Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shades of gray

I think that I was at least 20 before I realized that I was white. Of course, like every American, I had filled out 20 billion forms before then asking for information about my race and ethnicity, but the little box that I checked had never seemed to offer any substantive information about who I was; it was kind of like being asked my shoe size. Like just about every kid, I figured out that I was female early on. And I cared. Being female is a huge part of my experience in this world, and of my identity. I learned that I was American when I was two, and my family moved to England (everybody talked funny). I learned that I was from the northern United States in elementary school, when my (southern) grandparents came to visit and my friends giggled at their accents. Yet even though I grew up in a pretty diverse community, as US goes, my race had never entered my consciousness prior to my early adulthood.

I think that there are at least three reasons for my failure to grasp the fact that race matters in America. First, I was raised by liberal intellectuals, who had accepted as the ideal the concept of "color-blindness". They never talked about race, and disapproved intensely if others did so. I was taught that everybody was equal, and in their formulation, equal meant the same.

Second, my friends of color (some of whom were transracial adoptees or biracial) seemed almost as confused as I was, at least in the early years. Our parents didn't talk about race, and neither did we, so if they had experiences that made them uncomfortable, they weren't given the vocabulary or the forum in which to explore their feelings, so I never knew that these feelings existed.

Third, I was white myself. It's easy to deny the importance of race when you are in the majority, and especially when you are in the empowered majority. I think that I unconsciously thought of whiteness as the default, in a manner analogous to the way that nobody seems to think that they have an accent when speaking their native language. They are just normal. Everybody else has an accent.

But I am white. Boy am I white. So white I'm almost blue. I like the vast majority of things that white people like. I even dance like a white girl (so embarrassing).

Mystery is not white. He's medium brown. He is, of course, also not American. He grew up in a country where most people looked like him. Therefore, he also tends to see his own race as "normal" and not particularly noteworthy. So, there we are, brown and white. Living happily together. Tra la la. People look at us funny sometimes no matter where we are, but I'm really not sure whether that is because we look mismatched or because we're so darned cute (I'm kidding; he is cute, I am quite frumpy). Either way, it doesn't bother us.

So, where does that leave Eggbert? She's either half-and-half, both, or neither one thing nor the other, depending on how you look at it. She is the only one who can really decide. In the mean time, we think that she's both, and that she's perfect. People in both of her countries of origin tell us that she's beautiful, and seem proud to claim her as their own, which of course warms the cockles of my heart, but to be honest, I worry.

I worry that she will be discriminated against. I worry that she'll be exoticized (lots of people think that "mixed" kids are beautiful, and to be honest, I agree, but sometimes it goes a little too far, and becomes kind of disturbing.) Worst of all, I worry that these things will happen, and I won't see it, won't "get" it, won't know how to help, or even when to try, because her experiences will be so vastly different from mine.

It would be nice to say that if she does experience hardship when we move back to the US, at least she has Mystery. As a brown man living in a non-brown country, he should not only understand her experiences but provide her with a strong role model for how to handle the challenges of being different, right? Well, perhaps, but I think that it's quite a different thing being both foreign and a racial minority than being a racial minority in your own country (and biracial kids are in the minority in pretty much any country). As I said, Mystery grew up in a place where everybody looked like him, so even though he's in a minority in the US (or Korea), he developed a strong and secure sense of self before he ever set foot in a country where discrimination was even a consideration.

Living in Korea has really brought home the lesson that race does matter, as much as you might prefer that it didn't. In Korea, as anywhere, when we're together, Mystery and I stand out like a pair of sore and mismatched thumbs. However, when we're alone, people react quite differently to him than to me. I get a lot more of both friendly curiosity and overt hostility, whereas he is more likely to be completely ignored (in a way that implies that he's invisible, not that he fits in). I have been physically assaulted on the street twice since I've been here (both times by people who were obviously mentally ill) while other people just scurried by and pretended it wasn't happening. Luckily, in both cases, I was twice the size and half the age of my assailant, so I managed to chase him off pretty easily, but it was still jarring. I have also been approached by the creepiest of men, spewing forth the rudest propositions that you can imagine, in ways that can't possibly have been designed to do anything but basically accuse me of being a prostitute. Given that I look about as sexually enticing as Oscar the Grouch on most days, there is absolutely nothing that should make these people pick me out of a crowd other than my race. On the other hand, I also have experienced acts of unusual kindness and generosity from complete strangers. Mystery gets none of the above.

In Korea, racial discrimination is not only common and overt, it's expected. I once got a greeting card from a former intern that said only "you're the nicest white person that I've ever met." I think that was supposed to be a compliment. Another former intern told me that she had a dim view of "foreigners" because of an unpleasant encounter that she had with an Englishman, but that when she met me, she realized that not all "white" people are bad. Another day, I was in a coffee shop and picked up a local student newspaper written in English (a huge score!). In the paper there was an article about students that volunteered in a local orphanage. They interviewed one of the students, and quoted her as saying that one of the babies was going to be adopted by a foreign couple, and that she cried and felt so sad that this poor child was going to be raised by foreign people that don't look like him. Now I am not criticizing this student. I think that there's a lot to grieve about any time a child loses their birth family and country, but I do think that it's noteworthy that she thought that being raised by parents of a different race was the main problem with this picture.

Knowing that people think of me more as a representative of an entire race affects me. It makes me think twice every time I step outside. Do I look too sloppy (Koreans are very neat; the answer to this question is always yes)? Do I smile too much? Too little? Should I push and shove in crowds like the Koreans do, or will it seem rude? Did that guy just bump into me a little harder than necessary on purpose?

And do I care? Is it actually my responsibility to be a "credit to my race"?

In the land of Mystery, it is similar. When living there, I was frequently asked if I was capable of doing things like eating certain foods, as if my digestive system might be fundamentally different from that of local people, and was sometimes told that I would like my food a certain way, because "that is what white people like". I once had a lengthy argument with someone over whether it was possible that I liked sugar in my coffee (I do), because he had seen other white people that didn't like sugar in their coffee, and therefore concluded that we all must have the same preference. It is also utterly ordinary there to refer to someone as "this white person" in front of them, even when their race has no relevance to the discussion (e.g., "this white person would like to buy some soap" from one shopkeeper to another), as if afraid that someone might fail to notice that, yes, this person is white. White women are also the victims of fairly relentless sexual harassment. I have asked Mysterious men why they react to white women in that way, and am invariably told that it's because they see white women in pornographic films. This information is delivered in a tone that makes it clear that the speaker thinks that this is a reasonable explanation.

In Korea, both laws and customs distinguish among races. Korean-Americans, even those born overseas who don't speak Korean and have never been here, are described simply as Korean, whereas Korean-born people of other races, including those that have lived their whole lives here and speak better Korean than English, are considered foreign. You don't believe me? Try this on for size. Male Korean citizens are required to do two years of military service. Ethnic Koreans holding dual citizenship must fulfill their duty or renounce their Korean citizenship. However, the requirement is optional for Korean citizens with one ethnic Korean parent and one Asian parent of a different nationality. Mixed-race Koreans with a non-Asian parent, meanwhile, are not accepted into the military. In Korea, ethnicity is virtually synonymous with citizenship. The notion of granting citizenship to people born here or foreigners that marry Koreans is as alien to them as the idea that ethnicity defines citizenship is to me.

While you would think that the longer that I was here, the more I'd feel like I fit in, but in fact, it has been the opposite. The longer I've been here, the fonder I've grown of the place, but the less I've felt like I fit in. When I walk down the street, or go to work, or pop into a shop, or take Eggbert for a walk, I feel blindingly, conspicuously white. Every minute. I don't mind the feeling. It just is what it is. It's interesting, albeit often uncomfortable. But I wonder if I could be so sanguine about it if I hadn't had the experience of growing up in a place where I was in the majority. And I wonder how I would feel about it if I couldn't leave and go back to a place where I wouldn't stand out. I wonder if that's what it feels like to be a minority in your own community in the USA. I guess that's something that I can never really know.

Last December, on Eggbert's first trip to the US, we had a layover in the San Francisco Airport. Eggbert was still a tiny thing, only five weeks old, and a number of people came up to ask about her. I was still basking in the glow of new mommyhood, so I was pleased to chat with anyone who was interested. At one point, a woman approached me, complimented Eggbert, and then started going on at great length about how much she wanted to adopt (after offering the information that her kids were all older, and that she was too old to have more). I didn't really know what to make of this, so I wished her luck and moved along. It was several hours before the penny dropped and I realized that she had been assuming that Eggbert was adopted.

I don't really know where I'm going with this post. I'm hardly the first mother to worry sometimes about the fact that we can't protect our precious children from the big bad world, and I'm also not the only person to gain insight into their own culture and identity by living abroad. I guess that the real bottom line is that once again, I am realizing how complicated this world is, what an incredible responsibility I have to Eggbert to try to help her grow up with her self-esteem intact in a world in which some people may value or respect her less based simply on her appearance, and how utterly ill-prepared I am for the task.


Steph said...

Delurking here to say that was a fascinating post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on race. Race is a frequent topic of conversation in my house. We are both white and live in the US (although my mom is brown from South America - somehow I did not get any of her pigment and thus while raised by a single brown mom, I am treated as white). However we try to be cognizant of the fact that we are the majority and that our point of view is privileged. Not sure if that came out the way I meant for it - but basically we don't want to be elitist due to our whiteness. Whatever - the point of my comment is that you have made some great observations and said it all very well.

carey said...

Great post... as my wife mentioned above, race is something we talk about often. In fact, as soon as she read your post she said I had to read it!!

One of my recent classmates was from Korea - her & I often talked about some of the same things you brought up in your post.

Anonymous said...

Well done Sara for tackling this potentially thorny subject. In my own life experience, the subject of identity crops up often. As a Sabra (an Israeli-born Jewish girl) born to British parents who grew up on a kibbutz, then in England, and now French-speaking Quebec, I don't LOOK different anywhere I've lived, but I FEEL different. Am I Israeli because I was born there? I don't FEEL Israeli. Am I Bristish because I spent my fomative school years there? I sound British, but I don't FEEL British. Am I French Canadian because I've sepnt over half my life here and speak like the natives? Well, I don't feel like a Quebecker either. So who am I?
And who would I be if I weren't who I am?
Which group do I belong to? Is it based on geography, religion (I'm not practising), looks? If someone asks me where I come from, I have to say: "How long have you got?"

Anonymous said...

Other people don't see the sameness of difference that I feel.
What if I were to say that I belong to the Shortsighted group of people (because that's a really important part of how I live), or to the Teachers (because that what I love to do)? Or simply to the Women (because that is so central to who I am)?
I admire that you are thinking about this for your own child. I am too. I am 100% in favour of mixing and matching these racial groups we've all invented. Maybe the more "mixed race" kids we give the world, the less race will be so exclusive.
Your friend,

Marie-Baguette said...

I think it is a shock to live in some Asian countries for whites because your foreign-ness (is this a word?) is evident. On top of this, Asian people usually assume I am not French but Polish because of my high cheekbones. The pornographic industry thing? I have heard it too. Plus there are lots of white prostitutes (usually Russian) in those countries, so it is easy for some people to assume you are a russian prostitute! I guess your shock is more about the racism of those countries. My husband lived in Japan and told me horrible stories about being harassed because of his race (he is white). It is also impossible to become Japanese. And I have been told that most Japanese refuse to admit that a foreigner could possibly master their language! I am sure your daughter will be fine in the US but some people might assume she was adopted if they don't see you with Mystery. I guess it is not as bad as the other way around when a dark woman with a white baby is assumed to the nanny (it happened to a friend of mine).

Isabel said...

I apologise in advance for being rant-y.

Your parents were colourblind? Not talking about race and being 'colourblind' is racist. I'm of mixed race and still have a huge chip on my shoulder about it, so I hope I'm not being insulting for saying so. I'm sure your parents are perfectly wonderful people who are probably not any more racist than the next educated liberal person of their age.

That you've thought about race and racism and want to discuss it is so awesome. Eggbert is lucky: my parents never talked about race unless it was to make some completely racist remark themselves, immigrants that they were.

It's important to me to say that as a mixed race person I don't want to be treated just like everybody else (white), I want to be treated as who I am (mixed race). Otherwise the message I get is that who I am is not important and who I should aspire to be is a white person.

If I unpack that further I guess I am saying that you can't assume anyone shares your cultural assumptions, not even your children. I can never assume that the people I meet share my assumptions because it would be very unlikely for anyone else to have my background. It's very frustrating when I raise a difference of opinion and the answer is "I don't think of you as hispanic. You're just like everybody else to me."

So what I am saying to you is: BRAVO for raising these issues and please don't be like your parents. Or be like your parents and raise an open-minded kid, I'm not sure. Some of both, maybe.

Rachel Inbar said...

My older kids are 1/2 Algerian. My first is just as light as I am, my son is a true mix and my daughter is dark (I think she is even darker than her father). I think that because there's such a mix here in Israel it's less of an issue.

I grew up as a US Army brat, so our classes were VERY mixed in every sense - race + socioeconomic status. I never thought anything of it. It was only when Ohad commented how important he thought it was for the kids to watch shows like Sesame Street, so that they would see children who are different from them, that I even realized it.

And just one more irrelevant point: I'm completely fluent in Hebrew but when I was in the US recently (California, and I grew up on the east coast, so it wasn't that) it struck me how nice it was that no one saw me as different... It's not only the accent, it's the mannerisms and even some of the values that distinguish 'foreigners'. I don't feel bad here, I just hate that one of the first things people think about me, after 23 years here, is that I'm American, before they even hear what I'm saying.

Kami said...

Race is an interesting thing isn't it? I think about how Obama is 1/2 white and 1/2 black and yet he is considered black. It reminds me of the old Star Trek where one person is 1/2 white and the other is 1/2 black (one white on left, the other black on left). Perhaps you are too young for the original series!

I live in a very white neighborhood and I am white. When I see someone from another race move in, I get excited - we are getting diversified! Then I wonder if that is racist . . . why should I even care or notice?


Lut C. said...

Excellent post, very interesting.

It seems to me you're better equiped to teach your baby about the world than most. You know firsthand how different cultures and perspectives can be.