Friday, April 22, 2011

As Simple As Black and White?

Yesterday I got an issue of Ebony magazine in the mail.  At first I thought it might be a mistake, but no, right there in black and white was my name and address printed on the label.  This struck me as odd.  Aside from the fact that I didn't order Ebony, I'm also not black.  This got me reflecting on the many times in my life when, perhaps, it wasn't so clear what my origins might be.  Let me explain. 

Growing up, my neighborhood was incredibly diverse.  Across the street was a family with a Haitian father and Chilean mother (the parents of my oldest friend, the Lady Doctor). Next door to us was a Jewish family and next door to them, a Palestinian family. And there my family was, in the middle of all of it.  I can't think of a better way to grow up . . . and I think the uniqueness of our neighborhood and the collective memories we all share has contributed to the fact that I'm still close friends with many of the kids I grew up with.

I've known my best girlfriends since we were little kids (and in the case of the Lady Doctor, babies).  So it never struck me as odd that I'm the only white girl in the group.  The first time anyone called it to my attention was when I was in college.  I had a picture of all of us in my dorm room and a friend said, "Do people look at you weird when you go out with them?"  I didn't understand the question.  Eventually the lightbulb came on and I realized that perhaps not everyone came from a neighborhood that looks like the United Nations. Since then, my, ahem, lack of melanin has been a source of entertainment for us for years.

One summer, shortly after college, The Girls (as we've called ourselves for years) and I went to Chicago for a long weekend.  One night, we went to some party at the House of Blues . . . and I was the only white girl there.  Who cares, right?  I sure didn't.  But shortly after we got there, the only other white guy in the place came over to us with his friend.  They talked to us for a bit, before my pale-faced brother asked, "Uh, excuse me, but what are you?"  A lady?  A Washingtonian?  Catherine Zeta-Jones?  I knew what he was getting at, but playing dumb was so much more fun.

That same summer, my friend the Policy Lawyer's Mother discovered an article in a local African American-community newspaper about distinguished young people who had graduated recently. Guess who appeared prominently in the article?  (Turns out it was written by a friend and colleague of my mother's, who thought it would be nice to mention me.)  PLM's (joking) response?  "I didn't know WashingTina was black."  Neither did I.

Another time, shortly after a summer trip to Mexico (so I was much less melanin-challenged than usual), I was walking to my car at the Silver Spring Metro, and a man walking in the same direction struck up a conversation with me.  He was about my age, friendly enough, and black.  It didn't occur to me that he thought I was black, too.  That is, until he said, "I have to know, what are you?"  Again . . . what is the correct answer to that question?  A Wiccan?  A trapeze artist? A member of the Junior League?

My friend the Policy Lawyer used to work for UNCF, so WH and I were invited to a fundraiser they were putting on one year.  When we got there, we got raffle tickets.  It was a lovely event, down on the SW Waterfront in the old 701.  It came time for the raffle, so we got out our tickets.  There was all kinds of stuff, though I don't remember what most of it was.  The grand prize was a leather UNCF bomber jacket.  Three guesses who won.  I walked timidly to collect my prize . . . again, the only white girl in the room.  Thank goodness I had been passing all those years.  I decided that my father, who never met a free T-shirt he didn't like, would find this jacket the ultimate in free stuff, so I ordered his size.

This brings me to the fact that I'm not the only one in my family who may or may not be white.  For years my parents have been members of the NAACP.  They used to go to their annual dinner every year.  Shortly after the dinner one year, my father received an invitation letter to join the black alumni association at American University (he actually is an alum there).  We began to wonder if everyone else knew something that we didn't. 

WH often tells me I'd make a perfect spy because I can blend in to any group.  When I'm with his Iranian family, nobody would know I'm not Persian.  Frequently in our Adams Morgan neighborhood, someone will ask me for directions in Spanish.  And I like it.  It's nice to fit . . . especially when so many people never get to fit.  I'm lucky, I fit anywhere.


  1. my daddy - and we are all very, very white in my bloodline - always had the greatest joke. i grew up in alabama in the 1980s, and occasionally you'd still run into someone with a pigheaded attitude about race. daddy would listen quietly, then he'd say with a straight face:

    you're only saying that because you think i'm white.

    inevitably, the racist would stop in his tracks. daddy continued:

    oh, don't feel too bad. it happens all the time. i'm used to it.

    and the racist, now embarrassed and/or confused, would mumble something and slip away. total. freaking. genius.

  2. Make 'em uncomfortable...a good strategy for dealing with the small-minded.

  3. RE: Ebony, I recently started getting issues of Jet magazine addressed to me (I'm Asian). So random! I called up the publisher and apparently it was a promotional item with a purchase. Weird!

  4. Last summer Field & Stream started coming. Addressed to me. Totally weird.

    I believe I am now part black because my kids are black. We're a hodge podge of race in my house! Except that since I can't go into the sun I am e whitest person you'll ever see. I'm nearly translucent!

    Love this post!
    xo Susie

  5. I really liked this post... I'm not sure why, but I do.
    and ps... I get cat fancy magazine. I don't own a cat, I've never signed up for it, and I can't remember if I've ever even been to a pet store.

  6. I grew up in a mostly black area, so the majority of my childhood friends were black, too, and when I graduated and went to college, it was kind of odd... I got the same thing... "Do people look at you funny?" why? Do I have a third eye?

    But I'll never be mistaken for anything but white. lol