America — she’s indecisive. She can’t make up her mind about who belongs where.
Over the past 300 years, racial categorizations in the United States have been wishy-washy. Almost a century ago, Italian and Irish immigrants weren’t considered white. They were compared to “simians,” or apes, and seen as inferior. It’s funny how today, the second-most common ancestry of Americans who identify as white is Irish, while Italian ancestry is fourth.
Come on America, at least be consistent with your racism. For a country obsessed with such stark racial divisions, who was and is “white” remains surprisingly fluid.
What makes someone “white” in the United States? Is it a lack of spice tolerance? Raisins in potato salad? Shish kebabs and baba ghanoush? Well, yes, actually. All of it.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Middle Eastern and North African people are considered white. But we all know that socially, this is not the case.
So what does “white” really mean in the United States?
For a “mixed” person such as myself, it doesn’t get any easier to figure out which group I belong to. I say “mixed” because both of my parents are considered “white” by the U.S. census. But in terms of appearance, only one passes the test: my red-haired, freckled Russian mom. My baba, on the other hand, is an Iranian with tightly curled hair and toasted baklava-colored skin. Anyone can do the math.
Here, his racial ambiguity raises questions. While most interactions are pleasant and harmless, some are less so. “I always knew I wasn’t white,” he admitted during a conversation. But on university and employment forms, he is. I did not inherit my father’s darker skin. I look white, save for the ruddy tangle of curls he gifted me.
So, am I really white as the census suggests, or just white passing? Does it even matter if I reap the benefits of white privilege either way?
More importantly, would it just save everyone a lot of time if I just selected “white” without a fussy identity crisis?
No. Ticking a box on a form, rather than dealing with the discomfort of navigating racial identity in the United States, is settling. I will not settle.
I have a bone to pick with the all-encompassing “white” label. It’s a term that sweeps hundreds of cultures under one umbrella on paper but socially stratifies them in the real world. By making this sweeping generalization, “white” erases the complex nuances and backgrounds of ethnic groups in the United States. Though an Iranian or Hispanic person is considered “white,” their experiences in the United States are vastly different from the average multigenerational “white” American of European descent.
This racialized country is inclined to sort and treat individuals as though they are bound by the racial history of a particular group based on their appearance.
It’s confusing to be mixed in the United States, a place so enamored with absolutes. Multiracial people have only had the option of identifying themselves on the census as “mixed” since 2000. But “mixed” means two or more races. Both of my ethnic categories are lumped under a single racial category.
There’s a persistent tension between my two ethnicities and this abstract racial category that I don’t identify with but others visually sort me into. I’m not “Brown” or “Iranian” enough because I can barely speak the language. I’m not “Russian” or “European” enough because I wasn’t born there. I’m not “American white” enough to be easily accepted into white-American groups, and in predominantly white spaces, I feel uneasy.
Sometimes I’m tired of feeling in between. With nonwhite friends, I feel the need to divorce myself from my whiteness, a whiteness that nobody (including myself) seems to like. In the process of making my own space, I accidentally perpetuate racial separation in a very American fashion. I find myself blurting out, “Yeah, my dad’s not white, he immigrated. I take off my shoes in the house and respect my parents. I love my rice cooker. White people, am I right?”
The obsession with color overshadows my cultural heritage, something I identify with more than the color of my skin. But in this country, I, like everyone else, don’t have the luxury of being identified in any other way.
To be recognized and contextualized, I fight the white label to make space for the societally ambiguous parts of me. I wish that people weren’t so quick to judge, that we could live without being boxed in by this country’s backwardness. I can’t help but wonder why, in the United States, must things disappear rather than amalgamate? Why can’t we live and be recognized as everything that we are?
To this day, I’ve never met anyone outside my immediate family who has the same background as I. So far, nobody really “gets it,” not like the way a Russian understands another Russian or an Iranian another Iranian. It’s something I yearn for a bit more than I’d care to admit. Maybe it’s because I have this strange hope that they’ll be able to understand my strange predicament.
Wholly, entirely, not halfway with mixed sentiment.
Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]