Do you think I’m black?

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Reflection, Social Justice, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

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.


Emphatically ambiguous

Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing


As I wrote in a previous post, my sexual orientation has been the subject of confusion and speculation from time to time.  After writing that post, I began thinking about my racial ambiguity, something that has worked in my favor in more than one way.  I’ve been asked about my racial makeup more times than I can count or remember.  It started when I was in high school, although I didn’t realize it at the time.  I was called “oreo,” “high yellow,” or “pug nose” by black boys and girls.  I didn’t know those were considered insults because I, like most white people, had no concept of race when I was younger.  White boys and girls insulted a different aspect of my appearance, my large size, with charming names such as “grape ape” and “jolly green giant,” while their fathers commented on the size of “the bumps on my chest” when I was as young as 11.

I found out about ten years ago that my mother’s mother’s family escaped eastern Europe during the Russian pograms in the early 1900s, coming to the US in the late teens, early 20s.  Her maternal grandfather took the name “Lapp” when he came through Ellis Island, and thoroughly buried the family’s Jewish heritage once he was settled.  The story of the immigration is unclear, but we know the younger children, including my mother’s mother, knew nothing of their family’s history.  They became staunchly Lutheran, I think, even though the rumor is that my great-grandfather and his family had been practicing Jews before they immigrated.

The history of my biological paternity is one of our family skeletons, and not entirely my story to tell.  I’ll leave it in the closet except to say that he would not be considered “white” as western Europeans define “white.”  Between these two racial streams, I’ve inherited an emphatically ambiguous appearance.  I could be from almost any dark-haired, dark-eyed group of people.  Not all of them, but many, and I’ve been asked, mainly by white people, about my ethnicity for years and years.  I hate being asked because while it isn’t a *secret*, the story behind it is a personal and painful family story and one I don’t often share.

In the last few years, when asked, my answer is always that I’m white.  I was raised white, I pass for white, I reap the benefits of passing for white, and I think like a white person.  So I identify as white.  I ignore the implied “What’s your racial makeup?” question, because it’s none of their goddamm business. People of color, on the other hand, seem to assume I’m mixed and rarely ask. If I’m out dancing, brown and black men tend to ask “where are you from?” which I interpret as curiosity about my ethnic/racial makeup, or maybe just my country of origin.  I’m always kind of stumped (and irritated) because saying “North Carolina” or “Portland” doesn’t seem quite right.  Sometimes I answer “the US,” but all those answers feel awkward, like I’m not really answering the question.  Should I tell them “I’m a white girl, I just look like a POC?”

It is a strange feeling to be asked about my background, and experience that piece of racism, when I’ve so obviously benefited from my white speech and privilege otherwise.  I remember being invited to go to a dinner party with a black friend of mine.  There were black and brown people there, but the hostess was white.  We were all settled, served, and enjoying the food when she started quizzing me about my ethnicity.  She was a total stranger to me, and I was speechless that she thought it was okay to ask me about such a personal thing, publicly, in front of other strangers.  I tried to politely redirect her, and avoid her question, but she was persistent.  I don’t remember what I finally said, but I remember my friend was incensed on my behalf, he may have been the one who stopped the conversation.

I didn’t know until much later that her assumption that it was okay to ask about my “background” was a display of white privilege.  There’s a lot of ignorance packed into what seems like an innocent question, a question white people almost never ask other people they assume are white.  I have been asked so many times in my life that I have always accepted it was normal and okay for people to ask.  I realized only recently that people ask because they make assumptions about me based  on my ethnically ambiguous physical appearance.  I talk like a middle class white person, but my appearance triggers some “she’s not white” radar, so they attempt to uncover something they can use to label me, something that will provide a clue, or a quicker understanding of who I am.

To clarify – I have not been the recipient of racism in the same way a person who can’t pass for white has been.  The encounters I’ve had were more irritating than degrading or dangerous, and for that I’m grateful.  I’m writing this because I’ve been thinking a lot about the shortcuts we take in trying to get to know each other.  I understand that we have to label in order to somehow organize the massive amounts of information we absorb.  Humans have labeled as a way of making meaning for as long as we’ve been conscious – it’s instinctive and helpful in many ways.

But we are starting to see and hear and experience the damage that comes from slapping labels onto everything and everyone.  We are also starting to resist being labeled by others – we want more and more to define ourselves, to explore our uniqueness and the elements that have combined to create our own individual selves.  Being labeled becomes burdensome and irritating, even when we know there is no ill intent, just someone trying to wade through a pile of data.

My ethnic ambiguity is part of the richer, deeper story of me, and there are no shortcuts to learning that tale.