Beautiful on All Sides
The privilege of being white in the U.S. is that you don’t have to see race. But for a growing majority of people, ethnicity is fluid; it’s piecemeal, chosen, reclaimed, refused, relearned.
By Tomas Moniz
And finally this, when the sun was falling down so beautiful we didn’t have time to give it a name, she held the child born of a white mother and a red father and said, ‘both sides of this baby are beautiful.
— Sherman Alexie
My youngest daughter wants to be white.
Or that’s my fear. What I really should say is that my youngest daughter has entered the stage of seeing ethnicity for what it is — socially constructed symbols of meaning, ways of inclusion and exclusion; she now actively looks to associate things with ethnicity.
“Why is it that those cars always play loud music?”
I wanna blame it on her schooling, on the media, but that’s a cop-out on my part. Because I have, in fact, actively helped her to see ethnicity, not to be afraid to talk about ethnicity, and so by implication encouraged her to begin her own process of situating herself along a cultural spectrum. But now she’s choosing her own connections, aligning herself with what I personally have worked to be critical of: whiteness. And it’s my fault. I have shared with her my own difficulties of being bicultural as well as my own realizations about how ethnicity is connected to power, privilege, class. But somehow I assumed that because I have been so sensitive to and critical of whiteness and its privileges (even as I tried to recognize those issues in my life), my daughter would somehow be critical of it as well. And yet maybe she is being critical, and she is simply making her own decisions about these issues, forcing me to consider the difficulties of supporting your children when their decisions run counter to your own.
“I think graffiti makes things look ugly, and I don’t know why they do it.”
Let me explain. My son sees himself as a mix; he’s searching for connections in things in which I searched for meaning. He’s aligning himself with politics and art in similar ways: hip-hop, the Zapatistas, the fashion of the young urban male. I understand how he feels pulled to these things, as I was 15 years ago, and I also see him struggle with the ways he doesn’t fit those stereotypes with which he’s been indoctrinated. I hope it leads him to an understanding that we must “make our familia from scratch,” like Cherrie Moraga says. To an understanding that we can create ourselves in the images we can imagine. For him, being a man can mean so many things other than what our culture wants to prescribe: silent, violent, angry, doing drugs, homophobic. I try to model other options, other forms of manhood, as do the other men in our lives: my brothers and my cousins. But my son sees my father in jail, my uncles in jail; he sees friend after friend choosing to experiment with drugs and violence. He understands that to be a young man, you need to be bad. I did too at one time, but I survived. I believe he can as well.
My middle daughter seems to lean towards that path as well, but she’s the silent one, the one that keeps to herself. The one who seems totally immune to peer pressure, dresses the way she wants, chooses to be by herself sometimes; at other times, she’s just one in the group of girls running the streets of south Berkeley. She reads and draws voraciously. She’s fascinated by Frida Kahlo, enjoys Le Tigre, talks to complete strangers at the anarchist book fair, selling copies of my zine Rad Dad for me. She just seems rooted in herself and yet flexible enough to own so many different aspects of her identity. And because she’s brown, the one with darker skin, darker hair, darker features, I tend to believe she sees herself as a comfortable mestisaje, the blend of her mother and father: a Jewish, Russian, Chicana, gringa. And she’s proud of it all.
But Ella, my youngest, is light. Ella sees the struggles her mother and I have with our son and his associations with urban male culture; she sees my son’s attempt to connect with certain things, and so she is choosing the other path. I think she is seeing herself as white since it seems less complex than the choices I or her brother have made. Plus, she sees whiteness all around her in the media: fair-skinned, blondish hair, light eyes. She sees herself in society’s images. What can I do?
“Dad, you look Mexican, but I look white.”
I don’t know how to respond to her when she says that. Now, I know my daughter, and this is her way of asking questions and, more importantly, beginning to individuate from me and her older sister and brother, with whom she tends to polarize. So she likes houses in the hills, hates graffiti and hip-hop, wants to dress properly, wants to follow the rules. She is incredibly perceptive, and she’s aware that it’s about ethnicity and class in those ways kids know and can allude to, if not outright question.
“Why can’t everyone live in north Berkeley, if it’s this nice?”
She is the one who has aligned herself with the more mainstream qualities of our society. I feel my job is not to answer her or try to teach her, but to probe, question, help her see the difficulty in such static definitions without making her uncomfortable around the issue of ethnicity, as so many people are. I think she has seen me struggle to identify ethnicity and privilege. As a father, I have taken her to countless meetings and events in the radical community. She has heard and listened to conversations about identity politics and sexual politics; I’ve asked questions of her and her sister about things they see. Although I know it’s not completely analogous, a recent instance at this year’s anarchist café brought up similar feelings. A person comes up to the food line wearing a teddy and hair clips with lots of makeup and big hoop earrings. The person has that androgynous look as well as those contradictory gender cues that signal male and female. I see Ella looking, taking it in, the voice, the movements, the physical clues. She sees me looking at her.
“I wonder if that’s a boy or a girl.”
“Hmm, well, why does it have to be one or the other?”
She smiles and already has a response to me. “Well, I think it is a bgirl.”
We laugh, and I say it certainly might be, but I see her staring. She wants to know not what it might be if we lived in a world where gender was a choice, was fluid, could blend. She wants to know now, in her world, what things are.
Ethnicity is pervasive in our society as is the silence around it. I hate the privilege of whiteness to act as if ethnicity is passé, that when someone brings up ethnicity they are playing the “race” card. That is the ultimate in “racial” privilege. But I can’t really have this conversation with my eight-year-old daughter when she asks me.
“Why is it that boys get into trouble in school more than girls, especially the black boys?”
Do I launch into a diatribe against teachers who privilege certain learning styles, who enter the classroom predisposed to see young boys of color as problems? She has learned her lessons of ethnicity well, from me as well as from this racist culture in which we live. If you claim a color or if you are seen by your color, you get noticed, usually in bad ways. Why shouldn’t she choose to blend? In our family, where ethnicity is always visible, even as we struggle to identify with it, to associate it, she sees clearly a road with less struggle, an easier road than what our son is trying to traverse.
It’s, of course, ironic, some form of karmic retribution. For me as a child and teenager, living with my white mom, I was always too white to be Mexican, too brown to be white. And as an adult who has identified with my Chicano history and worked to understand my bicultural sense of self, passing has always been the bane of my existence. In this U.S. culture, race is fixed, static — you’re black or Mexican or Asian. And for white folks, U.S. culture (read: whiteness) refuses to see itself, and instead, white folks tend to buy into the belief in the universal, which of course is whiteness; that’s the privilege of being white in the U.S. — you don’t have to see it.
But for a growing majority of people, ethnicity is fluid; it’s piecemeal, chosen, reclaimed, refused, relearned. There is a danger of appropriation; there is a need to be clear on intent and responsibility; there is a need for dialogue, lots of it. I guess as my daughter brings up, again and again, ethnicity, I should relish the opportunity to talk about it. As we read stories and look at the pictures: Oh, she has hair like mine, I wanna be her. In the media: Why does the donkey from Shrek sound black? In our family: Dad, how come grandma stopped calling you Tomas? In how we each define ourselves.
As parents, that is our struggle: to be honest, even when it is scary. To be truthful, even when it weighs heavy on our shoulders, when it might hurt, when it implicates us, our choices, our past, perhaps our future. We need to be willing to be open, direct, to call out racism when we see it, but be willing to listen to ideas and experiences from our kids as they begin to see, test, choose identities different from our own. I have wanted to protect my kids, wanted to give them a history that embraced all aspects of their identities in positive, powerful ways. I wanted to create an environment where ethnicity was so visible that it lost its meaning, and we became who we wanted to be, not limited by definitions but not a nebulous attempt at universality. We are and aren’t things. Learn, choose, be accountable. But perhaps it is me that needs to relearn and trust, to step back and see how we can be white and brown; we can even be bgirls or gboys all at the same time.
This story was originally published on Rad Dad: Dispatches From the Frontiers of Fatherhood and republished on The Good Men Project.