Monday, July 2, 2012

news flash: you don't have to be white to be an American

This weekend, we went camping with the in-laws. This is normally pretty fun. We were at a lovely place, Lake Wenatchee State Park, the weather was cooperative, and our neighbors were mostly quiet.

But on Saturday night, I had the most enraging conversation that I've had in quite a while. My sister-in-law's 15-year-old stepson said something about all the "foreigners" at the campground.

Slightly unable to believe what I was hearing, I said, "What do you mean, the Canadians?"

"What? You haven't noticed all the Indians, and how they all talk in their funny language?" And he started to make some sounds that apparently he thought sounded like ones heard on the Indian sub-continent.

My blood started to boil. "Just because they're not white, doesn't mean they're not Americans," I said flatly.

"Well, yeah, it kind of does."

Full boil. I leaned over and stared at him. "You want to look me in the face and say that again?"

He stammered, "Um, well, you kind of look white to me."

Dear god. I have not been smacked in the face with such stupidity in a long, long time. I said with a certain amount of disgust, "Just keep digging yourself a deeper hole," and said nothing else to him for the rest of the evening.

He's just a kid and I certainly don't blame him for all the racial problems in this country. Hopefully he was a little shaken up and will do some thinking about his assumptions. Maybe he'll eventually realize that white does not equate better (though of course I am ever so grateful that he thinks of me as white) and that not all true Americans have to have the same color skin that he does.

But I'm pretty sure it was the first time that my son, now 7, has heard the news that white people are better than others. That some people will look at him and only see the color of his skin. And once they've neatly labeled him as Asian (when he is only half), they will then stick him in the foreign/outsider box.

(Digression: this is pretty similar to how many people look at President Obama and never see the white half, just the black half of his parentage.)

Despite being born in this country and speaking English more correctly and precisely than the average America--this grammar nerd's dog does not respond to "lay down," only "lie down"--a fair number of people will take one look at me and assume I am from elsewhere. I thought people were getting less ignorant, though. This exchange used to be pretty common when I was in my twenties:

"Where are you from?"

"Olympia." (where I was living at the time)

"No, I mean originally?"

"Massachusetts."

"No, where are you really from?"

I once got this from an African American man. I said, "Do you know where in Africa you're 'originally' from?" He half-laughed and said, "Of course not. I'm from here." Um, well, why don't you think I'm from "here"?

So really, this is nothing new. It's just that most people don't tell me to my face that I'm not white enough to be an American.

This week, my country celebrates the anniversary of our Declaration of Independence. It seems as good a time as any, and better than most, to think about what makes us Americans--and it sure as hell isn't the color of our skin.

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