White Like Obama

One evening while walking through DC, slightly buzzing from consuming medium quantities of beer, I had an epiphany. Not the kind that politicians write about when they change course or the non-believers credit with turning them into zealots. But it was far simpler. One that summed up my whole quest for trying to understand identity, how we shape our own, but also how society shapes their perceptions and how that affects each person’s own self-identity.

I was considering the time my biracial friend had told me he hated white people. He apologized immediately. I had not scolded him, nor had I made some long speech about reverse racism. His frustration, was often my own and I totally understood why he said what he said. You see, his mother, like mine, is white. But because his father is black and he had a darker skin tone, society had put him in a box that refused to recognize his whiteness.

He and his younger sibling had dated white girls through high school—and even now they’re married to women who would identify as white. Unfortunately, some people in our town could not fathom interracial dating. And part of their inability to comprehend manifested itself through making remarks about how unacceptable it was or how it could ruin the white girl’s reputation.

I understood what he was going through. At the same time, I was dating a black girl. Some parents of my white friends would make remarks about interracial dating to me too. Although, it would not be directly addressing my own relationship, their point was clear—interracial dating was bad.

When my friend made his comment, I simply told him we were both equal parts white, but that there was no need to apologize—except maybe to his mother.

I dwell on that interaction often and have longer piece dedicated to it–coming later. But on this evening, high on the effects of several half liters of beer, walking home from my favorite beer garden, I was struck by this thought: ‘Genetically speaking, I’m just as white as Obama. He and I (and even my friends mentioned above) will always have that in common. But only one of us will ever be perceived as white by society. Only one of us will benefit from white privilege.’

What sort of identity crisis does that create for my friends and President Obama? Have they ever sought acceptance from white society? Or did they give up? How would their mother’s feel about that conversation? Did my perceived whiteness have any sort of impact on the experience I had in high school? Does my own desire to embrace my Iranian-ness stem from this feeling that being called white is not enough? What is the genesis of the push back from my friends at home who cannot accept me being anything else but white?

My experiences as a perceived white kid growing up in central Kentucky imparts on me the recognition that white privilege (or advantage as my astute professor friend likes to say) does exist. The perception of being white insulated me from having to face the sorts of venom thrown at my friends and President Obama. It was only when I started embracing my otherness, that I started to receive the same sorts of messages from my hometown.

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Apparently She Thought I Was Japanese

As most have probably gathered, or if you haven’t read the About Me page of the blog, I grew up in rural Central Kentucky. Needless to say, there wasn’t much diversity.

Labels for those of us who were different varied widely, mainly based on the perception holders own misconceived notions of ethnic groups. Not that it was their fault, however. But it did,  more or less, provide for some humorous interpretations of my own ethnicity–and coincidentally material for this blog.

Probably the weirdest, craziest selection of my ethnic background came from a classmate my freshman year in high school. I want to say, the label was first introduced at some point in the spring. And offered up as an explanation for my otherness at least twice, possibly three times.

It was a Saturday, if my memory serves me correctly (give me a break it’s been over 20 years–ugh I’m getting old). My father and I were walking through one of the hallways of my high school. Maybe I had Saturday school, that would explain why I was there, with my dad on a Saturday.

As we made our way to the library (yep, definitely had Saturday School), I see one of my classmates sitting on the floor with her boyfriend. They were, to put it mildly, engaged in some sort of heavy petting ritual that high schoolers often think is an acceptable form of affection in public.

She breaks off her exercise in affection, looks in my direction, and in an I-got-you-I-know-what-you-are tone says, “Japanese!! You’re Japanese!”

All I could muster was a confused, “ummmmm…,” before continuing my walk to the library. I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, and hadn’t really encountered that sort of thing. It was awkward and high schoolers really don’t know how to handle those situations without freezing…awkwardly.

By the time I could process what had happened, I realized it wasn’t the first time she had directed her conclusions in my direction. She had done it once before. Only that time, I hadn’t realized she was directing it towards me. Because of my own ignorance, I chose to laugh off that first interaction. To be honest, I don’t think I even understood what she was talking about.

She did it once more. And I’d like to think that I corrected her conclusions, because I really don’t remember it ever happening again. It’s just as likely someone else could have made the correction for me.

What I’ve never been able to wrap my head around, though, is the idea that to her my otherness equated to me being Japanese. Was that the furthest, most foreign place she could think of? Did my dark hair, dark eyes, some what tan skin tone mean that I was, in her calculation, Japanese? Was the only interaction she had with non-whites with someone that was Japanese? And what made her assume that yelling it out was something that was acceptable? As opposed to maybe, simply asking?

It surely, truly was an interesting calculus on her part. And to be honest, I’ve not run into her since then to ask. Not that I would, if I did, however. But I can’t help but wonder, ‘what on earth was she thinking.’

The Puerto Rican Boyfriend

I spent several summers before, during, and after grad school coaching soccer camps. My boss, Heidi, was a high energy, high octane former US Women’s player from Chicago–and Cleveland. The juxtaposition of my very slow, methodical, and light-footprint approach to coaching was constantly on display. That said, we were actually a perfect compliment to each other, as each player is different and coaching required varying your approach in an effort to produce the best possible outcomes for those under your tutelage.

One of the summers I was helping my boss, we directed a local high school in their preseason camp. Early in the morning we would arrive, set up shop, and work on specific areas that needed improvement. Most of the kids we knew, having coached them in previous summers in various camps or clinics. So, it came as a surprise when I was pulled aside by a player or coach, I don’t remember, and had the following interchange.

“Shams (that’s what they called me), you’ll get a kick out of this.”

“Ha, okay, what happened?”

“When you and Heidi pulled up, Bobby (not his real name) said, ‘Great, here comes Heidi and her Puerto Rican boyfriend.'”

“That’s hilarious. Was that supposed to be an insult?”

“No clue man.”

“I should act upset.”

Several moments later, I was in charge of Bobby’s group. I can’t remember the actual session, but I recall they had been messing up what ever it was we were trying to accomplish. So, I stepped in. Telling them I had three pointers, saving the ethnic  clarification for the last point.

“…and THIRD,” I said turning toward Bobby, “I am not Heidi’s boyfriend and I’m not Puerto Rican. Does Shams even sound Puerto Rican? Come on man, I’m half Iranian, not that expected you to know that, but if you’re going to try to insult me at least get the right ethnicity.”

All the other guys chuckled, while Bobby’s face turned red in embarrassment.

After a while, I pulled Bobby to the side.

“I want you to know, I’m not offended. My intent was to demonstrate that sometimes your audience includes people outside your circle of friends, people that you may not realize are listening. I’m sorry, if, in doing that, I embarrassed you.”