SAMANTHA'S STORY: STOP TELLING ME I'M WRONG ABOUT MY RACE.
As a half white, half Middle Eastern woman (my father was a Syrian-Armenian immigrant in the 1970s), I have a look that can be tough to put your finger on. I have light, freckled but olive-toned skin, dark eyes and thick hair, a bold chin and cheekbones, and a whole lot of eyebrow. Raised in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, with the white side of my family, it was always made very clear to me that I was not white. Anyone of any color certainly knows the kind of micro-aggressions we deal with that make us feel “othered,” even those of us who are considered "white-passing," and I experienced plenty of this growing up.
Once I reached a point in my life and education where I was able to articulate my experiences and begin to speak up for myself, I began experiencing a bizarre pushback. White folks, especially white men, regularly dismiss my racial identity. Now, again, I understand that I’m white-passing and I fully acknowledge the relative privilege that comes with that, but on a regular basis, I will be speaking with a white person and they will ask why I just casually referred to myself as “half white.” When I say I’m Middle Eastern, they tell me “that doesn’t count” or “nice try, you’re white.”
Here are just some of the issues I have with this:
First, we can argue all day about what race means and whether having roots in the Middle East/North Africa is an ethnic or racial difference and what "whiteness" even is. Personally, I don’t consider people with these roots (including myself) “white” for the simple reason that we are not treated as such, much like many Latin-American folks don’t consider themselves white even if they’re relatively light-skinned. Whiteness is a social construct, and the definition of who fits that construct changes over time and is not logical in its inclusion and exclusion. If one isn’t treated like a white person because of their appearance, it is probably reasonable not to identify as white. No one should go around telling others how to define their own race, especially in situations where the answer is less than clear.
Second, this kind of answer is erasure. It takes my very identity and wipes it away. It tells me that my unique experience is invalid; that being treated differently because of the color of my skin was all in my mind. It’s racial gas-lighting and it’s deeply hurtful.
The first several times someone said this to me, I spiraled into a depressive existential crisis for the following couple of days, doubting my own life, experience, and identity. It’s easier to shake off now because I’ve built up a stronger dismissal in my own head, but it is still hurtful and infuriating. And think what kind of harm this could cause a young mind.
Finally, and not least, this is indicative of a larger issue with the way many white folks think and talk about race. The very impulse to grant "brownness" to as few people as possible is a systemic issue; this is a group of people who have been fed the idea that racism is dead and now black and brown folks are getting special treatment. As they say, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Even moving slightly toward equality can feel like oppression, and some people lash out, as if identifying as brown is an award you win for being the most victimized and not an aspect of a person’s core identity.
Let me just say again, because I want to make it abundantly clear, that I am not ignoring my own white-passing privilege. On the scale of racial oppression I’m far more privileged than so many other people of color who are further dismissed, marginalized, mistreated and even treated violently for the color of their skin. To those folks: I see you, and I have committed myself to doing everything in my power to lift your voices and dismantle the white supremacist system that has made my life easier than yours because my skin is a few shades lighter. I draw attention to this comparatively small issue not to draw attention from yours, but to highlight the overall issue of racism and the underlying motivations behind its persistence; to get to the root of the problem that causes hurt in people’s lives from small things like this to big things like police violence.
So how do we fix this?
We must start with education. Children of color need to be taught their value and their history, and white children need to be taught about racism—and I mean systemic, still-alive-and-well racism, not just about slavery, Dr. King and drinking fountains—and how to deconstruct it. Grown people must learn to treat racial issues with respect and learn how to prop up the voices of people of color, not shut them down. We need to have more open, respectful conversations about these issues with the people around us. Anyone with privilege needs to use that privilege to participate in actively deconstructing a harmful system. And we need to learn—will we ever learn? —to think before we speak.