very weird.
So if there’s really only one race—the human race—why does this notion persist? By the time I was in school, we were no longer taught that the US is a melting pot. We learned that we were a “salad,” and as we all know: the more diversity of ingredients the better. No one expects a tomato to look or taste like lettuce.
The problem, of course, is that even in that new analogy, the lettuce is the base, the main ingredient, the workhorse of the show. So. In our analogy, does the “lettuce” get preferential treatment? More opportunities? An easier path?
I had to believe this was possible in my own life. My mom grew up in a house with a dirt floor and an outhouse. My [birth] dad grew up in a single-parent home of seven kids. I have early memories of pouring water on my cereal because we couldn’t afford milk.
If “America, the Land of Opportunity” was just a line, I was dead before I even started.
But while it’s still hard for me to let go of this dream—in fact, students of mine who are immigrants tell me it’s so much closer to true in the US than in many parts of the world—I’ve learned that my starting point is much further ahead than others. Some people have been hobbled by our cultural norms in ways that are just not fair.
I’m left with this: racial categories are a fiction. Yet, this fiction determines how people are treated, how hard they have to fight for opportunities, how others see them.
It’s like a Matrix movie: the fiction is real.
If you’re curious to read more, please get a copy of Waking up White by Debby Irving. You can also start my series from the beginning, or read posts from my friends: Di’s chapters 8, 9, and 10; and Stephen’s chapters 8, 9, and 10.
Photo: Charles Chestnutt, age 40. Chesnutt Bros. (Cleveland, Ohio) [Public domain]