Half A White Lie

I’m white, according to my very pale Italian mother. She often repeated what my very dark-skinned Cuban father claimed. In his eyes, he was white and so were my siblings and I.

“Marry up” was a phrase he told her was a common saying on the island.  This idiom was interpreted as an objective to marry someone lighter than yourself.  My understanding of his behavior is a reflection of the environment in which he was raised where being of European lineage and identifying white meant greater opportunities to thrive and succeed in the system of capital, labor, and payment.

“Garbage in-garbage out” is a computer science concept illustrating whatever data is input into a system is what determines the output.  What did your family tell you about your color, or was that not relevant? My mother insisted I was white. This was long after my father left her with three children to carry, feed, and clothe. She was determined to instill in her children the rights and privileges of a system that rewarded whites on top, while avoiding truths she couldn’t understand about our brown-faces.

She succeeded, but her home training couldn’t counter the other children in the white suburb of Detroit where she raised us; white children who referred to me as “dark” and even the n-word on infrequent, yet, ugly occasions.  When a Hollywood casting director told me, “No one will ever mistake you for white,” I returned with a punchline, “Do you think they’d mistake me for employable?”

A Scotch-Irish, lesbian friend from whom I was renting a great attic apartment in Jamaica Plain Boston, expressed exasperation in 2015 at the state of whiteness upon the murders and protests around Mike Brown’s death.  She said her nieces and nephews were now feeling “shame at being white!”  Somehow, she couldn’t separate the deeds of white state-sanctioned violence against black bodies from her individual whiteness.

Sound familiar?

Imagine my surprise and injury when a white lesbian professor insisted that I was only a “shade” darker than her and practically the same. She went on to say that my suffering for skin color wasn’t nearly what black folks suffer.  True that, it isn’t.  I have not suffered racism to the level of persecution and tyranny to which Black people are commonly subjected. Her microaggression dismissed my life experience in favor of her privileged understanding that I was “just like” her and wasn’t deserving of any “special treatment.”

So, I’m white?

When I’m called white, I don’t know what that means because it’s not true for me. I’m not Black, I’m brown. But what about my lighter-skinned, blue eyed brother? We were raised by our white mom in the Detroit-area during a time where if you weren’t Black, you were White.  In Cuba, I am called “trigueño” which means olive-skinned, or dark-skinned like my father. In America, I’m just “dark.”

This level of marginalized truth carries a blessing along with a curse. That truth is that outsiders in the margins have a view.

Most of my work in diversity has been writing profiles of successful professionals of color and essays questioning prevalent (discriminatory) thinking.  I’ve watched the national denial-logue pretend there’s no difference between any of us as human beings, while maintaining a status quo of separate-but-not-equal.  This is where we miss the truth. Author Toni Morrison, along with many others have often said that there is only one race: human.

As long as the debate rages between two choices: male/female, day/night, black/white, I will continue to strive toward what I learned studying journalism at CMU: tell both sides and serve as a brown bridge between the two.

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