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'When Did You Become White?': The Question All 'White' Americans Must Answer

Julia Mapilisan spray paints "Black Lives Matter" on a wall as people gather at Lents Park in Portland, Oregon, on September 5, 2020, to mark the 100th day of protests denouncing police brutality and racism. (Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images)
Julia Mapilisan spray paints "Black Lives Matter" on a wall as people gather at Lents Park in Portland, Oregon, on September 5, 2020, to mark the 100th day of protests denouncing police brutality and racism. (Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images)

Some years ago, I was walking in the Public Garden in Boston with an African American scholar, writer and Unitarian Universalist minister named Thandeka. I had earlier that day introduced her at a conference where she was speaking, I moderating.

As we walked, we talked about our writing projects. Hers was to become a book called, “Learning To Be White: How White People Learn About Racism.”

Our conversation was animated; then there was a pause. She turned to me and asked, “So, Janna, how did you become white?”

How did I become white? I felt startled by the question, then new to me. What did she mean?

She meant, of course, that there is no such thing in human biology or DNA as “white.”

As many have observed for centuries, and as Isabel Wilkerson has unequivocally laid out yet again in her book “Caste,” “white” is a fantasy category of social power used to support a devastating caste system that has long imprisoned many African Americans in its bottom tiers.

How did I become white? I felt startled by the question, then new to me. What did she mean?   

In Wilkerson’s terms, Thandeka was asking me about the early emotional development of my caste identity. And I had no ready answer.

Then an image floated up. I lived in Oregon until I was 9 years old. My grandparents lived in California. Once or twice during the mid-1950s, my family rode the Southern Pacific train overnight to Los Angeles to visit. On one of those trips, I was maybe 4 years old. The ride felt very long. My mother took us up to the “dome” car — a glass-covered car with raised seating, where you could watch the world go by and chat with other travelers.

I started playing dolls on the car floor with another little girl. My only visual memory is of a small American Indian doll that belonged to one of us — it had a brown glazed clay body, movable limbs, dark, braided hair and a deerskin dress. We were caught up in our play; but not so deeply that I missed hearing a “white” woman lean over across the aisle, look down at me, and stage whisper to my mother in a strange tone, “Look, she doesn’t even know she’s playing with a Negro.”

I don’t know if the other little girl heard. I don’t know what my mother, who despised prejudice, said or did. We kept playing. But I felt scrutinized, and remember falling into an uncomfortable state of self-consciousness. I had noted her different skin color. But now my mother and I were being urged to give it caste meaning. The fact that I remember nothing else from that trip suggests the potency of the cue, and its contribution to my identity.

In social work school, I learned about structural racism, but not its centrality, nor really about much about how it benefited me.

As I thought about Thandeka’s question and our conversation, I was troubled and interested. Like so many white liberals, I thought of myself for many years as a person who was not racist. I knew my mid-century history texts taught me lies: that slavery was over and gone, that only the South was implicated.

In social work school, I learned about structural racism, but not its centrality, nor really about much about how it benefited me. No one I encountered, until lately, described the way our entire economy — North and South — was built first on slaves’ backs and then on racist policies.

The wonder of it all is how smooth and durable the lies have been, how self-serving and profitable for “white” people, and how well we have kept them in place.

I asked my husband how he became “white,” and he remembered at the beginning of his first-grade year in Pennsylvania, his grandmother pushing his mother to make his teacher switch his desk so he no longer sat next to “the little boy with curly dark hair.” She refused. But he, too, has carried the memory since.

I am more aware now of being “white,” and hope that I’ve bit by bit broken through some of my ignorance and self-serving distortions. But individual awareness is not enough.

Until a critical mass of “white” Americans face our real history, until they can answer Thandeka’s question of when they became “white,” the pernicious fantasy that has inspired, continues venomously to inspire, so much injustice, suffering and violence.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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