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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How White I Am

While reading a typical summer read, 'Coming Home' (family saga set in Britain), I realized just how white I am. I'm damn white. Not really WASP, because I'm not British, but I'm Scot-Swedish enough to have grown up that way. And we went to a liberal-but-nonetheless Episcopal church when I was little. I think the Episcopalian bit accounts for a lot of this. And my mom's fosterdad lived with us, and he was Veddy British. But let me explain.

If what we are comfortable with defines us, I'm British. Though born and raised in Brooklyn, much of my childhood reading consisted of thrift bookstore British children's lit. That was my mom's fosterdad's gifting. A stream of Brit Lit ran thru our house, and my brothers, also, are very white people. We ate what my mom could call cooking (tasteless British food she'd learned from her fostermom) and what my dad concocted (scary Scottish from his mom and "healthy" early 20th century trends-influenced). We dressed as most of White Americans did in those days, gloves and hats on women, hats and suits on men. Our furniture was large, dark wood, a china closet and buffet in the dining room. Upholstery was either floral or bland. Flowers were important. There was always tea around. If we had nothing at all else, there was tea. Eggs were boiled or fried in bacon fat, no omelets. No garlic, no peppers, no olive oil, rarely a spice. Salt, yes, but black pepper was never in cooking. Mayonnaise was for salads. Gravy was required. And all foods went into the oven/on the stove to boil, at the same time, and served when the meat was leather. Canned peas cooked as long as the beef roast. One's shoes were always shined. Everything was done by rules that had existed time immemorial and would exist beyond our petty lives. One showed no real emotion. If you dared, punishment was swift. Ignore all disruption and carry on was the code. Even church was controlled and dignified. 3 hymns, you're out. And you'd better sing.

I find myself liking and identifying best with British fiction and BBC broadcasting even now. The settings, the clothing, the customs, all so familiar and comforting to me. Much of this I recognize as my grandparents and parents' influence. Both of my parents were WW2 veterans, and the British influence- even programming, really- on that generation was enormous. It's been said by Gore Vidal that it was a systematic campaign of the media at that time to re-British Americans so they'd jump into the war to save Britain. Along with that identifying went a certain brand of racial prejudice, as well. A caste system, if you will, that we bought into as a family. And we weren't British, but close enough. The British were #1, then anyone Episcopalian, and on down the scale from there. Of course it was never discussed, but it was the order of things. It was a disruption when one of my brothers married an Italian Catholic, even though they'd been like family to us for years.

So it is, but shouldn't be, a revelation to me to see this, blankly, now. I'm oh-so-very-very-white. Despite my Mohawk blood, despite the bit of French, though I married a Jew and am a practicing Pagan, I'm white to the core. Looking around my living room now, I see how white I am. Floral couch, dark wooden furniture, wing chair, right down to the arranged framed art and photos and vase waiting for flowers, I'm a white girl.

3 comments:

MoonRaven said...

There is nothing wrong with being white (or any other racial or ethnic identity). As someone I knew once said, vanilla is a flavor also.

Mike Eldred said...

Hey, I'm so white I'm practically transparent.
My family, particularly my father's family, identified with the British. My father's mother came from an oh-so-middle class small town family that had lived in the same town for 200 years and proudly traced its heritage to this country's earliest, British, settlers.
My mother has always identified with the Irish side of her family - her father was first-generation Irish-American. Obviously this rubbed off on me.

So how has all of that affected me? I'm married to an Irish woman, recently became an Irish citizen. I drink about a gallon of tea every day. And when we make tea, we mean TEA - strong, hot, and plenty of it.

I love all things British - cars, humor, television and, dammit, I love the food, too. Just had Fish & Chips last night. Many of our friends are Brits - we naturally get along.

As far as being white - I celebrate it. I'm proud of it. But I really like to be around people who aren't white, too. Too much salt and no pepper is pretty boring.

Cheers!
-Mike

Laura Austan said...

With a few weeks now passed since this post, and the good comments from friends and fellow bloggers, I figured out what the issue is. I'm not so much feeling wrong or necessarily bad about being white as I am surprised to have finally had that epiphany. My hometown was the Melting Pot in action, still is. So I never felt particularly white. Even though my white schoolmates called me Snow White for my nearly-blue skin and dark hair. It never struck me that I'm perceived as a white person. Now, a half-century later, I see myself "as ithers see" me, as Robbie would say. It's quite bizarre to realize at this point that you belong to a race, with all that that implies.