What We Mean When We Call Someone ‘White’
On each census form I encounter there is always a section in which I hold the pen tip on the page but hesitate before I flick my wrist down then up. This is the part on the form that asks me about race and this is the worst case scenario. I’ve scanned the page and know my options. Hispanic/ Latino is not listed anywhere. In the best case scenario there is always an additional option with the parenthetical note claiming that whoever created this form understands my plight. He or she understands that Hispanic/ Latino is not a racial identity. He or she has added an extra section with the option Hispanic/ Latino because he or she does not want to put me in an awkward position that would force me think about my own race.
But in this worst case scenario, there are no sensitivities and I have to acknowledge a confusing fact on an official-looking piece of paper. I check white.
There are plenty of people who proudly call themselves Black Latinos, combining race and ethnicity in an exciting blend of cultural identity. And then there are people like me. People with enough conquistador blood running through their veins that checking the box next to white is their only option. On the White Latina color scale and to create a comparison of vast delusion, I’m closer to Salma Hayak than Cameron Diaz (both women of mixed ethnicity, I should add). While nobody would call Salma Hayak Jimenez de Pinault white (just as I wouldn’t voluntarily check white on a demographic report unless provided with no other options), if you were to zoom in on my complexion in the middle of a New England winter there would be no question as to what I am. Skin pigmentation is something I can’t control and so I can get past the awkward box checking.
My confusion does not stem from skin color, however. My confusion stems from race as a socially constructed category. White, as used by an overwhelming number of Americans implies something else. They are describing a person of the Stuff White People Like variety. Which puts me in a bind because those descriptions, usually based on hobbies, interests, educational background, apply to me as well. I love Mad Men and Animal Collective and David Foster Wallace. I’m attending a private university to receive a liberal arts degree. I own boat shoes, ride a vintage Schwinn, hold unpaid internships. When we talk about being white the way we normally talk about being white, often void of facial features and national heritage, what we are really talking about is class. My tastes and preferences, my lifestyle, are those of the liberal privileged middle class.
Más confusion: I am a product of what I like to call “reverse-gentrification.” I come from a working class background in the truest sense (My parents are immigrants. My mother used to clean houses. Neither of them have Bachelor’s degrees). The only reason I lived in the affluent suburbs of New Jersey and attended a high-performing public school was due to an affordable housing project. I had all the ingredients of a natural growth childhood but enough critical exposure to middle class culture to form my tastes. I know what I like and all my white people tendencies are natural to me.
So it would appear to be that at the most superficial level, I am white.
If white means privilege then I’m white. If white means skin color then I’m white. If white means educated or enjoying the things that I enjoy then I’m white.
Except that somehow, despite all this, I’m still not. If I’m placed in a room with some of my closest friends and we are asked to point at the non-white person in the room I will sit quietly and wait for their fingers to point in my direction. I am still not considered white to my white friends, whom I share more in common with than the cousins I see during holidays.
This is reassuring.
When I am reminded that my white friends don’t consider me white I’m always a little surprised and then immensely relieved because I don’t want to be white. Certainly not the type of white that comes with white guilt. The white of the past. The white of colonialism and occupation and oppression. The white of right now. The white that says race isn’t a huge problem anymore. The white that gets overly defensive of claims against mis- or underrepresentation of people of color in the media. The white that falsely associates white with power and education and upper middle class culture. This is the problem with being white. And it’s the same problem that everybody of every color has when they confuse white with anything other than what it really is: an option next to a check box indicating a color.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”