Currently included in What Does It Mean to Be While in America by 2Leaf Press.
PBS is helping adopted children “connect with their culture.” The children who need to discover their roots are, of course, non-white. I skim the article with a fury I know is un-PC. I’ve tip-toed around this problem, afraid to say anything loud enough that anybody might hear, to say, I have no culture, and I’m sick of people pretending I do.
It’s not that I think children adopted into US households from Korea and China don’t deserve to know about where they come from. But it’s problematic that the only children anyone thinks need a cultural identity and history are non-white children. I don’t believe Britain is exporting their children to the States, but if they did, would people see a need to connect those children to their roots? Would a typical middle-class American family understand there is a difference between the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh? Would they take it one step further and understand there are distinct cultures within those distinct countries? The dividing line between Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant? Between Hackney and Greenwich? Or would they raise these children with American accents and slap braces on their teeth, and say, good enough? As if “White culture” is a monolith. As if you could swap out someone from Boston and Little Rock, from Edinburgh and New York, and nothing would be lost in translation. As if I’ve never felt an ache for a “culture” that wasn’t plain old capitalism.
Maybe if my hair or eyes were dark or I had a bump in my nose, I could pretend I had some heritage worth discovering. I have light hair and blue eyes and my nose is small and unremarkable except that it has a mole on the tip. I am pale with freckles. I am probably part Irish, but who knows? I don’t know. The thought of maybe being Irish does not make me feel found, like I could say “my people” the way so many around me casually throw out that phrase. If I ever uttered the words, “my people,” others would find those two words laced with bigotry. I am white. I am part of the problem, all of the problems, generations, decades, centuries of problems, from my race, my people.
Irish. What would that mean? I think of leprechauns and cloudy skies and men hunched over pints of warm beer—that awkward dance where the top half of a body stays completely still while legs kick in frantic patterns. The superficial evidence—my appearance, my father’s last name—points towards Ireland. Why would I bother to see if that’s true? As if I could find out and say, Ah yes, the Irish, my people.
I would like to belong somewhere. I have no culture, no known ethnicity, nothing but pale freckled skin to label me white. I do not have a beach house in the Hamptons or wear designer clothes, so my culture isn’t that sort of white. I am not interested in NASCAR and was never into Hee-Haw, so I guess I’m not that sort of white. I did not live in the suburbs or shop at The Gap while in high school—my family was poor—so I am not that sort of white. What sort of white am I? What stereotype fits best? Where is this culture everyone seems entitled to?
There are rumors of Native American blood on both sides of my family—as I assume there are in many white, history-less American households, as there are in so many black diasporaed households. I wish I had the sort of shamelessness that would allow me to hear such a thing and declare it true, drop everything, embrace the Earth Mother and say, Ah yes, it makes sense, my people. I could fashion myself a headdress, beat a drum, dance, and scream out the connection I’ve been looking for that I cannot find.
I’ve toyed with the idea of being Greek. I like olive oil and yogurt. In high school, I bought a picture book, Cats in the Sun, on a whim. It shows feral cats running and lounging about Greece. I suppose adults are supposed to call such artifacts coffee table books. I would probably remember that better if I was that sort of white person.
My mother’s father’s grandmother was 100% Greek, fresh off the boat. That makes me 1/16th. Am I Greek?
I doubt it. What customs were ever taught to me, what ritual performed? What secret language spoken in soft voices just within earshot?
I’m not anything.
If I ever had a culture, it was Christianity. That’s the closest I came. But I hate Christianity, hate organized religion. I am not interested in stories of mythical men in the sky who say you can sell your daughters into slavery if you need some extra cash, and if your wife or concubine pisses you off, feel free to cut off her ears and nose.
I’m sick of pretending I think there is such a thing as a “good Christian.” I think any thoughtful person who still calls himself a Christian is deficient in reasoning, intentionally blind, digging a few sparkling bits out of the steaming piles of evil in centuries old texts for no reason other than his fear of his own mortality.
I don’t mean it when I tell someone I think they are a “good” or “okay” Christian any more than the people who have told me I am a “good” or “okay” white person have said it with conviction, without a little shudder that betrays the belief in their bones that I am implicitly related to all the not-so-good and outright evil white people.
Maybe I should believe in the mystical man in the sky. I could convince myself that I chose this life, chose this body, said, Ah yes, those two idiot teenagers, I’d like for them to be my parents. They seem stable, both coming from single, alcoholic mothers with their histories of being shipped back and forth across the country, their GEDS obtained from alternative schools. Those are the ones, Almighty White Man in the Sky, that’s where I want to be!
Given a choice to be born into a series of different hypothetical worlds, where lots will be determined at random, most people will not choose the world where everyone is equal, has the same amount of stuff, is comfortable. Few choose the world where a handful are at the very top and most are at the bottom (though some do, and I assume those are libertarians who believe they can beat the experiment one bootstrap at a time). Most people pick the world where some have a fair bit more and most have a little less. They’d risk having less than the Joneses’ for the chance to have more. For most people, an un-ideal world would be one in which everyone has what they need and no one has more or goes without
To the best of my knowledge, they’ve only run this test on Americans. Depending on culture, results may vary.
That’s my culture: capitalism, apple pie, baseball, imperialism, reality TV, oppression, brute force.
No one is going to adopt me. They tolerate me. I amuse them and probably piss them off more than they let on with my constant ignorance, my incessant questions, my endless epiphanies about what it might be like to not be white.
I was bonding with Alice Walker over Anything We Love Can Be Saved. I was envying her easy love, thinking of how to try it on. I was amen-ing her thoughts on being a woman, on religion, on mother-daughter relationships. I was crying in recognition and hope, but the whole time, I felt her arm stretched out from the pages of that book, her warm, worn hand planted firmly on my chest. That’s close enough, white girl.
I wanted a way in. I wanted to tear the pages from their binding, scrape the glue with my nails.
I must be a brazen asshole.
All the privilege seeping from my pores, and I want to complain that I have no culture, that people look at me and see the evil in the world, that they want to distance themselves from me, that they call me Other. It’s my own fault. My people called them Other, still call them Other. My people did this. My people created the chasm with boats and suburbs and fast food and entitled penises. My people
I flinch every time someone says “my people.” It reminds me who my people are, that I have no right to use that phrase, that generations of assholes sunning themselves in the Hamptons and dumping oil into the oceans and killing brown people for sport and profit have left me a legacy where I have no culture, and I do not belong. I am like a child brought about by rape or incest: people feel bad about not wanting me around, but they don’t want me around. They know it’s not my fault, but they can’t help the way their skin crawls, the way they sometimes think they see my father’s wicked eyes peering out from my face.
No one can tell me what white is, only what it is not. It is never Hispanic. I know from the countless Affirmative Action forms I filled out while trying to gain meaningful employment. The top box was always WHITE with a tag to specify “non-Hispanic.” I’d read over the forms, looking for some other box to pick, something that seemed to maybe almost define me as a person. I’d yell at the forms, Race doesn’t exist! But I know it does. Biologically no, but socially yes, so I’d read the forms carefully, look for a loophole, puzzle over people whose “race” was one thing on one form, something else on the next.
Each time, I’d cave. I’d check the box next to WHITE with a shaking hand. I’d swear I’d do better next time, but I never did. Once, in frustration, I read a sheet, and read it again. I couldn’t make sense of it. The lights in my room became too bright, my furniture sped out away from my body and I scrawled THESE CATEGORIES MAKE NO SENSE. I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT across the form.
There is no victory in denying my whiteness. Those forms are not for me, which is why they put my box at the top, expecting me to put in a neat little check mark or X and forget about it. Those forms are supposed to be a safety net or at least an accounting, a record of prejudice and bigotry overcome or not. Denying my whiteness would only slant the figures, would only make me that much more wrong.
My people, my people, my people, my people, my people.
What’s weird about my dawning realizations of my own possible Irishness is that two of the best friends I’ve had were obsessed with their Irishness. They know how to stand on their toes and lift their knees, the top halves of their bodies perfectly still. They do not think of leprechauns. The men with pints of warm beer are men to be embraced. I never understood their obsessions, never imagined that I too could be Irish. The dancing and music and stories never had anything to do with me.
Dyeing my blond hair red made me look more Irish. I should have gone dark brown, the hair I’ve always wanted, the hair I’ve envied on the dainty quiet girls and the self-assured badass women with dark eyeliner, bright lips, and straight across bangs. Maybe with dark hair I’d feel more Greek, but Greek or Irish, it’s all the same. None of it has anything to do with me.
My hair is red like my rage, my endless rage about everything I and everyone else have to endure. Told to pick an element to represent me during a writing exercise, I chose fire in the nanosecond it took the words to leave the professor’s mouth. I was surprised most people did not choose fire. They were wispy air, go-along water, sturdy rocks.
I forget other people are not like me.
I forget that so many of my people, who also do not have houses in the Hamptons or watch NASCAR, can walk through the world unaware that the majority of people on the globe do not like them, do not trust them, have a special face they put on when whitey is in the room. I know about the mask or second face. Or really, I should say I know of it since I will never experience it myself, never really know. Most of my people can walk through life oblivious, both to the suffering of others and their own bizarre privilege, can think all that matters is that they try to be a good person.
That is not enough.
The problem is, there is no answer, nothing I can do, no way I could get people who are important to me to show me their real faces. I’ve come so close with one of my oldest friends and mentor, but even she cannot show me her true face, would not begin to know how. When I was babysitting her toddler daughter, an old episode of Sesame Street came on and some black woman was acting the fool. I can’t even remember exactly how because it meant nothing to me. My beautiful, wonderful, perfect mentor blushed, turned away, said “I am so embarrassed.”
I know how to feel sorry for myself, how to take on burdens that aren’t mine, but I cannot imagine living every moment of my life as a representative of my people, of having to constantly turn away from Fox News or MTV or the speeches of politicians and CEOs and say, I am so embarrassed.
Because I have no culture, I do not have to be a representative. It is the dominance of my people, the economic and legislated and military dominance that keeps me above scrutiny, beyond blame, and completely without trust. How could I understand what it is to be co-opted, demeaned, deprived? How can you trust someone with no soul, no ancestors, no heritage or history? Someone who came wriggling and screaming into the world with pale skin, white hair, and blue eyes? My color is the absence of color. My culture is the absence of culture. My identity is comprised mostly by what it is not.
I am a product of my culture, raised on Kraft singles and 90210, living without extended family, an island of school and work, the only traditions national holidays, served with a hodgepodge of store-bought nothingness. No one in my family liked cranberry sauce, so we stopped having it for Thanksgiving. Since we had no traditions, we made everything up as we went.
One of my moronic epiphanies involved a good friend telling me he was in college before he read a book whose protagonist was like him (Asian). It changed his life, discovering that there were books by and about people like him. A new universe of possibilities opened in that instant when he discovered everything didn’t have to be white all the time.
I have no idea what that is like. I cannot imagine from a young age only seeing faces on the television that never resembled my own, and if one vaguely like mine snuck in, it was some horrible, grinning caricature of a human being who was ridiculed and humiliated by hordes of white people. I do not know what that’s like, what it does to you, how it starts to create your second face.
There are thousands of stories of white “everymen” with their mundane lives and families and monetary concerns and bosses and mothers and breakups. I have rarely cared or been invested in such tales. Occasionally a good essayist can move me, but in fiction, the plight of your average white cultureless, ungrounded, American-dreaming protagonist leaves me cold. Their lives are devoid of meaning and import in a way that mirrors my own nothingness. The Neverending Story nailed it: “A hole, that would be something, but no, this was nothing.” I think of that line when I try to figure out my culture, American culture in general, white American culture, the culture of my people in specific.
Yes, I am properly ashamed of my romanticization of indigenous cultures, my secret longings to be native, to be other, to be anything not white. I desperately want to belong, but not to “The White Man,” please. Just, please.
I once dreamt I was confronted with a faceless donkey. Inside the donkey was the nothing, it must have been, because what I saw there was devoid of anything. I drew a picture of its head with pastels, wearing the black stick down to a nub. After years of being chased by that vision, I had one of my obvious epiphanies. I was sitting at my desk, pissed off and paralyzed, when I realized:
That faceless donkey is me.
A lot of people think they know me. They think that because I’m loud and say things others wouldn’t, that they always know where I stand, what I think. They imagine they can see my face when all they can see is fire. The closest I come to showing my face is in my essays, but even then, it’s hard to make out. You have to get past the fire and confront the nothing. Most people cannot confront the nothing, it consumes them or they flee.
But I like to think I have a true face, that just for a minute, Alice Walker reached through my mask and caressed my true cheek with gentle fingers before pushing me back to a safe distance. I like to imagine my true face looks something like sunshine on a clear day, that it has room for birds and lush grass, that somewhere, under the fire, under the nothing, exists a soul of love, that loves and is loved, that might someday push through the nothing, extinguish the flames and say, look at me, I’m right here.
My secret hope is that we could start making our own cultures, our own traditions. That I could look around and say, this feels right, and not worry that I’m appropriating someone else’s heritage, their ancestors, their culture that includes so many plus signs while mine has never been anything but the nothing. I dream of a world where I could say, my ancestors are black, and not have people hate me. Because they are, and we all know this fundamental fact, but we do not want to say it out loud. We are all children of Africa, however far and wide our ancestors ranged, no matter the sunlight that fell or didn’t fall on their faces, creating the spectrum of melanin we find now. My appearance is the simple mathematics of Vitamin D absorption into the skin, what worked best for my recent ancestors who rarely saw the sun.
We know the superficial differences between us are not so vast as the similarities, the sinews and sweat and bones and blood of our relatedness. We know the entire world has been constructed by those who wish to maintain order, keep what is unfairly theirs from the rest of us. They created borders and race and poverty. It is nothing we chose. Nothing I chose.
I forget other people are not like me.
Given a chance to play the game, in the nanosecond after the experimenter read the rules, I would laugh and cry out, the perfect world! The one where no one wants, where everyone can be happy together. The world where we all support and love each other, where everyone’s needs are met, where we aren’t born powerful or weak because of our bodies, be they soaked in melanin or bereft, whether our genitalia is internal or external or both. A beautiful world where we could all walk around, proudly displaying our faces, our faces that look like a sunny day or the soft snowfall of winter or a gust of autumn leaves. We could hold each other’s faces in our warm hands, look into those portals, cry at the beauty, whisper, I see you.