“Alguna vez has deseado tener cabello negro y ojos oscuros y parecerte diferente?” my longtime friend asked me as we sat sipping pisco sours, has there ever been a time when you’ve wished you had black hair and dark eyes and looked different? It was her first trip to see me here, and actually, her first big solo drive since she moved to the USA for graduate school. She’d gotten in her car and hit the highway for an interstate drive that would take her from her college town, across a swath of Appalachia, and to the small Ohio town where I live.
I didn’t always live here. Strangely, though, I’ve now lived in this brick-and-vinyl Midwestern family home longer than I’ve lived in any other house; in just a few months, it will be a full ten years since I’ve moved. A year or so ago, someone getting to know our family asked my husband — I think many Midwesterners find him easier to relate to than they find me — what he thought was the most improbable thing I’ve ever done. “Live here,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
I was surprised at his answer, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. It really does seem unlikely that I’d spend an entire decade here, watching suburban sprawl devour old family farm after old family farm and spit out an Applebee’s, a dialysis center, and and a hundred contemporary tract homes. Sometimes they’ll leave an old barn, freshening its paint annually as it serves as the rustic-chic centerpiece of a shopping plaza named Country Square (featuring nothing from the country) or a burbclave named Cedarwood Farms (featuring landscaping that does not include cedars). Sometimes they’ll leave nothing recognizable at all. I’m not sure which is sadder.
My first home was a small dairy farm, in then-rural Massachusetts. It might still stand, in some form, as it was an old farmhouse and it’s likely in a good area for such a home to be renovated and modernized. I could go look for it on Google Earth, but I don’t know what its house number might be — I don’t think it had one when I lived there. I know when I last drove by it some twenty years ago, it was still standing, right across from a subdivision on Harris Farm Road — presumably, after the Harris family whose farm it had been and with whom I’d used to play. I remember the shock of realizing the drainage culvert was all that remained of the stream where a man born in 1881 taught me to fish when I was three. I was glad he hadn’t lived to see it.
When he died, my family built its next home with a few hundred bucks and the labor of lots of friends, on a lot my mother had been given by her grandmother. In the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire, our driveway was a logging road’s easement along a hiking trail back into a state forest named for my great-grandfather. If a couple in their late twenties with a preschooler and a baby built that house today, they’d be calling it an off-grid tiny home with one amazing room and a sleeping loft, and somebody would have written clickbait about how smart my parents were to build the house downhill from the pre-existing well so you were never carrying full buckets uphill.
Even these first two homes of mine were unconventional — an old farm inhabited mainly by hyper-educated hippies going back to the land, and that aforementioned old guy; a cabin in the woods whose building materials were dragged in by a team of six draft horses that I still remember vividly to this day. But I haven’t even gotten to the part I tended to think of as the interesting part.
Just before my fifth birthday, we moved to then-rural Peru. My parents, you see, were anthropologists. But this move of theirs was arguably a little different from most anthropologist moves to what academics tend to call “the field,” in that they didn’t actually have any funding. Being hippies, they also, well, basically didn’t have any money. At the time, neither did Peru as a whole, so from that perspective, we all had lots in common. My parents had been studying and working in Peru since their college years and, I later learned, had spent those years living on the Massachusetts farm trying unsuccessfully to find funding for their work. Finally, in 1976, they opted to just go, spending their literal last pennies on the venture.
And so a few months in, when they had no money left and no source of revenue could be found in the midst of Peru’s sweeping agrarian and economic reforms, the indigenous community where we had settled held public discussions and resolved to help support this family of gringos, on the grounds that we were just people facing the same hardships as anyone else. Thus my family came to belong to the town of Chinchero, in a manner that people do not tend to belong to their communities in the United States, and in a manner that would forever change my parents’ academic and professional work as well as simply their lives and those of their children.
My visitor is younger than me. Heck, she’s younger than my little sister. We didn’t grow up together in Chinchero. We are of a different generation. In fact, that’s one way we became friends, when I was thirty and she was fresh out of college. “Is it true,” she asked one night when we were at a group dinner wrapping up a tour I had helped my father lead, “like the older folks tell me, that back in the day, you had to be on the truck to Cusco hours before dawn, and all that?”
“I don’t know if it was really hours,” I told her. “Where we lived, up in Cuper, you’d hear the truck engine start and know you might have time to make it to my friend Angelica’s family’s store, on the corner there, if you ran. We only went to Cusco on the truck called Jaimito. Most reliable. But yeah, the sun wouldn’t be up till we were by the top of the rise where you can see lake Piuray. And then to get home you had to be sure you were back at Arcopata a las dos de la tarde, at 2 pm, except nobody had watches, so, you know how that goes.”
She was floored. “You know how siblings and cousins are,” she said. “They’ll tell you anything and expect you to believe it. And they’ll all get in on it. Or sometimes it’s just that people’s memories become exaggerated, especially from telling and retelling.”
“You can’t believe how muddy that road was in the rainy season,” I went on. I was stuck, stuck on the same exact lines anybody my age would have been trotting out. “Walking it to school, it would be slippery and sometimes your foot would go into the mud almost to your knee. And it was bad because shoes were mandatory for school, so sometimes we just carried them because it was easier to wash off our legs!”
It does sound exaggerated, doesn’t it? “In the United States,” I told my friend, “they joke about the old people saying they used to have to go to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill in both directions. In Peru, we can joke about the thirty-year-olds doing it!”
And in the United States, we probably have pictures. Strange as it may seem, pictures of what Peru looked like a scant few decades ago aren’t all over the place. Oh, sure, the ruins and the big tourist attractions. Sure, the cities. Sure, the works of famous Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi, which are older. Sure, the occasional tourist snapshot somewhere more remote. That LIFE magazine spread about the 1950 earthquake in Cusco. But a regular picture of indigenous communities as recently as the 1970s and 1980s? Wow, all you get is the posed pictures. Where my estadounidense grandfather could pull out picture after picture that he took of my father’s childhood in a mainly blue collar and white Long Island 1950s suburb, my indigenous Peruvian friends have no such personal archives.
If my friend wants to find pictures of what her present home at a United States university looked like a hundred years ago, it’s trivial. If I want to find a Google Earth shot that zooms in close enough to see that “back to the land” cabin my parents built forty years ago, that’s no problem. But if I want to prove to my friend that indeed, when I was little, in the decade prior to her birth, there was a lake where the stadium is now and the main futbol action was down by the school? I’ve got nothing but stories. Heck, parts of our town don’t even exist on any online map I’ve ever found, and it’s iffy as to whether they’re on printed maps or even drawn maps from the colonial era. And the things that would be most interesting to us to search online, well, they aren’t there — not in English, not in Spanish, not in Quechua which we both grew up speaking.
The things we can find are mostly what the tourists want to know about; what the foreign researchers have noted; what municipal records may occasionally be digitally available now, and moving forward. But if we wished to so much as confirm the existence of the community of Taucca, an ayllu of our town of Chinchero, it doesn’t appear on maps. Zoom in that Google Earth view, and scroll around looking at my town, I think. I know the way, I’ve walked it. I can see the road on the satellite view. I can see the fields being farmed. I can see the lakes and mountains whose names I know. But they are nothing. They are not a hotel or a place to buy lunch or souvenirs. Those are marked. But something like Paccha, the Inca-built mini-waterfall made from a spring, where my community fetched its water for centuries? It’s not a place. Neither is the small town of Taucca, even though we all know it’s there, and even though communities of a similar size do appear on maps of the USA, and have for a century or more.
Here’s Chinchero, a town that still knows and venerates the boundaries between its Andean ayllus. Every year, still today, Chincherinos run and walk them. “I’ve only done Cuper and Yanacona,” I told my friend. It used to be a joke that everyone ran Yanacona’s boundaries because it was flat. My ayllu of Cuper’s boundary-running is no joke. It’s barely within the realm of possibility for someone physically fit at a steady jog. I have no idea how many kilometers it is. I only know it takes from dawn to after sundown. My friend has run those same two boundaries, and also those of her ayllu.
Tourists go now too, my friend tells me. “The whole way, for Cuper, even?” I ask her. Haha, no. Cuper’s boundaries really are uphill both ways, and the downhill parts are no shit either. Cuper laughs at your cuatro por cuatro, your dirtbike, and your inability to keep up with sheep when they run up a hillside. Everyone knows Cuper is traditional and stodgy. Conservative, arrogant, sometimes dismissive of those pampa-dwellers and their paved road. And yet, Cuper adopted my family. Cuper is my extended family.
I’ve tried to explain this all to people in Ohio. All over the United States, actually. Heck, people all around the world. The academics who’ve studied Peru, or the Inca, they at least know the word ayllu. It’s more than the name of a generations-old Cusco restaurant that was recently turned into a Starbucks. But to them the question is abstract. It’s not the way splintering shale slices even your callused bare feet when your exhausted body hits the home stretch. It’s not the bell tolling for a funeral and you being among the fast-running children who finds out whose and spreads the word. It’s not the swelling pride of being a child carrying food out to the people swinging a pick to fix the foot road to Taucca.
My visitor knows all of this already. There’s no alteration of appearance either of us could make which would change the fact that we could almost certainly go a thousand miles in any direction from where we sit sipping Peru’s national cocktail, and not meet anyone else who shares that with us.
I gave my friend’s question a lot of serious thought. I’ve never been asked it before, really. Not in that way: has there ever been a time when you’ve wished you had black hair and brown eyes, and looked different?
The answer is yes. I mean no. I mean definitely not. I mean absolutely, of course. Except no. Really not, the same way I don’t wish I’d never been born, even though I said that countless times when I was a teenager, and surely felt it as earnestly and deeply as every teenager who has uttered those words.
As to my eyes, no. Not once. I have never wished for different eyes. I’ve never lived anyplace where people didn’t say something about my eye color, unless it’s a place where nobody ever looks anybody in the eye. I’ve had all kinds of occasion to think about it. My eyes change color, but mostly, like my father did, I call them hazel. When I was little in Chinchero, some of the old folks liked to call my eyes “seven-colored.” Seven-colored eyes, they said, made for a complicated, but somehow magical, life.
The first time I wished for darker skin was in Chinchero. I had a terrible time with sunburns, you see — sunburns so bad they blistered, bubbled, burst, and scabbed, on my nose, my cheeks, my ears. I learned I could never, ever take my hat off. Not even for a minute. But I’d do it anyway, and I’d burn, and blister, and scab. There is no greater indicator that your ancestors came from elsewhere than for the lifegiving sun itself to burn you in ways it doesn’t burn everyone else around.
The first time I wished for darker hair was also in Chinchero. You see, I was so, so blonde then, and sunbleached more so in all the parts that weren’t covered by a hat. And I swear, everybody in Chinchero had the best eyes ever. They probably could have identified which kids were over climbing around where they weren’t supposed to, even if one of them wasn’t the only blonde child in the entire Department of Cusco at the time, but no, there was no chance for me to pretend it might have been some other kid.
Actually, I wished for dark hair very, very often. My mother had dark hair and so, once she left her infancy, did my sister. Neither of them had total strangers come up to them and touch their hair. Neither of them had to field questions about how I got my hair so pale, or derision about how it was the color of piss. Neither of them ever found themselves swarmed by strange adults who wanted to grab and pull and touch and tug. I didn’t feel like I came close to meeting anybody who related to me on this whole “stop touching my hair” thing until this one time when I was sitting in a bar in Chicago and somebody asked to touch a young black woman’s dreads. And she said no. It had never really occurred to me to just say no (which in hindsight, seems funny considering “just say no” was a major buzzphrase in the 1980s war on drugs propaganda).
I didn’t actually meet that lady with the dreads. I just listened to the dressing down she gave the white lady who’d asked to touch them. Nobody tried to touch my hair in the USA. I had thought hair touching just wasn’t a thing here. I hadn’t thought about hair deeply at all, before then. I had only thought about it as it related to me, and how I’d chosen to keep it short, how I often dyed it all manner of crazy colors that aren’t for hair. I was 18, and short-haired, and I resolved to let my hair grow and not to dye it anymore. I resolved to learn to like my hair, to grow it long as a point of pride, after all. I thought of the older women in Chinchero who had scolded me for cutting it all off short: como te vas a treinzar? they would ask me, how are you going to braid that?
Hair is culturally symbolic all over the place, and all over time. And it’s hair like mine that has been globally idealized for a while now. I was a tow-headed child and a flaxen-haired young woman. Old letters to my mother congratulating her on the birth of her daughter even congratulate her on having a blonde. Blondes have more fun. Gentlemen prefer blondes. Blonde blonde blonde. I was never happier than when age darkened my hair to light brown. Especially if I keep it put up and you can’t see the lighter tips and tell it’s dirty blonde.
I have hated my pale hair, and what it signifies, and I have often acknowledged (but refused to deeply examine) that I have some sort of identity issue surrounding it. All I know is, when I resolved to grow my hair long and let it be its natural color, it felt like an act of stubbornness and defiance. It felt like growing up. All of this, I would have to explain at length for anyone to understand; who could imagine an identity struggle wrapped up in my hair, of all things? I mean, not someone’s hair — we all know there’s lots to discuss about hair. But I mean MY hair. My straight blonde princess Rapunzel hair. How dare a person with hair such as mine have any issue or baggage or identity struggle about her hair?
My hair is almost four feet long now (well over a meter). And yeah, one more thing about growing up split between the USA and Peru is that I must always decide what units of measure I will use. I must always decide what is warranted by the context in which I find myself. But nobody looks at me, here in the USA, and imagines that I might be trying to decide whether to tell them something weighed 9 kilos or 20 pounds. Why would they? There’s nothing I can do to my appearance that will make me “look foreign.”
Oh, but I am. My ancestral foreignness to this land where I was born is a matter of public record, and even a few near-mythical stories. On my mother’s side, one ancestor was famously hanged for witchcraft in 1690s Massachusetts, and another, decades earlier, was a Puritan minister who died at sea leaving his wife and small children to arrive in a colony along with the first printing press brought to what is now the United States (about a century after Spain was printing in Mexico City and Lima, incidentally). My many-times-great-grandmother’s name appears various places as an original settler, original landowner, in Massachusetts.
A few years ago I visited the United Kingdom for the first time. It was the first time I had been somewhere English-speaking where there were really old things — where “old” didn’t mean a century. I took a selfie in front of the Tower of London. “What’s that thing that looks like a medieval castle?” someone asked me when I posted it. “It IS a medieval castle,” I said. For the first time I thought, hey, this is something my people built in antiquity; these are my ancestral roots. And there was no mistaking it; as I walked through Cambridge, England, it was obvious how much Cambridge, Massachusetts, had emulated the older city. As I rode in a car past town commons that were eerily familiar, there was no way to deny what my English colonial ancestors were trying to do. I mean, they even named their new homes the same thing as the places they’d left. New England. Duh. If it were a snake, it would have bit me, as the saying goes.
But I am not English. I am no Briton. My people came from there, and they can be traced and proven backwards and forwards from the point of their taking ship for a colony. If I trace back far enough, will I find my ancestors were only ever conquerors and colonists, back through the aeons? Is that an identity I could own and wear? Is that what I am, who I am born to be?
Basta ya, pues. I don’t believe in any sort of biological determinism. But cultural determinism, now, that might be another story. So what’s it mean, to look how I look? With pale skin, pale hair, pale eyes? It’s all just how I look, on the one hand. But it’s also so much more. My ancestors took ship from where they lived, and went someplace far away. There were people there, who looked different, with darker skin, black hair, brown eyes — like my friend. But now there are mostly people who look like me, and it was my ancestors who displaced them, built their homes, carved out their own little empires of dirt generation after generation, until there are people who think nothing of calling my ancestors “original settlers.” And who is there to argue? In New England, pretty much nobody unless you count the academics and students, centuries after the fact.
But it makes me uneasy. “No es un patrimonio tan comodo para mi,” I told her, it’s not that comfortable a heritage for me, you know? I don’t find it romantic, or something that triggers a sense of pride.
The people I come from built a fortress almost a thousand years ago. They’ve fought over it plenty, but it’s still there and people actually still live in it — and most of them pretty much look like the folks who built it in the first place, except taller. My friend’s ancestors built a fortress starting about the same time. It stands empty, broken, uninhabited, but then again, pretty much everyone in the city below looks a lot like the folks who built it, only sometimes taller.
But where, in the world colonized by my forebears, can I find something a thousand years old? What percentage of the population of Boston consider themselves Wampanoag people? Who, even among those who can spell Massachusetts without thinking about it, even knows the word is the name of a people? Have you ever even heard of a speaker of Algonquian language?
So. It would seem that the people of many other empires, including the Spanish (who were undeniably brutal in their subjugation of colonies) intermarried, interbred, intermingled. But then it would seem that my ancestors instead eliminated, overwrote, erased. And if they hadn’t, then just like most of the people in South America, I would be darker-skinned, black-haired, dark-eyed. And that’s what I’ve really wished — that my ancestors could at least have bestirred themselves to practice miscegenation instead of genocide.
Indeed, in the United States, someone who looks like me may never even have heard the word “miscegenation.” Someone who looks like me likely has never questioned how they came to be pale-skinned, or why so few (or none) of their relatives are not pale-skinned. And yet, let a person of mixed race, or a person whose perceived race cannot easily be pigeonholed, show up to a party, and everybody wants to know what they are. Everybody feels entitled to a piece of whatever narrative they imagine created this individual (whose story people will also often assume must be either tragic, or proof of the benevolence of the pale-skinned towards the hapless and clearly lesser darker-skinned).
It’s those sorts of parties, and the circumstances they represent, that also sometimes make me wish I didn’t look how I look. I wish I weren’t one more white face in the room. I wish I could hold up a giant banner that says I KNOW, RIGHT? or YES I DO HAVE HOT SAUCE AND THIS CATERED FOOD REALLY IS THAT NASTY WITHOUT IT.
The thing is, there’s another sign I have to hold up. It’s the one that says I AM NOT DOWN WITH THIS WHITE AGENDA. It’s the one that says, instead of asking me about my experiences growing up the white daughter of white anthropologists living in an indigenous community, have you thought about asking an indigenous person? Oh, you don’t know any? Well have you thought about why that is?
I am not their Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves, or Avatar protagonist. I was not an Inca princess in a past life. My friend is not a noble savage assimilating to whiteness by being a grad student in the United States. None of this is a narrative that would make my ancestors comfortable. And I don’t want it to be.
The reason why sometimes, white folks wish we weren’t white is because, quite honestly, white people often suck. Being around nothing but white people becomes oppressive in short order. Assuming whiteness is what everyone wants to be like, pushing a paternalistic agenda of cultural imperialism, constantly claiming to have just discovered something everyone else has known was a thing forever — this list could go on as long as the tally of images of pale Jesus. Who wouldn’t want off that ride? I mean, who wants on it in the first place?
Oh, I thought about it a lot, just quitting being a white girl from the USA. I thought about quitting high school and just leaving forever. I could go to Chinchero, and never leave. I could go live somewhere remote, somewhere that still doesn’t exist because white people haven’t said they discovered it yet. I would avoid its discovery and ruin with the mindboggling trick of simply not claiming to have discovered anything. It was the fantasy, or perhaps even plan, that kept me going in the throes of teenage depression in the United States. So I understand the appeal.
I might even have gone for that, except for one thing. I was sixteen, and she was seventeen, and we’d been best friends since my fifth birthday. She and I had clung to each other, sobbing, so many times as we walked in funeral processions, especially the ones when we buried our classmates. It was her house I ran to whenever we’d get home to Chinchero after being back in the States for a while. When the letter came with the news, she had been dead for over a month already. Typhoid. She’d been in the hospital in Cusco. She was getting better. But then she died.
I couldn’t help thinking it: probably if we had been there, she’d have lived. Our scant dolares were worth more there than they were in Ithaca, New York. Our inherent gringo privilege could have swayed doctors in the city to care more about this one indigenous girl. She and I had survived that measles epidemic because I’d been vaccinated in the States and she, too, had been vaccinated, because her parents were smart and educated and savvy and they made that happen.
By our teens she and I were the last surviving of our preschool crew. About half of our kindergarten class did not live to be teenagers. Angelica and I had always talked about wanting to change that. We didn’t want kids to die anymore because they were poor, or Indians, or whatever. We would be like the girl from Chinchero who won a beauty contest and could have had a house in Lima and gone to the States and all kinds of stuff, but instead she said, “I don’t want any of that, can my town just have streetlights?” And that was the story we all grew up with of why we had streetlights and sometimes they even worked. “If it was me,” she always said, “I’d build a hospital. A real hospital.”
But, she died. My parents came to tell me while I was at work; they knew I’d never forgive them for waiting till I got home. After my break, I finished out my shift scooping ice cream to people who would never know. They would never care. They wouldn’t even have seen Angelica when she was alive. Her death was of no consequence, just like the deaths of all our preschool friends. And as for me, I still walked the earth. If I thought back to the seven little kids I joined as a play group when I was five, all seven of them were dead now. But not me. Not the gringuita.
There’s no way to play that off as coincidence. There’s no way to deny that’s the difference between the privilege to which I was born, and the lack of privilege to which she was born. But people do. They deny it all the time. They say it to my face. They even seem to believe it. It’s been almost thirty years, and to this day, I meet people who believe there must be some fundamental difference or delimiter between my gringo friends and my Peruvian friends. You know, like the Peruvian ones don’t count the same as the gringo ones, somehow.
I’ve explained it a thousand times: Because I’m still here and she is not, it has to matter that I’m here. So I went to college, because that’s where you go to learn what you can do to matter, to change the world, all of that sort of thing. And then I quit that to be a musician. I would go out in the world with regular people, not be consigned to the ivory tower, and I also would write songs of tremendous power which people would hear and take to heart and then the world would change. C’mon, man, I was a teenager, and it seemed like a solid plan.
Then I thought I had a handle on it. I thought it would matter if I was a computer professional and helped blaze new trails in the information sphere; if I could make it so that people everywhere could grow up like I did, surrounded by books and engaging in deep conversations, yet still able to travel the world unencumbered. I tried that until the glass ceiling damn near drove me crazy, and again, what saved my sanity was the act of doing simple tasks I’d learned as a child — spinning yarn, and making things from yarn. Then I thought it would matter if I preserved and passed on lore that I had only by coincidence, by the happenstance of having moved to Chinchero when I did, so I started writing about textiles, and ended up with this crazy career where I travel around teaching people how to make string with a stick.
I have no idea how any human being determines whether or not it matters that they’ve walked the earth on any given day. I really don’t. I only know that Pachamama has seemed poised to swallow me up a few times, and she keeps spitting me back out or picking someone else, so either I’m hopelessly unpalatable or she figures I’m not getting out of a job that easy. So it’s lucky for me that I’m of Cuper. We might be old-fashioned and stodgy but we’re not afraid of a little honest hard work.
My grad student visitor is my late friend’s cousin. She didn’t really know her; there’s that generation gap. My late friend’s little sister has also spent time studying in the States, and briefly, she came to visit my family. I hadn’t really known her before that — I had met her briefly, and burst into tears because she looked so much like her big sister. Everyone still talks about Angelica and the things she would have accomplished. Nobody thinks it strange that her death was like a pachacutij for me, a shifting or turning of the earth, an earthquake, a turning point.
Except for most of the white people. There is some level on which it’s palpable that so many of them just don’t get it, just don’t feel it. It’s not that we aren’t on the same page. It’s that they aren’t even reading the same book. I’ve tried reading their book, and it sucks — I mean there aren’t even any characters who are interesting women of color, for crying out loud. I don’t care if my ancestors wrote it, it’s still a crappy book, and it’s dated as hell. I don’t live in the context where that book reads well, and I don’t want to live there, either.
And here’s the thing: for thousands of years, the people I come from have colonized and erased. My ancestors in the general sense have tended to move somewhere and overwrite whoever was there before them; to replace the narrative with one of their own telling, and that becomes the truth we believe down through the ages.
Were I to cleave to that legacy and think I have no strength to write my own chapter — were I to abandon all sentiment of my own and do what I’m supposed to, assimilate fully to the very whiteness to which I was, in fact, born — I’d be a traitor to my own heart, my own experience, my own sense of self and all that I have valued. I’d be betraying a community of living people who housed, clothed, and fed my family when we were screwed.
Were I to abandon that legacy of genocide and erasure, an ancestry of separatist breeding and segregated living, an ancestry of stark class divides, then I’d also be abandoning a legacy of literacy and education — the very systems by which my ancestors spread their culture and their norms around the world and popularized the beliefs most people now hold. Obviously, those systems are effective, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
So, have I ever wished I weren’t white? Sure; but mostly because I got tired of wishing white people just didn’t suck so much. I’ve also wished it because who doesn’t get tired of carrying around all the baggage everyone else wants to dump on you because of whatever category they decided you belonged in based on how you look? So that makes me just like every person of color who’s ever been judged thus. Except for one thing.
What is that one thing, you ask? The things white folks often fear about folks who aren’t white are, generally speaking, not true. There is, for example, no horde of men of color out there waiting to commit property crimes against white men by raping white women. There is no conspiracy of women of color tricking all the men of the world into fathering their uneducable and violent children. There is no flotilla of would-be immigrants waiting just offshore to destroy a way of life that actually never existed to begin with. Traveling to other parts of the world and meeting indigenous people does not actually pose much risk at all of ending up a shrunken head on a stick.
On the other hand, the things people of color can fear about white people are often based in fact. What happens when white people show up? The folks who aren’t white end up thoroughly subjugated or thoroughly dead. Sometimes both. And then even their memories get erased, rewritten, and retold so that… what? So that white folks don’t have to deal with our legacy? So that we can fantasize about “going native” and by virtue of one or two risk-free acts of paternalistic generosity, we can claim we’re absolved of responsibility for anything we haven’t personally done? So that we can impress… who? Other white people? with our postracial awesomeness?
Yeah, it’s not the same at all, is it? Yes, everybody has to deal with the assumptions other people make based on how you look. And yes, I personally, as an individual, do not enjoy having people assume, for instance, that I’m going to laugh at jokes about Mexicans (plenty of whom are white, by the way, but I digress). On the other hand, I can admit I enjoyed the time when, at work, someone in a meeting said that someone had “looked Mexican.” I said, “So, like an Olmec? A Toltec? Distinctly Maya? How do you know he’s not from Guatemala?” Ah but no, he looked Spanish. “Dressed up like a conquistador or something? European of style? How do you know he’s not Portuguese or Czech?” I asked. Oh come on, Abby, you know what I mean, he looked South American. “Huh, well, Mexico is in North America, so I’m afraid I’m not at all sure what you mean now.”
I betcha if I had black hair and brown eyes and my name were Esperanza I would have fared worse than I did for saying that, than I fared having dishwater blonde hair, hazel eyes, and a name like Abby. So is my friend’s question not also, have I ever wished that I did fare worse? Or wished that my choice was between speaking up and faring worse because of it, or remaining silent (and likely still faring worse)? Here too, I’d have to say yes and no. Sometimes, when I’ve spoken up, there are people whose skin is not pale, whose hair is not blonde, whose eyes are dark, and they’re nodding. Sometimes they’re keeping their heads down in case my speaking up falls back on them, because they know, and I know, it ain’t gonna fall on me — look at me.
Sometimes that can make a person feel like the worst kind of colonist and thief — as if I, a white person, were going before others of my kind, and appropriating the struggles of people who don’t look like me. Like it couldn’t possibly be my struggle. It couldn’t possibly be personal for me, right, because look at me? Do I even have the right to be angry that people in Ohio step up to me and say “Oh wow, that’s so cool you speak Spanish!” and follow that up with an anecdote they don’t even realize is racially charged, about an immigrant they once met?
Oh, I think I do. I think I have the right to be angry about that. But I also recognize that it’s a privilege to express that anger, at all. And this is where the question gets complicated. You know, because it wasn’t already.
White women have been weaponized, even as we have been chattel. Even as we have been kept down ourselves, we’ve been held forth as the ultimate treasure in need of protection. At its most stark, the reasons for this are quite simply an entrenched — though often subconscious — desire to make sure whiteness does not perish from the earth. White men don’t make more white men with women who are not white. You don’t outpace a culture without outbreeding it. So to make sure whiteness never falters, what must you do? That’s right; put your most prized breeding stock under lock and key (like in a tower, with nothing to do but treasure her blonde tresses).
Yeah, that’s the paragraph that gets me punched in the face for saying it in a barroom debate, huh? I think I’ll leave it there. I don’t think I can find a better way to say it. But it’s back to that princess in a tower thing. That’s why, for instance, a little brown girl with kinky black hair gets kidnapped and gets herself free and it’s a blip in a local paper or social media. But if a little girl who looks like I used to look gets kidnapped, there might seriously be an international manhunt.
And you think I didn’t know that, growing up? That I didn’t know I, personally, could end up a story on the international news because I got snatched in a marketplace? At the same time as I knew I’d seen epidemics take my friends and it didn’t make the local papers, even. My friends, my comadres, compadres, my adoptive family and community, could easily be nameless brown bodies bulldozed in the streets, but me, well, my government’s been known to go in with helicopter gunships and rescue the likes of me. Man, if you want to talk about fortresses, the most impregnable one I’ve ever been to is the United States Embassy in Lima. Holy shit, dude. It’s not that a bunkerized embassy in Lima doesn’t seem like a good plan for any country to have, you know, considering. It’s that the one my passport unlocks is so imposing its mere presence is psychological warfare backed up with cultural imperialism and complex socioeconomic impact.
You bet I’ve wished not to be part of all that. If I boil it all down to the personal feelings, if I do my best to take out all the international politics and stuff, if I were some Rapunzel who lived up in a damn tower with hair long and strong enough for a full grown man in a suit of armor to climb up, why the fuck did I not let down my own damn hair, tie one end to something solid, climb down on my hair, then cut it off and run?
The answer is: because white women are socialized, and validated, for sitting in the damn tower waiting. Outside the tower, we’re told, it’s all terrifying, largely because of the many ways in which you might become soiled and thus less valuable; your only value as a human being is to sit here, be meek and mild and pretty, and you will eventually be chosen as a trophy by a man whose young you will bear, at which point, you can start doing some things, but only if they are nurturing and motherly. Oh by the way, if you have sons, when your husband dies, you might get to keep some of your stuff. If you have daughters, those don’t really count, because we’re just going to have to put them in towers and hope we have enough men who deserve trophies, you know?
That’s what you’re supposed to be when you’re a white woman. Actually there are all kinds of things you’re supposed to be when you’re a white woman, but there are some really important things you aren’t supposed to do, and probably the most important boils down to getting too close to anybody who’s not white. Why? Because they might point out how little you have to lose if you do leave the tower. Because you might like it outside. Because you would trade a gilded cage for a damned hard time in the open air. Because then you would know The Man is real and he’s been keeping you down because you are central to his strategy to keep everybody down. Because once you know that, once you really know that, you are what The Man fears most. Once he’s lost control of you, The Man knows it’s over.
You know how come I never got kidnapped in a marketplace? Because if some random mom frying picarones for sale in the market thought she saw some unsavory fucker approaching any kid, she ran him off with the full force of a woman less than 1.5 meters tall wearing a half-dozen skirts standing behind a giant kettle of boiling oil. And she might have done it while standing under someone else’s graffiti that said YANQUI GO HOME.
I learned to stand up for myself more from non-white women than I even learned from my deeply engaged and supportive parents. It was women of color who made it real for me that I could — like the woman with the dreads — just say no. But the reasons why that circumstance arose are inextricably tangled up with the reasons why, stereotypically speaking, a white woman waits for rescue and a woman of color gets her ass in gear. It’s because the white woman has a reason to believe someone might come for her. The white woman gets to exist. She gets a story. The woman of color is supposed to be her maid, her sidekick, her mammy or just… not there at all.
So, would I rather that people looked at me and saw someone who’s supposed to be Rapunzel, or looked at me and didn’t even see me? Would I rather be trapped and dismissed, or outright erased?
Obviously I want neither of those things. I don’t even want to be in this game. I think this game is bullshit. I want to destroy this game. I want never to have sat next to a childhood friend who is brown of skin and eyes, who speaks perfect English and in fact was just speaking it, when someone who looks like me asks me to ask my friend a question about “their village.” I want never to have been busted getting up to no good with some friends, and they all got in trouble and the gringa didn’t. I want a million things that would be different from how things are. We all do.
The thing is, as a white woman, I lucked out with my roll of the character creation dice. Rapunzel’s tower is a prison, sure. But it’s also an office with a great view, and the latitude to do things like study and write and think and plan and strategize — the very things which women, on the whole, often don’t get to do at all because, for a million reasons around the world, we’re getting stuck with the kind of workload that doesn’t ever allow for what we’re told are such non-essential fripperies as earning our own money or becoming highly educated. But these are the very things that make the difference between being a village and being an empire; they are the secret weapon The Man hopes don’t fall into the wrong hands. And while everyone else is outside the tower trying to find a way in, well, I’m already there. Yes, in a tenuous position that isn’t typically one of much power — but I’m in.
So no. I can’t wish not to be a pale-skinned woman whose navy blue passport is emblazoned with an eagle carrying arrows in one hand and an olive branch in the other, representing a nation whose population largely has never even noticed that symbolism. However much I’d like to flee the tower entirely, there’d be no happy ever after in that. And I’d be abdicating too many responsibilities — the responsibility to tell tower-dwellers that I’ve been outside and it was awesome; the privilege to be angry; the opportunity to invite others in; the chance to turn the tower from a prison into a lighthouse.
I would be erasing myself. And then it would not matter that I had ever been here. I would be a traitor to the memories of so many who have given and lost so much, for what gains we have made. I would be denying myself even hope — hope that someday, nobody’s stuck in towers unless they want to tend lighthouses, and nobody’s stuck outside the library shaped like a tower, knowing the answers they seek are just inside a door through which they cannot pass for the most arbitrary of reasons.
No, I do not wish I weren’t white. But I do wish whiteness weren’t such a Thing. I wish it didn’t represent the notion that whiteness is the pinnacle to which we all must aspire; that it didn’t represent the privilege to be so blind as we often are; that I didn’t suspect we ended up this pale because of aeons of choosing to dwell within Plato’s cave no matter how many times someone tells us there’s a whole world out there and what we thought was real was only shadows.
My friend understood me when I answered her, yes, but no. Maybe. Of course. But absolutely not. Sometimes. It depends. Except no. She understood all this nuance, and more — the stuff you maybe only get when you grow up in it. We laugh, sadly, and have a beer — but not before we walk outside and pour the first healthy sips for Pachamama, there on the Ohio dirt people once called the wild west.
“What about you?” I ask her. “Have you ever wished you looked like me?”
We both laugh. It’s pretty much the same answer: no, but wouldn’t it be awesome if whiteness were the same as brownness? And why can’t it be, someday? Why isn’t it now? None of us can move very far forward if we can’t even talk about these things. I know many white folks desperate to lay claim to a heritage the way my visitor can. The thing is, we have one. It’s just not always pretty.
But nobody’s is. The problem with erasing the ugly parts, with not telling them, with trying to create a cultural identity that recognizes itself in its homogeneity and perpetuates itself with franchises and slickly mass-produced imagery, is that it rings hollow even to the participants — and the lack of a rich and full cultural narrative seems to make people jealous, angry, and covetous of that which feels deep.
I don’t know where we go, but I think maybe — just maybe — we start by having this conversation.
Abby Franquemont, author of Respect The Spindle and a million Internet screeds, is glad she doesn’t make her living by writing short author bios.