When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. It wasn’t intentional. It started because I was a square peg coveting circles. It started because I stuck out everywhere, even when I didn’t want the attention. Even when race and gender didn’t play a role. I just didn’t seem to belong anywhere.
About seven years ago the Ensemble Theater introduced “The Ballad of Emmett Till” in Houston. It was a work of musical theater meant to share the story of his life. I wouldn’t have known about it, except that there is a picture of the playbill that hangs in a frame on the wall of the museum.
I started volunteering there because I wanted to learn more about art, and I wanted to meet other people. While I was sitting at the front desk today, a family came in. The parents wandered over to Faith Ringgold’s exhibition while the boy wandered over to the picture on the wall—captivated by Till’s beaming face—a young black boy, similar in age and appearance.
He was excited to see a picture of someone his age who looked so much like him, so he ran over to his father to share the news. “Look! Who is that? Is he famous? What did he do?”
I winced, but turned my head– pretending to refold shirts that sat comfortably on the shelves. But the father, unfazed and unfettered, looked him squarely in the eyes. Without malice, shame, or horror he retold the story of Emmett Till.
I winced again in secret, feeling an old, familiar, deeply rooted pain.
Why are these the stories of our children?
Why does our desire to tell the truth to our children create sadness and fear and harm? Is it better that we keep this trauma hidden, at least to a certain age?
When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. It wasn’t intentional. It started because I was a square peg coveting circles. I wanted what they had.
It started because I stuck out everywhere, even when I didn’t want the attention. Even when race and gender didn’t play a role. I just didn’t seem to belong anywhere.
I struggled to find connections and make real friendships. I struggled to find people who cared about me and cared about the things I was interested in.
For the first few years, I didn’t know that I was white. I was colorblind and compassionate. If you had asked me, I would’ve said something like race doesn’t matter, or that race isn’t real.
We all struggle. We all suffer. We all set out to carve our own path.
In the last few years that I was white, I was sullen and bitter. I was angry because of the boxes I was put in. It wasn’t my fault that the things I enjoyed were already assigned to a white majority. People needed to be more open-minded and less-bigoted.
When I was white, I subscribed to a few truths I held self-evident. I believed them to be both universal and unequivocal.
- I believed that we all sunk or swam by our own merit. I am the captain of my ship. I am the master of my sail.
- I believed that we all should be held accountable for our choices.
- I believed that if we failed to launch—we only had ourselves to blame. Poverty came from a lack of ingenuity and a failure to make good choices.
I loved Keifer Sutherland and Robin Williams. I aspired to attend USC and to play beach volleyball professionally. I loved penny loafers and Clueless and idolized Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King.
I preferred my hair blond and curly. I critiqued the way people mispronounced words. I mocked their intonation.
I went by Yvonne because it seemed less ethnic, less southern, and less stereotypically black than Anjeanette.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas was one of my favorites. Hanson’s Weird was on repeat. I studied Latin in high school and again in college, and I opted to attend a predominately white institution for undergrad. And again for grad school. And again for grad school. And again for grad school (the struggle).
I loved old musicals and Audrey Hepburn. I wore faux pearls and French buns.
I didn’t aspire for whiteness as a pathway to perceived security or luxury. I was just a square peg coveting circles.
I don’t mean to imply that being white is problematic. Race is a social construction, which means it was made up. I also don’t mean to imply that other cultural groups can’t enjoy and experience whatever they’d like, cultural appropriation aside (more on that later).
But it is a problem, as a by-product of our location and time, to choose whiteness and idolize it for the sake of economic gain. Worse still, just to have what we perceive would be an easier, simpler, and more comfortable life.
Becoming black again was long and arduous, but in ways I never imagined it would be, it was easier. I found her inside myself, and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.
When my niece was born so many memories came flooding back—so many decisions I made for the sake of a separate peace and a simple life.
I worried (in advance) for her livelihood. I worried (in advance) for her heart.
I didn’t want her to have the same questions I had, to have the same insecurities. I wanted her to know and believe that she was loved unequivocally: completely and without conditions. Regardless of who she might become. Regardless of what she might do or say. Regardless of what she might worship or who she might choose to love or how she might choose to express her identity.
I wanted her to feel complete and whole and powerful. Capable of anything and everything she could dream. Not bound by a need or by an expectation to look a certain way, sound a certain way, dance a certain way, cook a certain way, worship a certain way, or love a certain way.
Not bound by an expectation of how much she should weigh. Not bound by the idea that black people aren’t supposed to be smart, or that women aren’t good at Math or Science. Or that a woman’s purpose is to be a helpmate for her husband.
When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. I was a square peg coveting circles.
Not because they were circles and I disliked being square, but because there was a noticeable difference in their lives. There was a different expectation for their families and their children. There was a different expectation for their wealth, motivation, and drive. Different expectations and belief in their capacity and willingness to be good people, upstanding citizens, voters, caretakers, stewards, and lovers. Leaders and thinkers and visionaries and romantic leads in the most popular romantic comedy.
There was a different expectation of their ability to be human.
I didn’t become white on purpose.