What is White?
The other day I was filling out one of those forms that have little boxes to click: African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, Native American. And White. Okay, there was one that said something like “prefer not to say”. To me that has always felt rather childish, like “Neener-neener, you can’t make me tell you.”
All my life I’ve identified as White, but just then, for the first time, I hesitated. In the end, I went ahead and clicked ‘White’. And then spent a long time wondering why I’d felt so reluctant.
I grew up in a world that identified me as ‘White’. My father was in his late sixties before a relative told him that his great-great-grandmother had been a full-blooded Shoshone. He was very proud, started wearing leather jewelry and went around the house murmuring low chants that sounded like something from an old Western movie. My mother’s father was from North Carolina. She had straight black hair, dark eyes and could tan to a deep brown on a warm afternoon. If he wanted to bug her (what he called “teasing”) my father would call her “the Cherokee”. Unless he really wanted to bug her with ethnic slurs about her supposed Hungarian forebears from Cleveland.
There was a rumor that one of my ancestors had run off and married a Black person. Since that wasn’t something my forefathers would ever have written down in the family Bible, it remained a rumor. But given America’s history of, shall we say, screwing around between Whites and Blacks (consenting or not), I always took it for granted that there was some Black blood back there somewhere.
And yet we were ‘White’.
A few years ago I had one of those DNA tests and was shocked when it came back English-Irish-Scottish, with a dash of Norman French and Scandinavian.
No Native American, no African. No Asian, no Latino, nothing from the Middle East, the Arctic or the Pacific Rim. As a child of the Sixties, I felt like they had just told me I was the most boring person in the world. Eventually the program expanded, and I was informed there was some Eastern European (Hah! Hungarian) and maybe a speck on the north shore of the Mediterranean. I’d like to think it’s Basque, but it probably isn’t. Gypsy maybe. That would explain a lot.
To get back to my question about ‘White’, it came to me that after a lifetime of using the word, I didn’t really know what it meant. Think Black and a generic image pops up. Ditto Asian and all the others. It took a while, but I finally figured out the source of my unease. I couldn’t bring up an image to fit the term. All I got was a blank. A white. A nothing.
Back in the Fifties, growing up ‘white’ simply meant growing up ‘The Norm’. We were, to borrow a term from some Native Americans, “the People”. Everyone else was just different. Other. Outside the Norm. It was assumed (like Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club”) that we were what everyone else aspired to be.
And that’s what filled me with unease, not to mention shame. I’m the norm? Really? Not even in this country, let alone anywhere else.
It took a while, but I came up with something I feel comfortable with, if a little wistful. Now when I come across the little boxes, I click on Other and write in “European-
How about you?