By Michelle Geffner ’19: …what, exactly, does it mean to be “white”? Or more presently, what does it mean to be “white” in Trump’s America? All my twenty years, I’ve been told by other people how I look. Raised by a blue-eyed dad and obtaining a good deal of his genetic markers, I don’t resemble the poster child of a first generation Asian-American, although I am. I probably don’t evoke the image of a third generation Jewish-American, but I am.…
I felt guilty on January 28. I almost forgot about the Lunar New Year. I know, the rooster is not the most impressive of zodiac signs, but still. This symbolic, flightless bird fell behind the front of my consciousness because I’m half Asian, but I wasn’t raised to be. I mean, I wasn’t raised by anyone Asian. And, in the midst of our political climate, I find myself increasingly aware of this rather disconcerting spectrum of “whiteness”— a concept ever changing in both color and definition. More specifically, since this piece of writing wasn’t intended to be an act of self-indulgence or the verbal vomit of a college student or whatever else it should be called, I must ask: what, exactly, does it mean to be “white”? Or more presently, what does it mean to be “white” in Trump’s America?
All my twenty years, I’ve been told by other people how I look. Raised by a blue-eyed dad and obtaining a good deal of his genetic markers, I don’t resemble the poster child of a first generation Asian-American, although I am. I probably don’t evoke the image of a third generation Jewish-American, but I am. These features “pass” as white, and I have no doubt that my experience has been considerably different from any other person of color because of them—this places me and people like me in a sort of ambivalent spot on the aforementioned spectrum of whiteness. Even when my grandparents came to visit from China, bearing gifts of lai see and sweet red bean pasties, the concept of an “us” was transient and dependent upon too many outside factors. You know that chant, that “Chinese, Japanese, Indian Chief” rhyme kids used to say on the playground? Yep, super racist. What a weird way to spend recess. If this isn’t proof of learned behavioral prejudice, nothing is. Anyway, I was never the butt of those jokes or that chant or any other unassuming albeit racist trope, because I never looked the part. It still hurt my feelings, but prior to the (quite recent) national dialogue that our generation has nurtured in its formative stages, children simply didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate this common playground phenomenon.
And, on the other hand, I’m not Evangelical or a Christian-American, so what’s there to do about that? It wasn’t until the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 that Jewish people (mainly immigrating from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, etc.) were even legally considered Caucasian or “white” in this country, and yet that didn’t stop other European nations from mercilessly targeting them in the decades to follow, and to a lesser degree, to this day. We may wish to assume that we live in a time that is post-colorism, but I believe this to be untrue. I have such privilege in my paleness, that it’s almost uncomfortable to stand as a POC under a Trump administration. My privilege is that I was never forced to identify as a POC because most of the time, I wasn’t perceived as one, and sometimes I don’t know if I count or if I even have the right to decide how to self-identify. One complication for children of interracial or international backgrounds is the fact that whatever box you check, either on paper or internally, may have real, significant effects on your life. Consequently, the need for this kind of dialogue still exists.
This need, of course, is by no means a consequence of the empowerment of ethnic minorities. It really irks me to hear this argument that’s been circulating around recent polls and columns: the idea that the empowerment of oppressed peoples actually causes rift and disunity in an already flawed system, rather than being the long overdue effect—the refutation against what history has taught us to accept. Buying into the belief that minorities perpetuate prejudice by simply validating their existence as minorities is the Catch 22 of our time. Because nobody believes he or she is the “Bad Guy,” I would bet the majority of white supremacists think they are doing God’s work. And, it’s not that Trump is the first politician (or president, for that matter) to state his distaste towards those unlike himself—people lacking inheritances or namesakes or opinions differing from his own. Trump is just one figure of state who has made it quite clear that his definition of “whiteness” (or rather, “greatness”) is growing narrower—we could write a book on the many instances in which this is true, but I’ll leave it to his cabinet nominees,“alternative facts,” and Google.
The counterargument against my claims would be laughable, if they didn’t have such serious consequences. Maybe I’m in a minority here, but I am of the belief that there’s enough to go around. Enough patriotism, enough care, enough equity, enough ethics. The list of people expressing feelings of discord and injustice grows larger by the day—take for example the recent Women’s March, occurring everywhere from Washington D.C. to Paris to Cape Town to Tokyo. Historically speaking, the intersectionality of these protests is unprecedented. Regardless on where you stand politically, you must admit—these events are statistically impressive. Even if you won’t admit it, it is recorded, documented. Living history.
So, that’s what we’ve got. The rainforests are dwindling, the year is still new, and humanity is cultivating more color than ever before. Thanks for living it, and thanks for reading.