I Am The Whitest Person You Know
WHAT ARE YOU
I started this essay a lot of different ways. I started by writing about how often I’m stopped on the street and asked “What are you?” by strangers. I wrote about all the different identities that are assigned to me: Indian, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, “vaguely Mediterranean,” Russian, “black Irish” (did I have the flu that week? I don’t think I ever get that pale), and most peculiarly, Japanese. I wrote about Michael Kimmel’s essay on privilege: The way a white woman will just see a woman in the mirror, but a black woman will see a black woman; the way a straight, white, cis, middle class man will see a person in the mirror, and how this just goes to show you that privilege is invisible to those who have it. I read and re-read Claudia Rankine’s “Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race And Poetry” and thought about her meditation on Judith Butler’s description of how and why language has the ability to hurt; about how it “exposes us to the address of another…we suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Rankine also talked about being “rendered hyper-visible in the face of [racist language].”
I thought about how, to my knowledge, none of the strangers who approached me on the street seemed to be overtly racially motivated.
I thought about the words “What are you.”
What are you.
What are you.
I spent a lot of time thinking about mirrors.
YOU’RE THE WHITEST PERSON I KNOW…
A few years ago I was sitting in a friend’s dorm room, and the topic of being mixed race came up. My friend Kristan’s father is Colombian, and her mother is Italian-American. My mother is Peruvian and my dad is Italian-American. Both our Latino parents came here when they were in elementary school; her father was six, my mother was nine. Both of them learned to speak English without accents; neither of them taught us Spanish when we were growing up.
Beyond these similarities, though, our experiences have been very different. In a lot of ways this hinges on the fact that Kristan and I look very different. Sometime during our conversation, our friend Finn, who is white, said to me, “Christina, you are the whitest person I know, but you definitely don’t look white.” This was both news and not news to me at the time. My reaction was at once of course and also what does that even mean? The combination was unsettling.
When I decided to write this essay, I texted Kristan a question: “How often do you feel like a woman of color in your daily life?” She said she didn't — not necessarily because she did not identify that way, but because she didn't look it. “I am white. I don’t have the dichotomy of looking non-white and feeling white.”
I texted my mother the same question. “How often do you feel like a woman of color?” She wasn't sure what I meant.
“Like, am I discriminated against?”
“Maybe. Or just: how often are you aware of being Latina/not-white?”
In retrospect, I’m a little self-conscious about the way I phrased the question. Of course she is aware that she is Peruvian, even if, at some point in her life — probably years ago, now — she went from thinking in Spanish to thinking in English. That doesn’t make her any less Peruvian. And every morning, she has to yell at my all-but-deaf grandfather who lives with us: Quieres pan? Dormiste bien? No olivides las pastillas!
I guess what I meant was: How often do people remind her that she’s Latina? How often is she reminded that she is different?
My mother said that she didn't think she was treated any differently from anyone else. She works at a pre-school. She said that she likes being able to speak Spanish to reassure shy, skittish kids who don’t speak English — kids like the little girl she used to be — as well as their parents, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to find out how their children are doing in class.
I grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Queens. In high school, my mom called my group of friends “the United Nations.” My friends were Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Haitian, Filipino, and Jewish. I dated a boy from Bangladesh, and I remember my Italian grandparents not being incredibly happy about this.
I was one of the few mixed girls within my friend group, and probably the most obviously ambiguous-looking. It wasn't a big deal among my friends, of course, but I realize now that I didn't have very many people to talk to about constant flood of probing questions, what are you, what are you, what are you. My friend Sanam gave me a packet of bindis that I wore sometimes in our history class. Ruchi brought in a beautiful yellow sari for me to try on one day before fencing practice. I thought it was cool that I could “pass” for various ethnicities. This was before I knew that words like cultural appropriation and erasure. This was before I knew that “exotic” meant other, meant made to be consumed.
…BUT YOU DEFINITELY DON’T LOOK WHITE.
Inasmuch as a person can “feel white” while not looking it, I do.
When I look in the mirror I see a girl. I see a girl with my dad’s nose and eyebrows, and my mother’s eyes and olive skin. I see a girl with a Tesoro chin, with my grandmother’s mouth and her accompanying habit of getting her foot stuck in it. According to Michael Kimmel, straight white men are the default from which everyone else deviates, and it is easier to see the deviations than the ubiquitous norm. Despite this, when I look in the mirror, I don’t really see a mixed race girl. I do not see a person of color unless someone reminds me.
I have never felt more mixed than I did in my sophomore year of high school. Most of the girls on the team were Latina. They spoke Spanish; I didn't. I remember being asked, “What are you?” early on. I knew they weren't referring to what position I played, so I said, “My mom is Peruvian, and my dad’s Italian.”
That didn't answer the question of what I was, but it at least accounted for why I look the way I do. People don’t like it when they can’t place you. It’s why so many strangers ask me that same question.
Although my teammates thought it was a little weird that I didn't speak Spanish (“Didn’t your mom teach you? Why not?”) I wouldn't go so far as to say that I was ostracized for it. Laura, the shortstop, was one of the most popular girls on the team. She was half-Cuban, and didn't speak Spanish either. Her accent, when she tried, was at least as bad as mine. So while I did feel isolated, it wasn't like my teammates were pelting me with their dirty socks, Carrie-style, and shouting gringa! gringa! in the locker room.
I called myself gringa, though, each time I got sat quietly on the bus to an away game, or stood bored out in left field. I’d played ten years for my church, the only public school girl on a Catholic school’s team; you could say my feelings of softball-related isolation were already well-established. Quite possibly, this had nothing to do with the fact that I’m mixed race.
Either way, I quit the team and started fencing instead. I feel compelled to say that fencing is generally a much whiter sport. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am the whitest person Finn knows.
College applications tripped me up. I remember asking, “Is Italian white?” when filling out my demographic information. It sounds naive, but I didn’t know where to place me, either. I’m Italian — or rather, I’m of Italian descent; my dad is third or fourth generation Italian-American, and he’s never been to Italy. But I’ve been told again and again that I don’t look white. I’m hispanic/Latina — but am I even allowed to check off the box that says hispanic/Latina if I don’t speak Spanish fluently, and have only met my Peruvian relatives a handful of times?
The question of which box I’m allowed to check off has stuck with me for some time. It’s not something I always think about. It’s not even something I think about most of the time, and that in and of itself is a privilege, I realize. Eventually, I checked three boxes: caucasian/white, hispanic/Latina, and other. In the little line provided nested to “other” I wrote “Peruvian/Italian,” although this, again, didn’t do much to answer the question of what I am.
I keep thinking of Claudia Rankine “rendered hyper-visible” by her body. I have never experienced the type of racism that Rankine, a black woman, has endured. Even though I’m visibly mixed race, I have benefited from privilege in this way. It’s not exactly white privilege. Maybe it’s the “privilege,” for lack of a better word, of being “exotic” — people can’t discriminate against me until they figure out what I am. Once they do, that’s when my white privilege kicks in. It’s white privilege on delay, but it’s there.
My mother does not speak to her relatives and so I never really knew them. Maybe if I had, I would feel more ownership of my identity as a mixed girl. But when she married my dad, my mom attached herself to all the traditions of his family. If we have any heritage at all, it’s as Italians — although beyond eating benedetti on Easter, and struffoli (“honeyballs,” according to my grandma) and several types of seafood at Christmas, I don’t know how Italian we can truly claim to be. In my more cynical moments, I think that this lack of a connection to the past, this absence of tangible tradition, this inability to speak a second or third language, is what answers that question of what I am. I am American. Any connection to Peru seems firmly out of reach, and despite how I appear to strangers, I tend to feel like an impostor whenever I answer the question of what I am. How much of this is me longing for a connection to a history that is, in my own body, diluted? How much of this is cultural appropriation: yet another white girl wanting to claim what is not hers?
I don’t know.