At long last.
This one was a lot harder to write than the last one. Not least because I’ve been thinking on the topic for a shorter time than I had the other, but also because it seemed so much more personal. Not in a close-to-the-vest way, like I’d be telling secrets. More like, in the face of everything currently happening, what does MY story really matter? But they say we need honest conversation, so here I am.
A month back, when the protests all started, Time.com ran a piece which posed the question: “How do you know you’re white?” The author, Savala Trepczynski, had asked a large class of law students, a diverse group of people who had given the topic of race extensive and educated thought over their years, and goes on to state that not one of them had an answer.
As I read it, I did have one.
For me, my answer came to me in my late twenties, as I was considering a tattoo idea. I wanted something on my chest that would represent both sides of my family, together in one piece. My surname comes from a state in Germany. Their coat of arms features a silver key. That half seemed like a gimme. For my mother’s side I thought I would like an eagle, but instead of clutching a snake, as on the flag of Mexico, it would be holding that key. As I sought out reference pictures, I realized a disturbing trend of white men with eagle tattoos on their chest not really sending a message of Brown pride…
It was my late twenties when I realized that my mom’s family is Mexican, that WE are Mexican, but I am still a white guy. At least, as far as the world is going to see. I tan a little better than most of my purely European friends, but that’s about it. Nobody sees my resume and assumes I can’t speak English; my elders all “assimilated” and used English in the home, so I’m still monolingual. Nobody yells at me to “Go back where I came from” when I’m walking down the street.
And nobody really stops to think before saying some frankly alarming shit in front of me that I doubt they’d do if I were brown twelve months a year instead of maybe two (provided I make it to the beach).
They assume that I look like them, so I must come from their background, or something enough like it. Nobody knows or even considers it possible that when my grandparents moved into town the realtor told them, “Well, I can show you those houses, we can drive past them, but the bank will never give YOU PEOPLE the loan unless you choose THESE NEIGHBORHOODS.” My grandparents, both of whom are still alive as of this writing – this is not an issue exclusive to the deceased people of a long-gone generation. My uncles and my mother, the generation who raised me, grew up on the sidelines of America-at-large based on the color of their skin.
I know I am white because I was not cut off like that. And because my White-white friends would dare complain to me about having a family of color renting from them. Would they have shared that had they known the skin-color based housing problems my own family had faced?
My mom was born and raised in Southern California. My dad, on the other hand, came from the other coast. His father was a minister, starting in the South, and worked during the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, his parishioners decided that they didn’t like this “love and tolerate” business that he was preaching, and asked him to move on. The family would eventually be pressed northward, to Maryland, excommunicated from “Real” America not for their color but their beliefs.
Despite a continent between them, events conspired to bring my parents together, and we settled in SoCal, with Mom’s family all nearby. As a small child, I was told that the Police are there to help, and to go to them if I was ever lost or hurt. As I grew, I was supplied with nuance. I was taught that they are there to work for you, not to rule over you, and to never let them go one step further than necessary and right. I was told stories from my older, browner family, of a fleet of squad cars called on a cousin simply for making a doughnut run without his driver’s license. I watched, in person, as a cop sneered down at my Spanish-surnamed cousin, 14 and nearly run over on his skateboard by a woman speeding through a residential zone. A woman who fled the scene, only to return later with reinforcements to claim compensation for damage inflicted by his board, which I do believe is known as a hit-and-run. But anyway, brown kid equals wrong, right?
I know that I am white because when I was pulled over at 19 for a busted rear light, the cop took my license and asked if I needed my glasses to see before administering the field sobriety test (which he didn’t even make me get out of the car for!), and I rolled my eyes and told him “The license you’re holding says ‘Corrective Lenses Required.'” Then he let me follow the pen with my eyes and be on my way with a “Fix it, kid.” Nothing more.
I know I am white because of my brown. Because I have been, hands-on and first-person, raised within a non-white community; because I saw for myself what America does to its people of color, and because I know now that I have not and will not face these trials. There’s not really an off-white America, nowhere in the middle for me to dwell, no miscegenation nation. I could try to stick myself into Brown America, but I already know I haven’t had that life experience. Looking at the taijitu, I feel like the little dots, the yin in the yang and the yang in the yin. When they ask my race and ethnicity on a form, I love love LOVE IT when I get to check off both “White, non-Latino” and “Latino, non-White.” But ultimately, it’s an accessory. Something I can choose to put on, If i think it’ll look good. I wear it all the time, and I wear it proudly – hell, it’s why I wanted the tattoo! – but it is not and never will be who the world treats me as.
At the end of the day, I know that I am white because one of the biggest problems I face is that a tattoo might accidentally be misinterpreted.