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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Being White Is Not Being Black

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

Some of the many faces in my family's country of Belize


When a college classmate said that I was in an interracial marriage, I was aghast.

I had been married about 10 years, and I had never considered myself as such. My husband was Welsh. I am an American. We had lived together in Sicily, Sweden and, for the longest time, in Britain. In these places, we identified with our nationalities – American and Welsh. When I moved to Cornwall in 1996, World War II was still very much a part of the consciousness among older British. Therefore, in our Cornish village, I was the Yank.

In the United States, race is an artificial construct. which governs housing, education, work, relationships. Everything. The U.S. is a country of apartheid. There, I consider myself black. Yet, even for the three years that we lived in Santa Cruz, California, I never thought of my now ex-husband as a white person.

What is “white”? It is not an ethnicity. It describes what a person is not. Not black. Not native American. Not Latinx. Not Asian. It seems, to me, to be a slight. What is being white but the dearth of racial hindrance in U.S. society and, by extension, complicity in oppressing those who are not white?

Appearances of the white race or white people in the Oxford English Dictionary began in the 17th century. Historian Winthrop Jordan wrote that “throughout the (thirteen) colonies the terms Christian, free, English and white were . . . employed indiscriminately” in the 17th century as proxies for one another.

Theodore W. Allen stressed that the white race was invented as a “ruling class social control formation” in Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race. He said that it remained a more familiar term in the American colonies than in Britain well into the 1700s. David R. Roediger and many other scholars suggest that the construction of the white race in the United States was an effort to create a mental distance between slave owners and slaves.

By the 18th century, white had become established as a racial term. At different points in U.S. history, many have not been considered white, including Finns, Germans, Greeks, Hispanics, Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Irish, Jews, Slavs, and Spaniards.

Who wants to be white?

When I was about eight years old, my parents, younger brother and I took a Sunday drive from our home in Queens, New York to New Jersey to see my father’s first cousin and his wife and daughter. I had not met them. My father’s cousin was from Belize, then British Honduras, which is my family’s home. He had married an American.

When we arrived, I was sent down to the basement with his daughter, who was about my age, and her friend from the neighborhood. I remember feeling that they were hesitant toward me. They looked at me as though I were strange. I could not understand why. Eventually, we began to play, but it took a while.

Years later, I learned that my father’s cousin asked him not to visit there again because he was passing for white. I suppose the New Jerseyite could explain one visit from a friend from his home country, where most Belizeans are of multiracial and multicultural descent. Explaining more than one visit to his neighbors would have been awkward and a reminder of his rejection of his own family.

Did his wife know? Oh, the webs we weave.

Because housing and, therefore, school segregation is the norm in the States, those two girls in the basement probably had not met anyone with brown skin. Yet, they already had been inculcated with prejudice.

It was an American tragedy.

So, when my college classmate said that I was in an interracial marriage, many things went through my mind. Because I had been outside of the States for 10 years, I chose not to deal with America’s painful race psychosis by talking with her about it. I buried it . . . until now.

Since George Floyd’s killing two months ago, I feel that Americans are receptive to stories about race, which are difficult for blacks to tell. There are so many stories, they can make you crazy. Therefore, we keep many experiences to ourselves. I don’t want to bare my soul and have my revelations questioned automatically. The new sensitivity of Americans is a good sign of a hopeful future.

I am hopeful for the future.

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