Today I’d like to pose this question: Am I, the child of an Italian woman and a half-bred Turk/Brit, white?
My surname is certainly not white in the way we understand “white” today, however I am not totally Italian or Middle Eastern. I’ve been mistaken for Hispanic before, as well as for a hodgepodge of Middle Eastern – from Saudi Arabian to Iranian to Egyptian – and though the way I dress is pretty Western, my eyes, my perma-tanned skin, and my name all mark me as not being all-white. The culture with which I most identify is a mix of Canadian and Middle Eastern, and even there my upbringing didn’t emphasize this distinction. I came across my identity as I learned more about myself, and about the cultures to which my heritage belongs.
In light of the recent events, I’ve thought a lot about this question of what makes a person white. It’s hard not to, with my Facebook, Twitter, and Imgur (along with, you know, actual news sources) being full of nothing but riots and questions on race. One article I read linked me back to Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“, wherein the author lists the daily effects of white privilege. As a person with Middle Eastern features and a Turkish surname, I find myself able to point out a number of these which I have never felt to have. Existence of my race, for example, is often boiled down to the word terrorist. When buying dolls as a girl, if we found a Hispanic one, it was at least close enough to the way I looked that it was a win. When crossing international borders, I have experienced “random searches” more than once, and probably not because it was random.
The problem with checking all these boxes for me and claiming non-white-ness is that if you look at me, I don’t look particularly brown.
I’m clearly not Western European by any stretch, but neither am I blatantly brown. Colour, though, is not the marker of my non-white-ness. It’s culture, it’s how I was raised, and how I was taught to think about myself as I grew up. Seeing other cultures and identifying most with my Middle Eastern heritage, I wonder when people say “white” what exactly they mean. Do they mean my friend who was once dubbed “secretary of whitey land” due to her whiteness that is actually half Jamaican? Do they mean my husband, whose family has lived in the North Eastern US for just about ever? What about my dad, who uses his mother’s maiden name because it’s English-sounding, but whose skin is tones darker than mine? Which one of us can claim to be white and have all these privileges, and who must be aware of relinquishing those privileges?
I like to think that one day, at some point, we as a society are going to realize that colour doesn’t matter. Privilege of the wealthy matters. Access to health care, whether or not you’re carrying that invisible knapsack. Access to clean water, food, and shelter. Those things are important no matter what colour your skin is, or what culture you’re part of.
I’m not saying that race is not an issue today – clearly, from what what we’ve seen in Ferguson and a thousand other cities, it is – but I am saying that putting up dividing lines between cultures and people makes no sense. We see it with gender politics, sexual politics, racial issues, and religious issues. As humans, we like to put things in boxes, sort them, make them make sense, but you cannot put people in boxes. You cannot segregate every single type of person because soon you’ll have as many boxes as there are people.
Does the half-Italian-quarter-Turk-quarter-Northumbrian that identifies as being Middle Eastern belong in the white box if she was raised a Canadian? There’s no easy answer to this, and there shouldn’t be. People aren’t easy, and we need to stop pretending that they are.