My college roomie has always seemingly been able to pluck the most abstract and disordered thoughts from my strung out and anxious mind, put words to them, organize the words into cohesive and organized statements, and ground me. I would be remiss to admit that this post was created because of a post from her blog. She was able to say a thing that I don’t think I ever could have given words to. It moved me so much because I have carried these complicated feelings with me forever, but I had no idea how to begin sorting through them. I have been stewing and chewing on my own thoughts since I read her entry. Here is what I have so far:
I used to think I was made for white people, too. I still often get stuck in that same old pattern. Habits are hard to break.
I make white people comfortable. I am outgoing and as my neighbor Keysha once told me when I was 7 years old, I ‘talk like a white person.’
I was raised mostly by a widowed white mother and her parents. For some reason that remains a family secret I did not have much access to my father’s side of the family. They did not reach out to me, a small child, and my mother did not reach out to them after my father died. I was raised by a white woman who knew the white world. She did not know that she would have to prepare me to navigate the world as a non-white person. Because I am white. Right? I am technically. But by nature I am kind of not ever white, because I just cannot be. But yes- look where I come from. But not at all, never, no. But also- yes. But- this is where things get hairy.
My dad never really got the idea across that we needed to be prepared to face the world as people of color when he was alive. And I think my mom thought it would be easier for us. I assume that she thinks we live in a post racial society and that we are fine. Well- I am not fine.
I called my sister, in the middle of a full blown identity crisis when I was in college, and she told me calmly, “take some black studies classes. you will be fine.” It felt like she was saying, “take 2 aspirin and call me in the morning.” I took my classes, I made it my major. It was her major, too. Africana/African/Black studies courses were how we were able to survive our 20s as biracial women with white mothers.
My classmates were mostly white in my youth. I found myself in gifted and honors classes in a white suburb. I studied the violin and classical vocal performance from white teachers and role models and my peers in those disciplines happened to be white. I was surrounded by white people. I was comfortable with white people. White people are my family and they were my friends. I was everyone’s minority friend. I just didn’t have the pool of people available to see people and make friends that looked like me. I became so good at being friends with white people. I think this is when I started to really feel like I was made for white people. I diminished myself in so many ways in order to be comfortable for them, in order to be digestible to them. This is a survival skill. The things I put up with from some of my social circle in high school are things that nightmares are made of. I would never put up with that shit now.
There were a few of us ethnically ambiguous folks that ran in my social circles, and we secretly joked about race and had a familiarity that was comforting. But that was a secret. Our non-whiteness was a secret. Our skin and hair and freckles and family photos betrayed us, but our voices were white. We were fluent in whiteness.
I did not know that when I walked on stage, people noticed my waist length curls. People always touch my hair. My hair was so long and is so curly. I wore my floor length choral dress and my long, almost black, curls clipped back elegantly out of my face, and I would walk across the stage to sing my solo in latin. No one knew what to expect from this Mexican-looking girl. But I sang, and I proved myself worthy with my voice. They loved to adore the minority girl. Look at me! Being so good and so ethnic! But they listened to me. I was breaking down barriers, right?
I took voice lessons at a very fancy music school. I got a scholarship there. I am pretty sure I got it because I was the only student of color at the school. I think they thought I was an inner city youth. Look at them: do-gooders! My mom drove me one and half hours out there every other week for 2 hours of lessons. When recital time came, my voice teacher had me go first because she knew none of her other students had the nerves or the chops to do it. She told me that. And then I sang, and the owner of school, an elderly white man, was so proud to have me at the school. Young, talented, and colored!
I was there for white people. I made them feel good about themselves. I was breaking down walls with my presence. I was doing work for all the other brown kids like myself, wasn’t I? I was an ambassador? I was opening doors for others? Maybe I did do that- at least that is what I tell myself.
Something happened to me a few years ago when I was in the midst of a very serious Bible study at a well-known liberal church. The church is mostly upper class white folks. I could walk to the church, and I enjoyed the rigorous curriculum. Everyone there registered voters, volunteered, donated to NPR, loved Obama, the theater and social justice. They loved farmer’s markets, and supported living wages, but they also were rooted in whiteness, cemented in whiteness. They loved that I could play with the big boys when it came to religious talk. My Christology isn’t very high, but I use phrases like “High Christology” and white people really like that. I was one of the only people that came there with a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge (Holla!), and a past where I had grappled with trying to live Biblical principles in the world. I was also a token minority person for their church.
I almost ripped my hair out of my scalp so many times there. We read a book by an African author, one of my favorite books, and a thesis of the book was, “our culture is more complex than stereotypes.” A well-meaning white person would say at the potluck dinner discussion, “my favorite part of the book was this insert stereotype-the-author-was-specifically-trying-to-battle aspect of the culture.” I stood up to the person who said it and said, “No. That is the exact opposite of the entire point of this book. No. No. No.” And suddenly I broke out of my place of being complicit to whiteness. I pressed on and read portions of the book back to him to prove my point. Others took his defense. I became the angry minority. I fought hard. I mean- these are educated people, they have to be hearing what I am saying. They didn’t. I left that night feeling exhausted, unseen, and angry. I did not obey the rules of whiteness, so I was seen as crazy and overreactive and ridiculous. They did not see that it was a big deal. They did not see that the whiteness that they clung to and defended within this book about a culture being torn apart had ramifications for me and for all of us now.
I either submit to whiteness and I accept my place in being made for it, or I fall on the outside, banished from some of my community.
The moment I realized I was a friendly token minority person to befriend, I felt used. White people like to have me around because I am their free one-way ticket out of racism town. When I am on their docket, they no longer have to be responsible. White people love me. They adore me. They love how liberal I am. They tell me that they listen to NPR, too! They even donate! They voted for Obama, too! They listen to my stories and they want to see all my scars and wounds from racism, not knowing that they are giving me new bruises and scrapes with their voyeurism.
I tried to stay in that study for as long as I could. I wanted to be a voice, that voice that they would listen to. But I was outnumbered. I felt the push back every 0nce in awhile, and only one or two people would notice and they would take some of the attack upon themselves (bless them) to try to give credibility to my words. But that was just a bad situation to be in. Someone should not have to vouch for me. Someone white should not have to vouch for me, in order to make my words true and worth hearing. I was made for whiteness, but I started to break the rules of whiteness. I left the group.
I cannot describe how heartbreaking it is to realize that I have been befriended by a white person in order to be their token. I do not doubt that they like who they think I am. My voice, speaking and singing, makes me palatable to them. That is until they get to really know me. Get me going on privilege, history, our currency, feminism, and they look betrayed. They yell at me! How dare I not be their model minority friend who makes them comfortable and is complacent with their racist jokes. How dare I question their dedication to social justice.
Sometimes the realization doesn’t happen until very far into the relationship. And that makes it even worse. The moment I realize what is going on, I can hear an audible crack in my soul. I walk across all the shards of glass and I weep. I feel stupid. I feel used. I can’t believe I did it again. I promise myself to never let myself be in that situation again. My skin gets even thicker. My walls go up higher. My game face gets harder.
A few weeks ago I was walking down the street, and a woman yelled out at me from across the street, “Go back home, spic,” she spat, “Take your family home.” And then she trailed off with other, lesser, obscenities. At first I thought she said something else or was talking to someone else. I think I wanted to hear something else from her. I really wanted her to have shouted something crazy and yet still friendly or neutral. It shook me when I realized what had happened. I try to keep myself safe from that kind of thing based on the social life I have created for myself. I make friends with people that are “other” and with people that do not fit. I like it with them. We are family. We are the same. They know what it is like to be made for whiteness, and then to fail at whiteness, even if their minority status is based on gender or sexual orientation or class. But I can only keep myself so safe.
I feel that I was made for whiteness. And no matter how carefully I cultivate my social life, I cannot escape that I am at the mercy of of whiteness. It surrounds me. I am a child of it. It engulfs me.