When I was in high school, black boys and white boys both called me names. “Oreo” and “high yellow” came from the black boys, “grape ape” and “jolly green giant” came from white boys. The message was clear: I was too light-skinned and too big. Even then, I understood the issue of size. Real girls, attractive girls, girls the boys wanted, were small – petite and dainty and slim – not tall and broad-shouldered, with big hands. Their disdain was clear and the message made sense. I knew I was a girl, those boys defined what it meant to be a “real” girl – if they said I was too big, then I wasn’t a “real” girl.
The other message, that I wasn’t black enough, didn’t sink in because it didn’t make sense. I was raised by white people, in a white family and in every way that I’m aware of, I identify as white. Most white people rarely think about race, and I’m no different. Even living in the South, I never deeply considered race because I didn’t have to. It never occurred to me that people’s perceptions of me might be different than my own; that based on my racially ambiguous appearance, people might assume I wasn’t white.
For years, people have asked about my ethnicity, my “heritage”, as it were. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the question, and tried to answer vaguely or avoid answering altogether. Once I started dancing salsa, and found myself dancing with dozens of men from black and brown countries, the question shifted to “where are you from?” which covered the “what race/linguistic group do you identify with?” question. They wanted to know what country I hailed from, to discover if we had that in common. I was asked that question by men from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Italy, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Eritrea, Somalia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic. They all wondered if I came from their country.
I used to say “white people always assume I’m white, black/brown people always assume I’m mixed.” Now, I realize that’s a throwaway phrase – a casual way to separate and label interactions that were irritating and sometimes confusing. The reality is more complex, and my toss-off answer doesn’t seem to fit anymore.
I can think of no better example than my fear of law enforcement. No other white person I’ve spoken with fears the police the way I do – none of them describe having had the same type of interactions. I’ve been bullied, harassed, and intimidated the handful of times I’ve interacted with law enforcement on my own. I had some “good” interactions when I and my upper-middle class white partner were living in an expensive home, in a white upper-middle class neighborhood. My racial ambiguity was eclipsed by evidence of money and whiteness, and I was treated respectfully.
My most unpleasant experiences have been through traffic stops. The few times I’ve been stopped, there have been reasons – a careless maneuver, or cell phone at my ear. Only recently did it occur to me that I might be getting treated the way black people are usually treated – a confusing and terrifying thought. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there’s a part of me that wants to go back in time and say “wait, are you treating me like this because you think I’m black? I’m not black, I’m white! I know my appearance can be confusing, but I assure you, I’m white. Please treat me like you’d treat a white person.”
And that’s where things fall apart. I start to question whether I’m being treated as I expect to be treated because I KNOW I’m white – don’t they?. It is the most ‘in your face’ way to experience white privilege I can imagine – to think that, perhaps some people see me as black or mixed, and they’re not treating me as well as I should be treated because – hey, I’m WHITE! What’s the solution? Maybe I should ask? “Hey – you were mean to me, don’t you know I’m white?” or “Ummm…why are you yelling at me for a traffic stop? Don’t you know I’m white?”
As I’ve gotten older, the negative messages about my size have become irrelevant. I’ve grown enough in my confidence and self-esteem to feel comfortable in my body – my tall, broad-shouldered, big-handed body. But questions of how my skin color and the shape of my features affects people’s perception of me have only now started to surface. Do people see me as black or white? Am I being treated this way because of a mistake? How do I deal with the embarrassment of asking that question – even if it’s only to myself? Do I wanted to be treated differently?
No – I just want the privileges all the other white people get.