I am going to talk about my people. My people. White people. I can do this, as I’ve mentioned before, because I’m so white.
Let’s review my credentials.
I’m so white, I know what a gymkhana is.
I’m so white, I’m 2% Neanderthal
I’m so white, Square Meals reads like an autobiography
I’m so white, I’m related to three kids named “Cody”
I’m so white, I’ve attended Polka Night at the Bratwurst Haus
Myth 1 – We’re not immigrants
My forebears came in a boat, through Ellis Island. There were, of course, other ways to come to America in a ship (see “slavery is so embarrassing”, below). If you and yours came in an airplane or maybe by car, that makes you an immigrant. Some of us will help you, some of us will hate you, but you’re the immigrant.
Fact check Unless my ancestors walked here over a land bridge , I am an immigrant and a child of immigrants. Maybe that’s why some of us still like the “I’m Part Native American” myth so much (see below. Hint: a little DNA testing will sort that one out, pronto.)
Myth 2 – You’re so exotic!
Exotic is a useful tag to show who’s not one of us. It’s often considered quite the compliment, in fact! Exotic beauty is a valuable commodity, from the Taj Mahal to Salma Hayek.
Fact check Brown is a more common skin tone than pink. The most exotic place (read: cut off from the rest of humanity) I’ve ever been, besides polka dancing at the Brathaus, was the Porky Diner in central Texas.
Myth 3 – 1 in 5 equals half
This would make a good question on your math final. There are 10 people in a room. 8 of them are white. How many are not white?
Fact check If you’re white, the answer is B. White folks routinely give extra points to people who aren’t white, thereby mentally reaching “we’re halfway there!” well before anyone’s gotten off the starting track. Same thing happens when 8 men walk into a high-powered meeting with 2 women. Call it optimism, if you will.
Myth 4 – People of color are, as a general rule, noble
Fact check As a data analyst, I can tell you right now that there is no correlation between ethnicity and personhood. Some of the biggest jerks I’ve ever met are non-white. I recently met someone who looks and talks like she’s as awesome as J-Lo. But she’s not. She’s a mala fe nasty-ass bitch. I can tell by her words and actions, not by how she looks. Life would be easier if you could read inner character by looking at outer characteristics. I will make an exception for the color orange, though, but only because it’s hard to extrapolate from a sample of one.
Myth 5 – I’m part Cherokee / navajo / lakota
This is a myth that is strongly believed, because we learned it at our parent’s knee. Even Elizabeth Warren was caught up by this one.
Fact check I’m not, you’re not, and Elizabeth’s probably not, either. My family passed a similar story down about a vague great-great grandmother who was Creek, without much detail or evidence. I never questioned it, until a 23andme test sorted it out. Mom has zero percent Native American. Zero.
Why do we white folks believe this myth? For one thing, it means we must have intermarried, which is much nicer than slaughter and genocide. For another, it means we’re connected by blood to this land. It’s an interesting talking point. Makes us more complicated. It resonates. Our parents believed it, and so do we. Too bad it’s not true.
Myth 6 – You need to smile more
We believe that you can tell a lot about a person by first impressions. Rule number one: be cheerful! Especially if you’re female, you should be smiling until your cheeks are numb. Any display of ire, however mild, alarms us extremely.
Fact check Smiling is nice, but a little goes a long way. While nonstop anger is counterproductive, sometimes there’s a call for a forceful response. Smiling all the time is just pointless. Be yourself and let your RBF shine.
myth 7 – Slavery is so embarrassing!
Only the most benighted yahoos will still argue that slavery “wasn’t so bad”. Let’s leave them out of the conversation for now, shall we? If we want them back, we can always fetch a few from under the nearest boulder.
The rest of us white folks have seen the movies. We’ve read the books. We’ve heard the speeches. We know that slavery was a centuries-long horror show, a deep stain on our nation, and a crime against humanity. But that’s over, right? Let’s move on! I wasn’t even born then!
Fact check No one alive today was born then. The legacy affects us all. The truth is, we’re worried there could be slave owners in our family tree. That’s just plain awkward! We’d rather have Grandma be a Cherokee!
Speaking for myself, I am fairly confident that my great-great grand-parents, -aunts and -uncles who were living south of the Mason Dixon line in old-timey days were not, in fact, slave owners. I believe this, but not because I think they were repelled by the evils of an unthinkable institution that treated our fellow brothers and sisters worse than New Yorkers treat subway rats. No. I’m pretty sure that slaves were an expensive luxury item, and they couldn’t afford one.
Moving up to the 20th century, can I swear that no one in my family tree donned a sheet and burned a cross, or worse? I can’t. I don’t know if they did or not, but it’s certainly possible. I can’t answer for my family, and I can’t know how I would have acted had I lived in the time of slavery, either. I like to think I would have been helping out on the underground railroad, but people are complicated. They, and I, tend to accept without question the structures and institutions they were born into.
The bottom line is that I’m not answerable for either my ancestors or for my family. I accept no personal guilt for the way things were then, or the way things are now. Change is difficult and slow, but you’ve got to start somewhere. I can’t go back in time and change the past, and I can’t help what my large and extended family gets up to in the present. All I can do is start with myself, and help to shape the future.