by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
I first met my significant other at a literary reading featuring writer Sherman Alexie. Those fortunate enough to have encountered the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven know that he uses comedy during his performances to explore race. That said, it came as no surprise to me during his appearance when Alexie discussed how racially ambiguous Native Americans look by joking, “People always think I’m half of whatever they are.”
My then soon-to-be boyfriend laughed hysterically throughout the reading. He’s not Native American—not by more than a drop, anyway—but he is often assumed to be “other.” In fact, at the reading even I assumed that he was half-something, and the mostly Latino and black students he teaches routinely ask him the question that makes mixed folks worldwide cringe: “What are you?”
The answer he gives is one they don’t expect. “I’m white,” he says.
“You’re not white! You’re not white!” they protest in disbelief. And they are not alone. Both strangers and acquaintances alike take it for granted that my boyfriend is a person of color. When the teachers at the school take count of their few white colleagues, my boyfriend is oft-overlooked. His dark-brown hair, beige-pink skin, prominent nose and lush lips take him out of the running. “You can pass,” one of his coworkers tells him. Only, in his case, she means pass for non-white.
Her observation brings to mind the groundbreaking essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black” by artist Adrian Piper. In the essay, Piper suggests peering at a white person’s features and complimentarily telling the person that he or she appears to have African ancestry, then watching the person’s reaction. She writes:
The ultimate test of a person’s repudiation of racism is not what she can contemplate doing for or on behalf of black people, but whether she herself can contemplate calmly the likelihood of being black. If racial hatred has not manifested itself in any other context, it will do so here if it exists, in hatred of the self as identified as the other—that is, as self-hatred projected onto the other.
To date, I’ve never taken Piper up on her suggestion. Whenever I encounter someone who appears to be not quite white, I tend to keep the thought to myself. Yet, I have seen white people recoil at the idea that they are not purely white. There was the classmate in high school who couldn’t come to grips with the idea that the first humans were from Africa, as that would mean that somewhere down the line, albeit very far down the line, he had African ancestry. There was the white classmate in college who flew into a rage when a biracial classmate argued that everyone is mixed. “My family’s from Norway. I’m 100 percent Norwegian!” protested the white classmate much too defensively given the conversation’s theoretical nature.
My boyfriend, in contrast, seems to take the suggestion that he’s not quite white with a grain of salt. His ethnicity has been under fire for much of his life. In grade school, classmates taunted him by referring to him as “Jew boy.” For the record, he is French, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish, with some Cherokee and Cajun heritage thrown in for good measure. He is equally unruffled when I name white celebrities who I regard as not quite white, such as Minnie Driver, who I wish would appear on “African American Lives”—stat! The show, which allows African Americans to trace their roots via historical records and DNA analysis, makes me wonder if it still troubles whites to be regarded as something other than that. That’s because almost every guest who appears on the show finds out that they have white or other non-black relatives.
In the same vein as “African American Lives,” “60 Minutes” recently featured a segment about a black woman and a white farmer who find out that they are cousins after their DNA is analyzed. In this case, the farmer had no qualms about being related to a black woman. In fact, in some cases, whites have their DNA analyzed specifically in hopes of discovering that they are not solely of European origin. Such was the situation in a New York Times article about white high school students who made this move so they could claim membership to an ethnic minority group and thereby increase their chances of college admission. (This move is problematic for all sorts of reasons, I know, but that’s another story.)
While these students had DNA analysis for personal gain, I would like to believe that the growing popularity of such analysis has made it more acceptable for whites with no ulterior motives to accept being not quite white. Still, I’m somewhat doubtful. In 2006, the last time I recall a white person’s whiteness being called into question, racism bubbled to the surface. That’s when Suri Cruise was born, and there was shock that she looked “so Asian.” To some, the offense in that description wasn’t the insinuation that Tom Cruise didn’t father the baby; simply saying that Suri appeared to be part-Asian amounted to an insult.
As I explore whether whites can contemplate being “other,” my boyfriend wonders why people of color are so eager to spot the otherness in whites. When someone assumes that he isn’t white, is it simply a case of mistaken identity or something more, he inquires? I suppose it is the latter.
I grew up trying to spot the otherness in whites—such as Janet on “Three’s Company” or the star of “Wonder Woman,” who, it turns out, is half-Mexican—because I was hungry to see myself represented in a medium in which my kind was mostly invisible. But that’s not the only reason I make such connections. On a subconscious level, I believe that I respond to white society’s rejection of blackness by projecting blackness onto whites. The rationale is that, if whites are part-black themselves, their racism doesn’t just amount to hatred of people of color but to a sort of self-hatred. In this way, it is easy to see how racism isn’t just damaging to its so-called targets but to society collectively.