Okay, here we go. Into the super uncomfortable parts of white passing!
Honestly, I felt more comfortable around people of color as a kid and teen. I didn't really know why, but it might be because of where I grew up and my Maori culture that seeped into me in ways I didn't realize (that's another post in the future). I felt at ease with them, at ease listening to them speak in a different language with their parents. Maybe it reminded me of my grandma singing in Maori. Those different languages and cultures represented love and comfort for me.
I remember there being some arguments or missteps on these differences (my Baptist friends constantly wanted to save my Mormon soul, for example), but I was taught early on from my family and at school that we could all respect each other. In 6th grade, I remember vividly my history teacher discussing every major world religion. It fascinated me, and the amount of respect in our classroom after was palpable.
I grew up in a small apartment in Fremont, in a questionable part of town at the time where we weren't completely poor but not really secure in finances either. Currently my old neighborhood is now top school and swanky? It's hard to reconcile when I remember the constant penis graffiti at the elementary they had to clean up, or the known drug house on the way to school, or the terrible case of a toddler being murdered just down the street. When my father graduated with his masters and got a good job, we moved to a very middle class place in Brentwood. I was comfortable in modest circumstances, in having enough but not more than we needed.
So when I moved to Utah in 1998, I was not prepared for what was waiting in a more homogenous area (white, LDS, upper class). As I walked the halls on my first day of school there (indoor halls! what???), I was taken back by the sea of blonds, by the single shade of skin color, and even the strange way everyone seemed to have the same body shape (knobby tallness for the boys, elven svelte for the girls).
Though I might have blended in more than ever before (except I was already far curvier than most), I had never felt so out of place.
Kids made fun of my California accent and "beach clothes." They were great at immediately pointing out what made me different from them, from my interests in Anime to my outspoken manner to the different things I thought were important about our shared religion. They didn't know what to do with me—and I didn't know what to do with them.
Because, though we might have looked the same, I was very different on the inside.
For example, I had chosen drama for one of my elections that 9th grade year, and it was one of those classes with a laid back attitude. The teacher hadn't started class right when the bell rang, and kids chatted amongst themselves. I felt slightly out of place not only as the New Kid, but as a person who'd never been in drama and didn't like the spotlight.
So I was keeping to myself, drawing like I usually did, when I over heard a conversation.
"What do you call a Mexican who..."
I stiffened, shocked at the "jokes" that proceeded to come out of this boy's mouth. These sort of "jokes" would have gotten him a fist in the face at my old school. I had heard them before even—but they were almost always called out for what they were. Then he moved on from Mexicans to Jews. No one around me seemed upset. No one did anything but laugh.
"Dude, that's racist," I blurted out, angry at how long everyone had let this go on.
The boy looked at me in horror, as if I had mortally wounded him with my accusation. "It's just a joke, dude. Can't you take a joke?"
The mock surfer accent was not lost on me.
"If it's so funny, would you say it in front of a Mexican person? Or a Jewish person?" I asked.
He didn't have a snappy reply to that, and his face grew red. The whole class had grown quiet. I would have gone on chewing him out, but the teacher jumped in and decided to start class right then. She made no effort to correct anything, though she had to have heard the conversation.
I wish I could say that someone learned a lesson from this, but I was the one who paid for speaking out.
That kid I stood up to? He was mean to me for years after. Every class we had together, he would call me names and whisper about me to others. No one stood up for me. No one did anything. Finally, at some point in high school, I finally asked him, "Why do you hate me do much?"
"Because you were born," was his answer.
It hurt, but looking back it makes me sad for anyone who was different in that area. Whether it was exaggeration or not, I feel like his reply was incredibly telling of the underlying current of the community I moved into. Of course it wasn't everyone, but there was an attitude, a set of "beliefs" that came with being an upper class white kid in a nearly all white community. Everyone patted each other's backs, telling each other they all earned what they had. There's this sentiment easily shared that if "others would just work harder and stop being lazy or degenerate..." There are many instances of the phrase, "I'm not racist, but..." followed by some terrible statement.
I think that kid really did hate me because I was born—because I was born female in a misogynist society and I dared to stand up to him in public. To him, the "shame" I'd put on him was more than what anyone else would have to suffer ever in their lives, and he would make sure I paid for it.
I didn't understand that at the time. It's taken years of adulthood and lessons from other people of color to make sense of what I saw as a kid.
That's the weird thing about being a white passer. You see. You see racist stuff all the time, because you are coded as white on the outside and thus you are automatically "accepted" as someone who would agree with all the crap some can spew.
But the moment you speak up, they know you're not "one of them."
You might think this would cause change, but it doesn't. It only causes you to be isolated. You're a danger to the system. You don't comply with the code.
And that was the thing—I knew if I spoke up, nothing would change.
Maybe they stopped telling the racist jokes in front of me, but I knew they were still telling them in spaces where they thought it was "safe" to tell them. I could stand up until I was blue in the face, but I was one teen girl against a messed up system I didn't fully understand.
Because I didn't fit in the system, nor outside of it, I have never belonged anywhere. Because as a white passer, you see the racism a lot...but you never experience it directly.
You can't be in the white community fully because you can't comply with their assertions on a ton of things, and you make them uncomfortable when you let them know. And you can't be in your own cultural community in America, because you know it's true that you don't get the same judgment and persecution. It's like getting the benefits of white privilege AND the benefits of your heritage—and according to pretty much everyone that is not fair. (And even I myself feel like it's not fair, and thus I have an internal reluctance to embrace my heritage. Feels very much like having cake and eating it too.)
Another example: Anime was not a normal interest in late 90s Utah, let me tell you. And having that interest was another window into racism. I say a window, because once again I saw what people thought of Asians...but it was never directed at me.
"You like Japanimation??" A kid would stretch his eyes at the sides. "Ching chong chang?"
Like, seriously. The levels of terrible are mind bending. This was just me as a blond girl drawing Sailor Moon fanfic. Again, I would say they were being racist.
"It was just a joke, gosh." They would stomp off, never to speak to me again, but happy to do the eye stretch in the hall when they saw me.
Always, always "just a joke."
Another another: "You have a crush on him? But your kids wouldn't look like you!"
Me staring blankly at the level of racism in the girl's assertion. "Uh, they would? And that's pretty racist..."
"No it's not! It's true!" Yet another person who would never be my friend or talk to me again.
When these things happened to me, they hurt, but I would always think of how much worse it would be if I looked Maori on the outside. Would I get random hula comments? Talk of coconut bras to double down on sexism and racism? I thought of my Vietnamese, Black, Latinx, Jewish friends in California and ached for how it would wound them so much more than me. I knew they would hear it like I had. I'd seen this my whole life, and I knew it was wrong, and I had no idea how to make it any better. Calling it out hadn't helped—I was alone in doing it, no one ever backing me up—so what else was there?
White passers don't have tools. And they don't have a full understanding when they're growing up. If their parents are white passing, too, there is often no one to give them context, to provide that other side of the story they feel but don't have.
I don't know about everyone, but it always left me lost. It left me trying and failing a lot. I had pieces that were right, and I still had the system of privilege teaching me lies as well (for example, I might have been sensitive to race because of my background, but I was utterly clueless about how homophobic my world also was and how much I had absorbed). I knew some things were offensive, but others slipped my grasp. Still, there were things I knew felt wrong, but I didn't have the words or experience to say why.
And yet, every now and then, there would be someone who would find me eating alone in the halls.
They would come up to me and say, "Thanks for standing up to [insert name here]. What they said was terrible."
"You're welcome," I would say with a measure of relief. So it had mattered to someone.
On my worst days, I would want to ask, "Why didn't you back me up?"
But I never did say that. Many of these people (not all) who thanked me were people of color. And I didn't fully understand it then, but now I get that they had a lot more to lose when speaking out as the very small minority (we are talking there was only one Black kid at my whole high school of 1500 students, and the others were in handfuls.). These students likely couldn't afford to draw any more attention to themselves.
It's still hard to talk about this stuff, because I know many will get defensive. I've seen it time and time again in my community. I don't want to make excuses, but I have come to learn that for every unapologetically racist person there is another who wants change and learn. And there is some genuine ignorance even still. There have been terrible moments like those I've given, but there have also been moments when I've said, "Um, so 'oriental' is now considered an offensive term, if you didn't know."
And the person turns bright red not with anger, but with embarrassment. "Oh, I had no idea. Thank you for telling me. I feel so bad!"
Because of my strange position as a white passer, I sometimes wonder if my appearance "softens the blow." I have learned since my childhood that telling a white person they are doing something "racist" never goes over well (even when it's true), but offering correction when they know me and know my background often brings a greater measure of reflection.
Yet...I think people like me are frequently reluctant to offer advice or stand up, because we are so acutely aware that we are not experts, nor are we directly impacted like those in our culture who look as expected. I'm always stepping on toes, no matter where I go or what I do. I wouldn't say I'm fully used to it, but I have come to terms with it for the most part.
I wish I could say that all of this was in the past, in those long ago 90s, but I think we all know that isn't true. And even in my own writing community, I hear things that shock me at times.
"Right now, you can't get published if you're white," said a writer in a small group.
My eyes went wide. I had thought everyone was welcoming of the push for more diversity, and yet again I was reminded that Utah has a long way to go. "I think that's far from true."
And I was right. People of color still make up less than 10% of children's authors. There's a whole study on these stats. But because of the visibility of the movement, people "see their spots being taken."
Anyway, I admit I still don't know how best to traverse every situation, but I do know I have a unique perspective and I try my best. I think that's all we can do, even when it sometimes feels like nothing around us changes. Maybe I am viewed as unsettling or unsafe to the majority in my area, but I would rather be seen as a safe place for those who constantly go unheard.
This is the third post in my series on being a white passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from.