This week, it happened again. I was publicly admonished by a group of personally affronted white people for referring to myself as “black”.
Now, I’ve been doing this since I was old enough to answer the unavoidable “What are you?” question (my appearance was rather racially ambiguous, although I’m looking increasingly Caucasian as I age), and it’s only been recently that my answer was met with anything other than quiet interest, mild surprise, or the occasional raised eyebrow.
As the responses have become more and more disapproving over time, I’ve become quick to clarify with, “Mixed-race, actually”. Seemed politic of me. But that is no longer enough. Even that clarification is now met with some strain of the argument, “Why are you ashamed to admit to the fact that you’re white? Nowadays, it’s like, ‘Oh, my great-great-grandfather’s gerbil is of African origin, so that makes me black.’ People act like they’re rats fleeing a sinking white ship. What’s wrong with being white?”
There is, in fact, absolutely nothing wrong with being white. My mother is white, my husband is white, my children are white (no, they never did “darken up”, quite contrary to the popular myth). Very nearly everyone I know, am related to, or associate with is white or has white ancestry. People tend to assume that I’m white and when I say otherwise I’m met with incredulity, disbelief, or hysterical laughter, “Ha ha ha ha! That’s hilarious! No, seriously now…”
I had more of a tan when I was younger, but I seem to have misplaced it. It must be around here somewhere.
To add insult to injury, both whites and non-whites are waking up to the Affirmative Action debacle. Nominal NAMs (a.k.a. Really Whites and Practically Whites) are perceived to be gaming this system, as they reap the social rewards of being white and the political/economic rewards of being racial minorities. Your daughter can now be the blond, blue-eyed captain of the cheerleading squad and get a full scholarship to Harvard to balance out the racial subjugation she is presumed to have suffered under in her youth. She’s biwinning.
It used to be that if a famous non-white person did something positive, white racialists would explain that they were some sort of “exception” or anomaly for their race. Today it is the precise opposite. They immediately begin to research their ancestry to find their “white roots”, as the fact that they’re Really White or even just Practically White is the answer to everything, replacing the number 42. It is the white version of “Mariah Carey’s black, that’s why she can sing!” Well, yes. Sort of. Stretching that a bit, aren’t we?
I see this increasingly in the wider political field. The definition of “white” is slowly shifting and becoming more fluid. Jews, Latinos, Eastern Europeans, Mediterraneans, Asians, and (the fastest growing population of them all) “other” or “mixed-race”, are making it more and more difficult to demarcate the line between black and white. I think that, increasingly, white people are realizing the political advantages of moving their border closer to their swarthier cousins. This has happened repeatedly throughout history (“white” today not meaning what it did a century ago), but it’s fascinating to see it happening in real time, right in my own neighborhood.
I’m still black, though. For now. Mixed-race, actually. Just sort of pale. Sometimes I have a bit of a tan. Yes, that’s my real eye color.
It’s complicated. Don’t take it personally.