This is more extreme than what I’ve had to grapple with, but it’s definitely in the same zone. It’s honestly taken me decades — and only recently — to realize that I am not a white American. I had always thought of myself as basically white, your “typical” American, but so many people have asked and continue to ask me the standard mixed-race kid question: “So, what are you?”

Which they would not be asking if they looked at me and just thought “some white American dude”.

But, honestly, I have no strong ties to my Indian heritage — I grew up with my German-immigrant mom in the suburban Midwest. I’ll (now) proudly proclaim I’m Punjabi, but then I’ll go to an Indian restaurant and everyone will look to me for guidance and I’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. (Heck, even Indian and Pakistani people I meet look at me kind of funny. “You’re Indian? I had no idea.”)

It’s just bizarre. I was raised on network TV, comic books, D&D, pizza, Star Trek, and rock n’ roll. I speak one language. Seems pretty white American to me.

When I was in high school, I remember a vague conversation with my AP US History teacher. He was making some sort of big deal (for reasons I forget) about two other students being first-generation Americans — both of them white as snow with parents from Northern Europe. I wasn’t familiar enough with the phrase to point out that I was also a first-generation American. But I guess somehow I didn’t read as a candidate for that category.

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24 thoughts on “This is more extreme than what I’ve had to grapple with, but it’s definitely in the same zone. It’s honestly taken…

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mark. I often wonder what other non-White folks think internally about themselves in this context.

    “It’s just bizarre. I was raised on network TV, comic books, D&D, pizza, Star Trek, and rock n’ roll. I speak one language. Seems pretty white American to me”

    That’s me too man, not to invalidate anything you said.

  2. < ![CDATA[Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mark. I often wonder what other non-White folks think internally about themselves in this context. “It’s just bizarre. I was raised on network TV, comic books, D&D, pizza, Star Trek, and rock n’ roll. I speak one language. Seems pretty white American to me”
    That’s me too man, not to invalidate anything you said.]]>

  3. < ![CDATA[There's an Arab-American standup whose name I can't recall (Maz Jobrani, maybe?) who had a bit about waking up on 9/11 and realizing he was no longer white, and how weird that was.]]>

  4. Robert Bohl My “look” is vague enough that I have been mis-labeled in the wake of various conflicts. E.g., when Khaddafi was a thing, people asked me if I was Libyan. In the post-9/11 world, I have had neighbors refer to me (when I”m not there) as “that Arab guy.”

  5. < ![CDATA[Robert Bohl My "look" is vague enough that I have been mis-labeled in the wake of various conflicts. E.g., when Khaddafi was a thing, people asked me if I was Libyan. In the post-9/11 world, I have had neighbors refer to me (when I"m not there) as "that Arab guy."]]>

  6. I remember the first time you mentioned this, and i was like “huh”, cuz, like you assumed people would, i always just read you as a fellow white dude.

    The intersection of race/culture (which i guess is “ethnicity”, right?) is weird and complicated. Personally, for me it’s all about communication. I read/judge people mostly based on how easily we can have a conversation, above and beyond any other factors. Not saying i don’t have prejudices, of course i do, but even those are mostly about “how well do i assume i will be able to communicate with this person based on XYZ apparent cultural signifier”

  7. < ![CDATA[I remember the first time you mentioned this, and i was like "huh", cuz, like you assumed people would, i always just read you as a fellow white dude. The intersection of race/culture (which i guess is "ethnicity", right?) is weird and complicated. Personally, for me it's all about communication. I read/judge people mostly based on how easily we can have a conversation, above and beyond any other factors. Not saying i don't have prejudices, of course i do, but even those are mostly about "how well do i assume i will be able to communicate with this person based on XYZ apparent cultural signifier"]]>

  8. Two Dutch friends (one of whom was born in Indonesia, adopted at a young age, and looks very Asian) have a son who at the age of 5 at school was very surprised to learn he wasn’t one of the white kids. He doesn’t look white at all, but it never occurred to him that he was different from other white kids.

    I think this sort of identity is much more caused by culture than skin. But other people’s reaction to your skin might conflict with that and change how you see yourself.

  9. < ![CDATA[Two Dutch friends (one of whom was born in Indonesia, adopted at a young age, and looks very Asian) have a son who at the age of 5 at school was very surprised to learn he wasn't one of the white kids. He doesn't look white at all, but it never occurred to him that he was different from other white kids. I think this sort of identity is much more caused by culture than skin. But other people's reaction to your skin might conflict with that and change how you see yourself.]]>

  10. Martijn Vos I wrote about it once before on G+, but when I was seven or eight we did a classroom exercise where the teacher put up a bunch of child portraits on the wall, each one a different skin tone and labeled terms like “Chocolate” and other food analogies. We then had to each go up and point to which skin tone we matched.

    I pointed to “Vanilla”, because that’s what I assumed I was, and the pic looked like my mom. Everyone then burst out at once to correct me; I was directed to “Bubble Gum”, which featured a light-skinned African-American boy. I was pretty confused, as I knew I was not African.

    Years later, in junior high, one of the popular kids was being hurtful one day and said: “You know everyone thinks you’re a spic, right?”

    I still feel weird thinking of myself as a “Person of Color”, as what little I’ve had to endure seems paltry compared to what “real” POC have to go through.

  11. < ![CDATA[Martijn Vos I wrote about it once before on G+, but when I was seven or eight we did a classroom exercise where the teacher put up a bunch of child portraits on the wall, each one a different skin tone and labeled terms like "Chocolate" and other food analogies. We then had to each go up and point to which skin tone we matched. I pointed to "Vanilla", because that's what I assumed I was, and the pic looked like my mom. Everyone then burst out at once to correct me; I was directed to "Bubble Gum", which featured a light-skinned African-American boy. I was pretty confused, as I knew I was not African. Years later, in junior high, one of the popular kids was being hurtful one day and said: "You know everyone thinks you're a spic, right?" I still feel weird thinking of myself as a "Person of Color", as what little I've had to endure seems paltry compared to what "real" POC have to go through.]]>

  12. I think that’s called “intersectional privilege”? Where you are read as white in some situations, but not in others, so your experience of white privilege is context dependent. This is also true for a lot of European folks; depending on how racist the people in any given environment are, Italians, Poles, or Irish folks might be considered inside or outside the golden circle, so to speak.

  13. < ![CDATA[I think that's called "intersectional privilege"? Where you are read as white in some situations, but not in others, so your experience of white privilege is context dependent. This is also true for a lot of European folks; depending on how racist the people in any given environment are, Italians, Poles, or Irish folks might be considered inside or outside the golden circle, so to speak.]]>