I remember the moment so distinctly in which my parents break the news to me that I am not Mexican.
We are standing in the kitchen, it’s after school, and both of my parents are present. I’m maybe eight years old, and in school we’ve been talking about genealogies and heritages. Something I have written has tipped them off to the fact that I am at least somewhat confused about where I come from, or just plain don’t know, and so I have made up a scenario that seems plausible.
I don’t know if this is a typical experience for others who are white and of European descent or not, but it’s consistently been the case throughout my life that my whiteness has been called into question. I have small eyes which while being blue, are also slanted with very thin eye-lids which border on mono-lid.
The first time I remember it being brought to my attention was as a child on the school bus, where a slightly older boy would daily call me “Chinese eyes.” I remember this being distressing, because I could tell from his tone of voice that he meant it pejoratively, but I didn’t know what was “wrong” with my eyes or being Chinese. I remember going home to my mom and asking her if I’m Chinese, and I’m not. Later, especially in the years where my friends and I experimented with putting make-up on each other, the strangeness of my eyes came back around as a question, as did the shape of my face (moon-like) or the dark sleekness of my hair. Even last week, a friend (generous and kind and curious) asked me about my race, positing I might be something other than merely white.
So when the school project comes along, I know that I’m not Chinese. But also, I have features which are noticeably different from those of other “typical white people,” whatever this means. There are Mexican migrant-farmer children riding the school bus while their parents work the surrounding pepper fields, and I have studied them with curiosity. Their eyes look kind of like mine, and I’m intrigued by their ability to speak another language. I like them. So I assume I must be Mexican, as if this solves the mystery. Standing in the kitchen, my folks tell me what I am not, but then also tell me a long list of the things I am – namely white European ancestry.
I don’t know if this is where my obsession with genealogies began, but it has persisted even into adulthood. At moments, I have gone meta, counting out how many bodies in the last five hundred years have gone into the body I have. I have thought about each human body as a communion of saints and sinners somehow, deep down there in the cells and the blood. I have considered all the things of former generations we carry in our DNA, and have thought about baptized bodies, wondering if every hand could be a city of God somehow.
But in particular, the obsession has come back around in full force since beginning to deconstruct my ignorance around race and culture the past couple years. To learn that white is a construct, an assimilation of immigrants to a particular standard of beauty, has pressed me to think more deeply about my own story or the stories my body holds.
By the same token, whiteness is not “just a construct,” but has social and political capital in a system that privileges those who assimilate or are capable of passing, and ascribes moral value to particular lives over and against others.
For me, all of this begins to hit the fan in divinity school in a class on race and Christian identity. I begin to ask questions about First Nations people in our church, and the migrant-farmers’ children who rode the bus with us as kids. I begin to think more deeply for the first time about my uncle who was half-Latino but identified as Native American. I start to think about how even in my small northern rural town, de facto segregation is in play. For the first time, I begin to wake up to all sorts of curiosities sitting in the background of my existence, things I haven’t thought about in years, but it’s all in the realms of intellectual reasoning to begin with.
If all these questions were in play before, they hit fever pitch for me with the immigration crisis and Trump, and in particular the rash of deportations I began to hear about, and a church I belong to offering sanctuary, along with family members and childhood church members who as white people are supportive of Trump’s policies.
And I begin to realize that the majority of white people I know are out of touch with their histories. And I realize I am out of touch too.
When an immigrant-child detention center is set to move into my neighborhood, I come unglued. When I watch videos of a deportation and clergy I love being arrested for trying to prevent it, I come even more unglued.
And what I realize is that some part of me lately is searching – that I don’t want to be out of touch. I can’t erase my whiteness or deny the privilege I have, but also there are landmines of history I haven’t touched, details which might move me toward greater empathy or identification somehow with the marginalized.
I find that I am trying to remember my blood, trying to reach back before my generic midwestern whiteness to the particulars of identity buried in my cells and sinews – identities I have mostly forgotten, stories I don’t know, traditions that don’t touch me, subsumed under the catch-all assimilated category of “white American born.”
My whole body is the forgotten history of border crossings and social transgression. I am the fruit of loves between unlikely lovers. There in my veins, among my English, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestries are also the Polish, the Irish, the Jewish. Right there with the “socially acceptable” immigrants of a century or two ago are unwanted immigrants, the ones that incited fear and rhetoric in the “true American” heart. The arguments about borders and what threats exist if we let the other in are nothing new. They don’t change; only the targets do.
My blood is the history of wars.
Politics want to tell me who can be my neighbor, but in my veins a dozen countries intermingle.
This past week, I got an email notification from a genealogy site I sometimes have researched on. I have known for many years that my maiden name is an adopted name, that a great grandparent somewhere in the past took the last name of his adopted parents, and that there was another line I didn’t know much of anything about. My maiden name is British, but would have been Polish. And I have wondered if even having the other name would have changed my experiences of whiteness as a child.
I knew nothing about that line, but suddenly there was information available, with census records and baptismal records, documents I am certain my more genealogy-interested aunts and uncle have seen.
I learned that my great-great grandfather was born at sea over the Atlantic, and I went back to see what was happening in Poland that could have spurred them to leave on a ship while his mother was so pregnant. I found out that my great-great-greats are buried twenty minutes from my parents’ place, and the house they settled in, which was built in the 1870s, still stands the same distance away – a fact that was intriguing, considering that neither of my parents grew up where they now live. I learned my ancestors were Catholic, and not Jewish as I had wondered. I began to think about how it was that I am Protestant now, who changed for whom, and at what point it was decided.
One could ask what the point is of knowing. Does any of this change anything?
For me, I think it does.
For me, it’s evidence of culture and identity pre-whiteness, with a certain kind of possibility for empathy that may move me to identify differently in the world, and deconstruct my American identity – work which is important in tension with Christian identity.
More, it helps me to identify with the marginalized, to find in those coming here for safety, flourishing, a chance to live, resonances with the stories of my own people and a reminder that justice is in the realms of bodies.
I’m not Mexican and not Chinese, and may actually be nothing other than European. But on some days, I want to be, if I’m honest. I want some deeper sense of tie to history and particular culture and even to land, to feel what others feel, to know what they know in their bodies as they leave home to become strangers, and for it to move me to live with equity, justice, and hospitality.