Becoming White

“The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own … But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.”

James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket,” 1985.

How am I white?

After Rachel Dolezal, the Charleston shootings and the racial violence that claimed so many black lives recently, many are asking what it means to be black in America today, but few are asking what it means to be white. And in that latter question lies an integral part of the equation. The fact is, as Baldwin wrote, most white Americans are not white. They became white. This distinction is important, and to understand what is happening today, those of us who became white must understand how and why we did so.

My great-grandmother fled Syria nearly one hundred years ago. She was herded into the cargo hold of a ship and spent the long passage to America rocking sickly in the dark. She had to ride below deck because she wasn’t white. She married another Syrian and settled in Irwin, Pennsylvania, a predominantly Irish-German town. The Irish, still struggling with their own journey out of the social gutter, taunted my family with the epithet ubla-ubla, a dig at the sharp, guttural sounds they made when speaking Arabic. It didn’t take my great-grandparents long to learn their dark olive skin and curly black hair worked against them in this new home.

So how am I white?

My mother’s father was a second-generation Syrian-American. At Ellis Island, his father’s surname made a miraculous translation from Dayoub to Sam, and in grade school, his teacher advised his class, “Don’t drink coffee, because your skin will turn brown like George Sam’s.” My mother tells similar stories of her own life — how kids called her “little black Sam” and “Sambo,” and asked if she was “colored” because her hair was black and curly, and her skin was dark.

So how am I white?

My father’s grandfather sailed from Sicily near the turn of the century. He settled in New Jersey and earned twenty-five cents a day as a cobbler. Too poor to afford housing, he slept beneath his workbench. When he ventured out of the Italian neighborhood, he was called dago, and wop and guinea.

So how am I white?

The answer is both impossibly complex and incredibly simple. I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand it, studying American racial history and researching the civil rights movement and race in the 20th century for a book I recently completed. Here’s what I found — I am white because, even though my family entered this country in a low social and economic position, and even though they weren’t considered white by the racist standards of the time, they also weren’t black. That meant they had access to opportunities like bank loans, which meant home and land ownership were possible. They were smart with those opportunities and grew them into wealth. Wealth gave them access to the power that had drawn them to America in the first place, and regardless of what they had to do to get it, and despite the fact that the power could never quite change their immigrant status, it meant their children, and their children’s children, had a chance to enter life with the highest social, economic, political and cultural status in the world. They could be white Americans.

If this seems far fetched, consider a few historical facts. My great-grandfather, the one they called ubla-ubla, worked at a glass factory. Would the factory have hired him if he was black? Knowing the well-documented racist history of labor unions, probably not. My other great-grandfather, the one they called dago, received a bank loan to build his own shoe store and eventually bought and sold property in New Jersey. Would these opportunities have been open to him if he was black? Knowing the well-documented racist history of bank loans and land ownership, it’s highly unlikely.

None of this is to diminish my family’s, or any immigrant’s, accomplishments. We earned our position. We worked terrible jobs for low pay and somehow clawed out enough to save and build upon. But through the generations, we escaped the prejudice we faced on arrival and blended into the fabric of white American society. That’s how I began life as an ordinary white guy, not a Syrian or Sicilian immigrant. This is a luxury no black American has ever had, and one few white Americans acknowledge today.

If my family didn’t become white, I certainly wouldn’t have grown up the way I did, with the opportunities I had. Take my education, for instance. During my school years, roughly 400,000 black people lived in my hometown of Hollywood, Florida, and its surrounding counties, according to the September 1992 edition of American Demographics magazine. Yet, in my entire elementary school, there were two black kids — twin brothers, no less. In middle school, I don’t remember any. In high school, maybe half a dozen per class.

These schools were parochial and private — my friends in public schools had a different experience. Still, while learning about slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement, no one asked why, in an area with nearly half a million black people, fewer than forty of them went to school with us. And although nearly every one of my white classmates came from an immigrant family that became white like mine, none of us questioned how our world, our race or our identity was constructed. Perhaps we were too young to form the question, or perhaps our segregation was so near complete, nothing in our experience even hinted there was a question to be asked.

This should alarm all of us. Americans made a promise to be better than this. Better than segregated schools and unequal opportunity. Better than racist church massacres and police brutality. That promise shines in our founding documents. It punctuates every political speech we give, every patriotic song we sing, every history book we write. Sometimes it seems it’s everywhere but in our actions.

So what do we do? For starters, we can take Baldwin’s advice from “The Price of the Ticket,” where he urged, “Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.”

I am white. I know how I became white. Do you?