about non-whiteness: a long ramble

Whereever we go upon meeting new people there is a moment where they will awkwardly inquire about Rook’s or Moomin’s race. It is a funny thing. Rook gets asked sometimes if he is eskimo or native american (especially when his hair is long). But I think more often – If I’m there on the scene, people will avoid asking him to his face, and will ask me instead. They’re embarrassed to ask, and never know how to phrase it right.

One of the first times I was struck by that awkward conversation was in 1993 or so when I was hanging out with a teenage riot grrl and fellow zine-maker, Spirit, in San Jose. We’d be standing around talking with people and she would get the question. I recall one earnest diesel dyke type of white girl, definitely very working class and young, with the mullet and the country music aesthetic going on and all, very formally and politely laying it out like, “May I ask, if it isn’t too personal, what is your nationality?” And it was super polite and sweet and she was actually in the midst of hitting on Spirit. I nearly started to laugh, to roll my eyes and snicker, because to me it sounded like the most ignorant thing ever and was phrased weirdly.. “nationality…”??!! But Spirit did the thing that I later saw her do many times: a wall of patience fwoomped down over her face and she said nicely, “Black and white. My mom’s white and my dad’s black.” She knew what was meant and she didn’t take it bad; it annoyed her, but she was diplomatic. She gave more detail than seemed necessary and she gave it for a reason. I didn’t laugh – and I thought about it for a long time.

So now I get that question – way more often than you’d think!

On the playground for example, where I often encounter strangers. Before we can have almost any other conversation, we have to have that one. We send out feelers, we remark on the weather, the children’s ages, how nicely or not they are playing, and then race. (THEN the “which school” conversation or where you live.)

The thing is, the question feels different coming from different people. Based on their way of asking but also based on my perception of their race…

It can feel like an attempted bonding… asian or hapa/hawaiian/filipino often peg him accurately as 1/4 or 1/2 mix. And then they want to know which country and when I tell, they smile knowingly (and I also am asked directly or I volunteer, for similar reasons as Spirit’s, that it’s the grandfather not the grandmother who is k0rean, because otherwise people make strong assumptions about the relationship’s connection to the K0rean War. I.e. they assume white GI + korean woman w/ that power dynamic; it’s so uncomfortable… If you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, don’t think it’s all in my head! Because they are surprised at the reverse-of-usual gender mix.)

If they are latino then they often are kinda uncertain and they think he could be half latino or maybe if they squint hard at me, I could be mixed myself and so they’re super unnerved to ask. I say I’m white right away but (if I am talking spanish or it’s clear I was eavesdropping) that my dad was born in VZ. Everyone knows that means american in oil business so they comfortably have MY number. And they usually don’t express curiosity or surprise about which grandparent is the K0r3an one (the way any vaguely asian person will.) So then they sort of compliment me on how he has nice hair and they say their own class background by saying what their job was, or what their parents did, or else maybe if they’re from a big city they’ll identify it (though no one ever says, “i’m from the country from a tiny town…”) then if feeling especially diplomatic will say when they came here. I don’t always know how to interpret this info… I mean, I know that half the population of El S4lvador lived in the U.S. in the 80s (this is true! half!) but I’ve sadly forgotten exactly when and why, though it was all the CIA’s fucking fault as usual.

The what, one african-american person I ever run into in this neck of the woods…We had a very short version, one of the “he’s mixed, right?” “right” “he’s so gorgeous!” And that was that.

Then, the white people, who if liberalish, are visibly and embarrassingly pleased that they are near a non-white person! Hahahaha. Sorry. We do that sometimes, don’t we? At its worst and most obvious, this can feel to me like the person is thinking something along the lines of, “Fabulous! little Brandon could have a non-white friend who is suitably non-scary and, they live in the flat part of town near the train tracks, so we pity them gently, but it might not be culturally uncomfortable…”

Oh and there is also an extra dimension of people asking the question partly motivated by wanting to know (because I don’t “match” Moomin, and am often out with him without Rook) if he is adopted, or (because again Rook isn’t there, and I look funny) if I’m a lesbian and then how did I get the baby?

And there could be a whole funny list of the ways people ask The Question! “What IS he?” is perhaps the funniest, and the one that is the most tempting to answer sarcastically. (But I don’t.)

I was telling this to my friend the Ska-Rat who lives in L.A. and his daughter is mixed and he is white. And he was the house-husband for a long time & got all the crap you can imagine. I think he gets it much more intensely because while people get the idea that Moomin is not quite white, he is also obviously not any kind of black. But Ska-Rat’s daughter is, and so the race questions are extra intense and loaded. aNd when I asked him if he ever got “The Question” and what his feelings were about it, he exploded! And ranted! And said quite a lot about racist assholes! They ask it as follows, “Where does she get her curly hair from?” And eye him and his wife suspiciously and ask which side of the family the “curly hair” is on.

He says: “I can’t even begin… Sometimes people can ask the very same questions
innocently… But when they are being lame-o racist idiots.. It seems to
come across loud and clear. What do these people want? Only 1/2 black and 1/2 white people adopting the same shade of kid?”

People make it clear to him that they don’t approve. Their reasons for not approving vary depending on their race and politics. Even close family worry if they do her hair “too african-american” or dress her “too mexican”. And then african american people say that she’s “really white” and won’t have to face any racism… Her dad was really clear on:

A) People will treat her like she looks non-white, whether MEDITERAINIAN, MEXICAN, AFRICAN AMERICAN, PERSIAN, HAWAIIAN, OR Whatever the fuck they interpret her race as

B) She will need to deal with it.

Now, here in the Bay Area, with a huge asian and asian-white population, it is not a huge issue for Moomin to face actual scary racism the way that Ska-Rat’s daughter is going to get. “As long as he is here or, you know, in some big city, he won’t even notice” says Rook. Rook never talks about it. His sister used to talk about it to me all the time, though, and how she was super traumatized by being in places that were unfriendly and racist. (Rook would think differently if he had gone to my high school where being asian meant you were constantly messed with.)

One way it might affect him is that he can pass for latino and might be interpreted that way in our neighborhood, which can be good and bad.

My friend Nada answers the question for her kid Rafi, that they assumed that he woudl come out kinda dark and that mediterrranean, jews, latino, and blacks all would assume he was “one of the tribe” and that in fact in N.Orleans everyone black assumed to her face that rafi’s daddy was black and they’d be all sweet and approving. B/c there it’s okay to be black-n-white. (In L.A. I think it isn’t, so much.) Then Nada said what I KNEW she would say. “Why not answer that he is HUMAN race.” Thank you, Ms. Hippie Queen.

Well — I have no conclusion to this ramble. I think about it sometimes. It’s just different — I think sometimes that no one asks Jo or Squid about their kids’ genetics back 2 generations, and that it’s odd! I don’t interpret it, usually, as racist or evil (I think because I don’t get the intensity the Ska-Rat gets, as I said, over blackness). It does mean that I constantly have to engage in a conversation about race, which I’m not really used to, and hadn’t had to do very often before. Miscengenation = conversation! Which is all to the good.

At some point (later in friendship, not right off the bat on the playground) white people who are more or less passing for middle class have that conversation, right back to their grandparents’s occupations and great-greats emigrating and why. and there is a similar conversation between jewish people about where and who and who died and who you have left, etc. At least in my generation and older. Am I right?

So Spirit’s patient answers I thought were admirable… she was willing to talk and to be a “bridge” for a little while… she was tired of it, but it was necessary. (Or was it -)

Hope I haven’t been super offensive to anyone. I think that is part of the patience and tolerance that I look for, to realize that we don’t know how to talk about this stuff “right” or how to ask the questions without being weird or rude sometimes. And we might realize that needing to ask the question is wrong on some level but we still ask it. It’s not *all* wrong because it starts conversations happening and people thinking. I think.

Oh one more thing. People have similar questions and conversations about all sorts of things (I got it when I was in a wheelchair, for example.) And it can come off sometimes with “class background” conversations as people being competitive over who had it worst. Who’s more authentically whatever it is being talked about. But at its best, the conversation is about acknowledging people’s hidden complexities.

6 Responses to “about non-whiteness: a long ramble”

  1. elswhere

    Thanks for posting this. Like probably lots of white liberals/progressives/whatevers I am endlessly fascinated by racial issues despite (or maybe because of) having almost no friends of color. It’s the Big Taboo to talk about, usually.
    Two different white lesbians I know (one an old friend, one through blogging) have with their white (or in one case white-appearing) partners adopted African-American infants in the past year, and both have reported only the most effusive approval and affection from Black people they run into at restaurants or wherever. Which surprised me, because I remember lots of debate and tension in the 90’s about interracial adoption, respecting the child’s heritage, etc.
    It could be that the people who disapprove are just quiet about it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with your friend in LA. I guess it’s regional.
    And about Jewish people discussing stuff– I don’t know, most of the people I know had grandparents or great-grandparents who came here way before WWII, so the Holocaust was in some ways an abstraction growing up, though a very emotional one.
    Though I’ve had a lot of “Your grandma was from Vilna? *My* grandma was from Vilna!” type conversations.

  2. Iris

    Like I had that tentative conversation with you about immigration – you don’t know how to start in case you sound assh0ley.But here, taking the B1g Br0ther tv programme as a sign, things may have changed for the better by the time Moomin is in college.7 years ago the people on B.B. had one black man out of 12.It seemed insanely rude but I have to say a reasonable assumption when someone asked him ‘So you’re the token.Are you a dr.g dealer?’This year there are 5 black people and their colour was taken totally for granted and never mentioned at all.Also they are ‘smarter’ socially than the others, one is an acquaintance of the R0yal Fam1ly and this was also not considered worthy of comment.It was pointed out to a white girl who left that she had not befrended any of them so was she racist.She looked stunned and said that she was partly black herself and had many black friends and it had been on character alone.This is an enormous change in such a short time and is repeated in most of the major European countries.

  3. Prentiss Riddle

    Funny, I’ve often thought of The Question as a tricky thing when posed to my ex (originally from India) but not when posed to me, even though I’m the father of two half-Indian daughters. I guess people most often ask me about my girls in terms of their names because I’m such a proud daddy that they come up in conversation before people have seen them. I don’t think I’ve ever taken it as rude or hostile under those circumstances. My girls are easy to read as Mexican-American rather than Indian, and while that can have its advantages (it’s going to be great for them if they ever travel or live in Mexico), I think they and I are happier when people actually ask than when they make false assumptions.
    I do know I’ve seen The Question posed to their mom in a way which was graceless but not necessarily hostile. I think it sometimes bugged her but it’s a normal part of getting to know her as a person. People who are savvy, like other Indians, will ask her what part of India she’s from, which carries a lot more information — like knowing someone is French or German and not just European. Indians in India will want to know a lot more, like her caste and what towns her parents are from. She’s mixed-caste, which is a huge deal, like being mixed-race here, so those questions always struck me as intrusive but they’re perfectly normal in an Indian context. The normal Indian tendency is to want to pin you down precisely in the grand scheme of things, which can be overtly evil if the person is an old-school caste hatemonger but can also be sweet if you find out you have family connections. (Indians can carry enormous amounts of genealogical information around in their heads. I’ve seen two Indian ladies at the mall take two minutes to work out their family connections in six moves.)
    I don’t see that much among second-generation Indians. They may not have disappeared into the American melting pot but there does seem to be an Indo-American melting pot which makes those intra-subcontinental differences count for much less.
    What may be weirdest is that nobody asks me the question about myself and inside I feel like they should. I was an honorary Indian by marriage for going on 20 years and that’s a big part of my identity which has been cut off now. There’s no secret handshake I can use with Indians to say that I’m hemidemisemi-desi by proxy. At one time I could say “my wife is originally from India” but it doesn’t work to say the same thing about my ex.
    (I’ve got a running conversation going with my online friend Elenamary who strongly feels that there’s no such thing as “ethnic by proxy”. I see her point but I don’t get that from Indians at all. Once I was accepted by my ex’s parents and showed some interest in the culture, I was welcomed with open arms as a naturalized Gujarati.)
    As for me asking somebody else The Question, I feel as awkward as the next white liberal.

  4. Jo

    The one thing my girls do get is tentative feelers out when a Jew notices their last name. Manny’s father is Jewish, and his name is Jewish, so sometimes we’ve been invited one place or another and after a few minutes I realize that the mom is trying to find out if we are practicing Jews, or simply have the name. It doesn’t take long for me to say something about Unitarians and we’re not asked back.

  5. GraceD

    Fucking brilliant, badger. Inspired, now, to do my version which includes elements of elsewhere’s (oh, what a beautiful BLONDE baby!), what you painstakingly detail here and the astonishing ignorance I (still) encounter (oh, what a beautiful BLONDE baby! so, you take care of her? – thinking I was the nanny from Central America.
    And my own stuff. What I look like, and don’t look like, and what people think I look like and, worse, what folks, men particularly, want me to look like – that part’s about Sexy Little Asian Thing (SLANT). And I’m not that, never was, am actually kind of Shetland Pony built and kick like one too.
    Again, excellent analysis and observations.

  6. garnet

    I have thought about this issue a lot, mostly in the hypothetical, because Moot and I plan to adopt a child who will probably be racially different from us. Race in the context of adoption is a very loaded topic, since in both domestic and international adoption there is a high demand for white babies (most adoptive parents being white). In international adoption there is also a higher demand for girls than boys, which surprised me when I first heard it. In most countries, the wait is actually longer if you want to adopt a girl, because in most countries (China and India being the big exceptions) roughly equal numbers of boys and girls are available for adoption.
    It’s hard to know what motivates people, and not everyone who adopts has the same motivation. But I wonder how much that desire to adopt a girl is entwined with race and the “differentness” of an adopted child — that people think that it’ll be easier to integrate a girl of a different race or background into their family and community than a boy, possibly for some of the same reasons that many people are more comfortable with the idea of a daughter-in-law of a different race than a son-in-law.

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