Friday, August 15, 2014

In Which I Conclude Your Discomfort is Your Hang-Up, Man, Not Mine

...it's our problem if you feel I'm making an unnecessary fuss about my racial identity. 
-Adrian Piper

As someone who has always had a complicated relationship with my own racial identity, DNA testing complicated it further, sort of. Or maybe not, as I am used to being in racial limbo. It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for white people, who in turn make it uncomfortable for me. Many white people really, really hate it when you look white to them, but claim you aren't.

I'm half middle-eastern, on my dad's side. Technically white, but often not considered so, and a highly disliked ethnicity in my country. However, I'm  very  fair skinned, and Assyrian, not Arab. Catholic on both sides (by heritage, not upbringing or belief), not Muslim. Culturally white and middle class (this is primarily due to specific dynamics in my dad's upbringing, and his mother's before his, which severed any cultural continuity I might have had with my Assyrian heritage), but I'm not entirely comfortable with that, either.

When my college roommate told racist jokes, and implied I was a PC thug for not laughing? It bugged me. Was this because I didn't identify as white, or because I was raised to believe that racist jokes aren't okay, even when it's just us white people? Probably a little from column A, a little from column B.

It's not that I'm not racist. I am. I suspected as much, and the Implicit Association Test confirmed it. Perhaps I'm trying to dilute my own responsibility when I say almost everyone is racist, because we're fed racist messages from early childhood. If you say you're not racist, I'll be expecting you to make a solid case for yourself. If you say "I'm not racist, but....," you're almost certainly more racist than the average person. Here I am, this is what I know about myself, and denying it isn't going to change it. If someone accuses me of racism, my job is to consider whether what they're saying has merit instead of getting defensive. That might be easier said than done, but no one ever said grappling with centuries of systematic, complicated oppression would be easy.

I'm not saying I'm not white to be difficult, but it's often received that way. And I'll tell you one thing - the implication that I'm being difficult, confrontational, or otherwise making an unnecessary fuss comes almost exclusively from white people. People of other races have always asked me what I am on a regular basis, and have almost always accepted my answer, complicated, inconsistent and uncertain as it is.

I can't say I'm totally baffled by this. A part of it is that a white person - perhaps one who hasn't thought things through enough to say what they really mean - wanting to say, hey, you have as much white privilege as I do. No one has ever said it outright, but I've always sensed that's what's bothering them. They aren't far off - I have almost as much white privilege as they do, and, in my opinion, a few advantages they don't. I don't wish for blonde hair or blue eyes, and I certainly don't wish I didn't have to think about my racial identity, what it is and how it fits into the world I live in. Due to my appearance, culture and socio-economic background, I'm not being held back because of my race. I am well aware.

For example, imagine one night I forget to turn my headlights on, and I'm pulled over. I immediately start rummaging around for my license and registration, until the officer comes to my window and tells me to put my hands on the steering wheel. I do it, of course, but it's because I'm a white woman that I'm shocked. I'm so mired in white entitlement, I almost wonder if the cop is making a point, and if he is....well done. Point taken. Obviously, I needed it. I'm not scared, because a traffic ticket is my worst case scenario, and even that probably won't happen. I'll be on my way in five minutes, with or without a ticket (for the record, it was without).

Experiences like this are what white people want to cite when I say I'm not white (which I rarely do anymore, because the reaction I sometimes get pisses me off, and I'm tired of it), but they don't because they tend to be the type who haven't really considered that they have these kinds of experiences on a daily basis. But there's also a deeper, even less articulated feeling - the feeling of rejection. If I say I'm not white, I'm condemning them somehow, saying I don't want to be a part of their tribe.

A few years ago, my book club read Sarah's Key, the story of a girl who survived a concentration camp, but came away with a stain on her heart, mind and soul so gut-wrenching that living with it was virtually impossible. After we discussed the book, we watched the movie.

As one character told another about a dark family secret that could only cause him misery, I shouted, "My God, don't tell him!"

My friend Julia turned to me and groaned, "Why do white people always have to understand everything?"

It was a lighthearted, rhetorical question. I laughed, and went back to watching the movie. But it stuck in my mind. Why do white people always have to understand everything? Huh. Isn't it natural to want to understand where you came from, what shaped you, and how you got here? Although I was uncomfortable, I reluctantly concluded that the real question was, "Why don't black people want to understand everything?" 

If you're tempted to stop reading here, give me a few more paragraphs. I'm going somewhere with this. I understand it's a truly inaccurate and sweeping generalization, but one that still led me to conclude that if African Americans people aren't crazy about digging into the past, it's because it's just too painful.

It was just a theory. I never expected to gain any firsthand knowledge of it. Although I was familiar with the fact that many white Americans were part black, I didn't associate it with myself. I'm descended from recent immigrants on almost all sides. My family hasn't been in America since slavery.

But of course, the United States isn't the only country that was part of the slave trade. Where did my Portuguese great-grandmother come from? British Guyana. How did my people get to British Guyana? It's still possible some of them came from Portugal. But a DNA test my mom took told us that the only thing was could confirm for sure was that sometime in the past 200 years, we had come from Ghana or Sierra Leone. If you were a black person in British Guyana in the 1800s, and you could pass for white, what did you do? Tell people you were Portuguese.

After that, my book club read The Book of Night Women. It was about an enslaved woman in Jamaica, and told of an attempted slave rape within the first three pages. I knew in that moment that was why I was born, and I knew it worked to my benefit. Because of some disgusting slave holder, my however-many-great-grandmother had a daughter who had a daughter who could pass as Portuguese. Perhaps she married a man who really was Portuguese, and had a daughter who could honestly say she was Portuguese, and she had a daughter who could honestly believe it, eventually bringing us here, to an unfathomable, American woman in a barely comprehensible world, who stumbled upon the truth in a way none of them could have ever wrapped their heads around. All because some rapist lent (no, gave) us his pale skin, and it's worked to our advantage every day since.

I closed the book and didn't pick it up again. I'd always known slavery was wrong - of course I had. The injustice had always enraged me. But suddenly, I wasn't angry anymore. Just tremendously sad. Desire to understand? Obliterated.

I told a few friends about it, but mostly kept it to myself. There was no cultural continuity, and I know full well I haven't lived the African American experience. Who cared? How would I bring it up? "Hi, my name is Erin, and you wouldn't know it to look at me, but I'm 1/16th black. Or maybe 1/32. 1/64, at least!" Furthermore, I still encountered defensiveness from some of the people I did tell. White people, exclusively. White people want me to be white. I've known that for a long, long time, and this wasn't any different. I've always internalized this on some level, and believed it was my problem. But maybe it's not. Maybe it's our problem. Maybe it's your problem.

At an unrelated training, I saw a video of Adrian Piper's Cornered. It's no longer available on YouTube, but I've linked to the PDF. Adrian Piper looked....very much like me, only a little more obviously black. A coincidence - I look this way because I'm middle-eastern. She addressed every reason a white person might not "come out of the closet" and tell people they're black, and managed to shred every one of them without making any kind of argument at all. She was deadpan, all sarcasm, dry wit and and unspoken accusations that manage to make themselves perfectly clear. My kind of girl. But she didn't tell me what to do. When it was over, all I could think was "What the hell am I supposed to do with that?"

Months later, I think I finally figured it out. This. This is what I'm going to do with that. Like a significant number of white Americans, I'm a little bit black. You may not care. But if you say you don't care, but it really kind of bugs you that I would feel the need to tell you? You have some work to do. It's not my problem anymore. I'm giving it back. It's all yours.





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