“She Requested a Person of Color”


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.

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  1. First, let me say I don’t have a complete, simple answer to your questions, and I wouldn’t really trust anybody who claimed to. But for what it’s worth, here’s my partly educated*, highly privileged opinion.

    There is no fact of the matter regarding whether or not you (or anyone else) are “actually” white, able-bodied, female, etc, since these terms do not have universally-accepted rigorous definitions; the way these terms are used by one person does not necessarily match with the way they are used by another, even in the same context, and even when they do agree there are still relevant vagaries in the definition. That makes this, in my eyes, primarily a question of semantics**.

    Since there are various definitions, only partly compatible, of these terms floating around, we need to choose one for the purposes of a particular conversation, if it’s a relevant topic, and so for this topic it may be useful to outline some of the different uses of the term(s). Broadly speaking I divide the uses of the labels in question into three non-exclusive categories:
    1) Descriptive – the label describes a material reality (even if that reality is merely the fact that the person labeled is perceived in a particular way by others)
    2) Affiliative – the label describes membership in or association with a particular group of people
    3) Identificative – the label is chosen by the person to whom it is applied

    Example 1: We can determine with certainly which “sex” a person is if we restrict ourselves to the purely genetic meaning of the term. Namely, each person is (to my knowledge) classifiable as XX, XY, X (also called XO), XXX, XXY, XYY, XXXY or XXYY. Well, that’s not strictly true either as some people have different genotypes in different cells of their body, but if we were to identify “your” genotype with the genotype of some particular identifiable cell within your body, then we could classify people into these 8 categories objectively. Under this usage, “sex” is a purely descriptive label. (Note: I am not saying that this genetic classification completely determines the physical characteristics of your genitals at birth, let alone the finer points of the electrochemical state of your brain, so please don’t read this as a statement that your genes determine your gender, or that there are a fixed small number of genders available, or as an indictment of anybody’s gender identity.)

    Example 2: We are all members of the human species, but what does that mean? Biologically, it means that any of us have the potential to interbreed (adjusting for factors like age, genetics, infertility, etc), i.e. that we are all part of the same “gene pool”. Assuming we accept this as a definition for the term “member of the human species”, we can see that this is a term that can only meaningfully apply to an individual when used in the context provided by the group, in other words it is a mostly affiliative usage of the term.

    Within this framework for interpreting labels, we can then see that whether or not you “are white” depends on which question is “actually” being asked:
    a) Do you have the genetic/physical patterns typical of “white people”?
    This is ostensibly a descriptive usage, except for the fact that it describes a fiction – there are no genotypic or phenotypic traits which are specifically indicative of “whiteness”. Since this question is based on a false premise, there can be no accurate answer.
    b) Do you identify as “white”?
    This is an entirely identificative usage, which you have already answered (at least partially) by saying that you identify as mixed race.
    c) Are you perceived by others as “white”?
    This is a partially affiliative partially descriptive usage since it involves a fact of the matter (the perceptions of others, broadly speaking) and loses its meaning without the associated grouping (“white” has no meaning without there being a collection of people whose characteristics are being classified as such). You’ve also answered this question by saying that the perceptions of others in this regard depends highly upon the situation.
    d) Does this specific person (referred to in your article) perceive you as “white”?
    This is just a more specific version of the previous question, and you have also already answered it by saying that she did not.
    e) Have you been raised within “white culture”?
    This is another meaningless question as there are so many varied cultures which can be considered “white”, none (or almost none) of which actually consist of exclusively “white people”.

    For myself, I am perceived as white (as far as I know), and I thought of myself as white until a few months ago when my father refered to himself as “of mixed race”. I am not exactly ignorant of my immediate ancestry so I know what he meant by this, but it was still somewhat surprising to me. My mother’s family is largely European in recent ancestry, her mother being American of mostly English descent and her father being Polish by birth, while my father’s parents were both born in Palestine (now Israel) and are Ashkenazi Jews (and therefore partly eastern European and partly middle-eastern in ancestry). Going back further than living memory, you can probably find traces of every “race” that left Africa in my ancestry (and one or two that remained), with a few possible exceptions such as the Australian Aborigines. If asked about my race by another person, I have to judge their desire to hear all this, and react accordingly. On forms I tend to identify as “Jewish” and “white” in that order, because I was raised culturally Jewish, and I am usually perceived as white (and so I know I benefit from many if not all aspects of white privilege). I have not been genetically tested to see what genetic traits I may have which are associated with specific “races” (for example it is possible I may be a carrier for Tay-Sachs, which has a higher frequency in Ashkenazi Jews (among other groups) than it does in general). So what race am I? It depends on what question the asker wants answered.

    While these different aspects of a person (i.e. identification, genetics, phenotype, social perception, social affiliation, etc) which are all suggested by the same label are not unrelated, they also do not determine each other. The fact that you are treated “inconsistently” with regard to your race seems to me to be yet another demonstration of the fact that most people believe (even if subconsciously) that there is such a thing as a “real”, “actual” or “correct” meaning for a word, and so they’re unwilling to engage in semantic analysis to determine what meaning they might intend for a given instance of a word.

    TL;DR – Perhaps she should have instead requested a person she perceived as a person of colour, but most people don’t think much about what their words mean, so they don’t wind up meaning much (at least in my experience).

    * I am relatively well-educated when it comes to formal semantics, but not at all when it comes to social justice issues, as may become apparent once I start rambling.

    ** I do not ever use “semantics” as a term to minimize the importance of a question or idea, whether for discussion, identity, or practicality. In my view semantics is an immensely important area of philosophy which is commonly underappreciated and ignored. It appears to me that a large amount of (avoidable) confusion is generated by a very common dismissive treatment of semantics.

    P.S. I hope I didn’t say anything horrendously offensive. No offence was intended here, and I am open to being corrected should someone want to spend the time/effort.

    P.P.S. In what order should the TL;DR, the footnotes and the postscripts go? I’ll shut up now.

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