As an LGBT peer mentor in a university setting, I had to commit to a full semester of trainings to prepare me to help a handful of incoming LGBT-identified freshfolks through their transition into college life. Every Friday, I would spend 2.5 hours in workshops focusing on everything from self-care, to mental-health first-aid, to the history of LGBT rights at the university. As a commuting student, this also meant an extra 3 hour round-trip excursion to the campus on a day I did not have class. But you know what? It was worth it. I got so much out of the program as a mentee the previous fall, and I really do want to just give back.
Which brings me to last week, when we had our incoming freshman/prospective mentee meet-and-greet. I had to leave to go to class, but before I left, I was asked whether I was specifically interested in being paired up with anyone in particular. One person had told me she was considering transferring to the university where I had done my undergraduate work, and specifically transferring into the very program I’d majored in, so I said that this person might make a good match.
I came back after class to find out who I had been paired up with: two young men. That’s cool, I thought. My program director then said, “We couldn’t give you the person you requested, because she requested a person of color.”
What to make of this? In that moment, I just nodded. It’s not about me, I tried to remind myself; if she wants a person of color, then she should get a person of color. What bothered me is that in a meeting I did not attend, the people I’d spent so many hours bonding with had apparently had some discussion and decided (without consulting the mentee in question) that I was either not a person of color, or would not be perceived by her as a person of color.
Some facts: I identify as mixed race. We know that race is a social construct, a set of phenotypic trends our forebears mistakenly thought were somehow intrinsically tied together. We know these phenotypes are accidents of genetic drift and geographical isolation for the most part. And yet we persist in trying to label people.
I inherited more Mohawk and Sicilian phenotypes from my mother, whose family had spent four generations mispronouncing our surname to make it sound more French, than my brother did. My brother got all the Danish phenotypes. I got the olive skin that darkens in the sun – especially now that a disability-related vitamin deficiency was corrected, allowing my skin to once again tan like it did for the first 15 years of my life. My brother got the skin that gets 2nd and 3rd degree sunburns after 20 minutes. I got the eyes that are so dark brown as to look like empty black pools; my brother got the brilliant blue eyes. I grew up hearing relatives tell me all the reasons that “Italians and Indians” (and black people and “orientals”) were not as intelligent as “white” people (it’s very easy to grow food in Italy, so they didn’t have to be as intelligent as folks in Denmark to survive; to prove she wasn’t racist, the relative I’m thinking of followed up with explaining that it was really, really hard to grow food in China, which is why Asians have higher IQs even than whites).
I’ve lived in two other countries – Japan and Turkey. In Japan, I was perceived as a mixed-race Japanese person. People did not assume I spoke English. In Turkey, the white women who were on the trip with me were harassed frequently. Even if they went out in a group, people would follow them, and two women I knew were even assaulted while out one night. Whereas I could roam freely; men would give up their seat, would address me in Turkish (which I speak), would not bother me unless they heard me speaking English and realized I was foreign. In both places, people asked me where I was “really” from, and would clarify when I said “California,” that they wanted to know where my parents were from.
People in the US, when they find out I am learning and/or speak Turkish, often immediately ask “So you’re Turkish?” My grad program has 19 people in it; so far, 3 have outright asked if I’m Jewish (with one prefacing the question with, “I don’t mean to offend you, but”). And when my Y-chromosome (from my mother’s brother) and mitochondrial genetic ancestry tests came back, the big surprise was that while the mitochondria pointed to the Mediterranean coast as expected, the Y-chromosome ancestry was common in Afghanistan, Pakistan and among Ashkenazi Jews.
When I came back, some family drama happened – a cousin disclosed abuse, and I confronted the abusive parent. The abuser told the rest of the family that I wanted the abused cousin to kill herself and had given detailed written instructions about methods (which were so horrible they had to delete them and not save a copy, of course). This pretext was used to banish me from all family functions. But not just me, my mother. My white brother and father are still very much welcome. (My brother, being one classy dude, tells them to go fuck themselves).
So the TL;DR of this navel-gazing post is that I know I am not seen by white people (or many people of color outside of the American context) as all the way white. However, I have had many experiences like the one that inspired this post, letting me know that I am often not seen as a person of color because of the narrow racial categories we’re used to using in the US.
For instance, earlier this week, I was informed that I am a privilege-blind cultural appropriator because I own kimonos even though I’m [perceived as] white. (What was truly astonishing about that topic was that they made it clear they didn’t know the first thing about kimonos or Japanese culture, saying that lots of Asian cultures have garments that look like kimonos, therefore kimonos were not simply a Japanese thing!) I actually know enough about kimonos to get pissed off by westernized pseudo-kimonos, especially when they cross the robe right over left, when it’s always left over right unless you’re dressing a corpse. I know enough about Japanese history to know that the woman on the Arizona tea bottle is a courtesan, not a Geisha (more than 3 hair pins and her obi is tied in the front).
But no, I am “white,” so clearly I do not understand the “struggle of Asian-American Womyn” well enough to own a particular garment. That these kimonos “do not belong to me.” (I responded that I’d paid several thousand yen for them, to test their knowledge of Japan. I was not disappointed when she responded indicating she believed several thousand yen was a lot of money. The exchange rate is generally upwards of 100:1). I was told this by two apparently Chicana (based on their names) women who were just as light-skinned as I am.
And now I don’t know how to really process this: do I confront her? Do I leave the mentor program? Do I suck it up? I really don’t know. But I’m deeply uncomfortable that these people had a meeting I did not attend, and decided to categorize me as white. I doubt they would have honored it if an applicant specifically requested a white person; it might have been grounds for exclusion from the program entirely.
And I wouldn’t be as bothered if there were a clear cultural literacy reason for the request – if they had said, I want a person that really understands being LGBT and Guatemalan, for instance. But to request any “person of color” over a “white” person to me, seems like wanting someone who does not have the casual racism that comes from unquestioned white privilege. So I guess what bothers me the most about it, is the assumption that because I pass as white in some contexts, I’d be a less capable mentor for this particular person, or that this particular person would perceive me as white.
I’ve had similar experiences being someone straddling male/female and able-bodied/invisible disability as well. I’ve been told to my face that I’m not disabled by people in my program, and also told (by an instructor) that my disability was “brain damage” and I had a “weak nervous system.” I’ve been called sir/young man when I had shorter hair, and watched that drop off as my hair grew (2-3 inches seems to be the cut-off point for when I am perceived as male or female). I have to live with the awareness that how people perceive me is to some extent unpredictable. If other people perceive me as able-bodied, does that make me able-bodied? If other people perceive me as female, does that make me female? If other people perceive me as white, does that make me white? Is there a percentage breakdown?
I’ve even had fights with my mother when I would come home from women’s studies classes and tell her that she is white because she is perceived as white. She understandably did not appreciate having her Mohawk ancestry obliterated with some reverse one-drop rule.
Any comments including telling me to STFU because I am just another ignorant, privilge-blind white person are appreciated. These are all questions I’ve struggled with for a long time now.