How I Learned My Lesson
I was adopted when I was two days old. I never met my birth parents, and my adoptive family is the only one I have ever known. But I know a few things about the couple who conceived and bore me: my mother was a white American, who married quite young. My father was an immigrant, born in Saudi Arabia to Arab parents. They were not prepared to care for a child, and just after I was born, they left for California to live with his father.
I know these things because I was born in a different time, when adoption was a less rigorous process, not as time-consuming or expensive or wound up in bureaucratic processes. My birth parents and my adoptive parents had the same family doctor, and he was the one who helped them arrange for the adoption; it is because of this that I have the limited information I do about what is amusingly termed my ‘biological origin’. I have never had cause to be unhappy with the situation; my adoptive parents were the only ones I ever knew, and I never had anything more than a passing curiosity about the facts of my adoption. When my parents saw fit to tell me about it, it didn’t seem like a big deal, and the somewhat exotic aspect of my paternal origins was a mildly interesting but ultimately meaningless bit of trivia.
I was raised as the white child of white parents in a white suburb of a white city. My mother and father were white Southerners transplanted to the New West, and I attended a Christian church and a Lutheran school up until I was 12 years old. I carried with me some suggestions of my genetic history: thick black hair, dark brown eyes, soft lips, somewhat swarthy olive skin, and, as I got older, more body hair than most of my male peers. But I had my mother’s nose, and weight and height, and my skin was never so dark that anyone would look askance. I looked enough like my adoptive parents that people would sometimes express surprise that I wasn’t born to them; I had a white man’s name, and a white man’s religion, and I live in a white man’s world.
Still, as I got older, something always seemed a bit off. Up and through high school, I never suffered any prejudice because of my Arab blood; how could I? Most people were entirely ignorant it was there. There was a certain standoffishness with my extended family which would eventually explode into hostility, but only from that branch which was soaked in Southern bigotry; the rest of them treated me as if I was their own flesh. Even I used the reality of my ethnic origin as a punchline, if I ever brought it up at all. But the more I read, the more I learned, the more I found out , the more I found myself dwelling on two essential facts: that race was a lie, an arbitrary construct designed as much to divide and oppress as to identify and unite; and that America was unprecedentedly, if not uniquely, obsessed with race and saturated with the poison of racism.
As I grew older, I found myself bristling at the suggestion of racial prejudice from my friends — among whom it was thankfully rare — and my family, where I wasn’t quite so lucky. Many members of my extended family who still lived in the deep South were virulent racists, forever vilifying the blacks on whom they blamed their every failure. My own mother and father were the liberals of the family, having moved away from the hateful morass that was Alabama during the civil rights era; but I became aware of my father’s residual dislike of Asians, a product of wartime trauma, and my mother’s inexplicable prejudice against Mexicans. I couldn’t yet articulate why these things bothered me so much. Whatever bigotry might have festered in my family was hundreds of miles away, and my parents would never have dared suggest that they had a problem with one of my black or Hispanic friends, even if they did. Why did it nag at me so? After all, I was white, wasn’t I?
Or was I? It’s a question that I asked myself then, and that I ask myself now. At least half of me is ‘white’, and the other half…depends on who you ask. The Irish were only recently promoted to whiteness, and then only by a technicality; the people we now categorize as Latino were once counted as white as a Cabot. Arabs don’t have their own spot on the census, and for a very long time, they were not thought of as anything but white. The fact that they have recently come to be considered something as other than white has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with race; indeed, if anything, these examples only serve to prove what a farce the entire concept is. So when I began to self-identify as nonwhite, what was I trying to say? Many would consider me nothing but white, and I certainly look white. Was I attempting to glom on to some sort of ethnic entitlement? Am I trying to erase my own white guilt? By even investigating, let alone taking pride in, the culture of my biological father, wasn’t I merely co-opting something I had as much real connection to as the man in the moon? I didn’t know the answers then, and I don’t know them now.
In college, when I first started wrestling with those perhaps unanswerable questions, I was working at a factory to pay my tuition, and was deeply immersed in labor history and socialist theory. The more I read — especially of people like DuBois, Ignatiev, James — the more the idea of white privilege began to take shape in my mind: not a clear outline whose edges were sharp and real, but a nebulous ghost that haunted me day in and day out. DuBois’ writings about how the labor movement was inextricably shaped by race and racism thrilled me, but seemed too distant from my own experience; Ignatiev’s cries to abolish whiteness both intrigued and disturbed me. I was too smart by then to read the notion of ‘white pride’ as anything but a supremacist dodge, but the concept of abolishing whiteness, of eliminating the very idea of race privilege, was too much for me to wrap my head around. My only consciousness was class-consciousness, and while that’s still of primary importance to me, something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Until one day, on the factory floor, I came in to the common area during lunch hour to hear Marty holding court again. Marty was a squat, bearded little creep, a wanna-be outlaw biker who lacked real toughness but made up for it with a big mouth. He was unrepentantly sexist, proudly homophobic, and quietly racist; there were too many black employees at the factory for him to get away with saying what he really wanted to say, but he bad-mouthed them at every opportunity whenever there wasn’t a black face in the room. On this particular day — it was early in 1991, and coalition forces were sweeping through Kuwait — Marty was informing anyone unlucky enough to be stuck inside with him that “we” (meaning America) ought to take advantage of the situation and “bomb all them sand-niggers” so we’d no longer be susceptible to being blackmailed for their oil.
I was instantly infuriated. I spun around and said, “Hey, you little shit. I’m an Arab-American, and if you got something to say about sand-niggers, you can say it to my fucking face.” The foreman quickly raced over and handed us both a warning, and I skulked back to the cutting room in a bloody mood. All day long it gnawed at me: why had I reacted the way I did? What got into me that this, one of a hundred slurs issued by that toad on a daily basis — but one which was not specifically meant for me — provoked me so badly? Just before the end of the day, one of my co-workers made the question explicit: ”Hey, man, what did you jump all over Marty for? He didn’t know you were an Arab.” I didn’t have an answer for him.
After work, some of us went to drink and shoot pool. For hours I sat there brooding, trying to figure out the answer to that question. And the more I thought, the more I chased the idea that it shouldn’t have mattered whether or not Marty knew I was Arab, that he shouldn’t talk that kind of shit regardless of who he perceived his audience to be, the more it occurred to me: he wasn’t the problem. I was the problem. It wasn’t Marty who should have watched his mouth on the chance that he might be inadvertently offending the wrong person; it was me who should have been making it clear all along that I wouldn’t tolerate any bigoted garbage just because I looked white. He was a racist asshole, but every day I didn’t tell him I wasn’t down with his racist bullshit, I was sending a signal that it was okay to be bigoted, as long as it wasn’t against my particular affinity group.
I thought about all the times in high school I’d been deeply disturbed by all the guys on the football and baseball teams cracking jokes about faggots, and not saying anything because I didn’t want to get labeled as a faggot myself. I thought about how much I’d stood by and listened to male friends talk shit about women, and how I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to get called a bitch. And it all became painfully clear why it had been bothering me. The dull, misty haze that surrounded the concept of white privilege became sharp as a razor: white privilege meant tolerating the oppression of others because it benefits you. Anyone can take offense when someone offends their own race, religion, sexual identity, or whatever; but the reason that kind of bigotry continues to thrive is because people inside the arbitrary boundaries of whiteness — people like me, who are male, who not obviously nonwhite or non-heteronormative or non-Christian — allow it to happen through silence and nonresistance. That sends the signal that you’re okay with it, and that what makes it forever acceptable. It costs to give up the façade that you’re okay with it; that price is your privilege, and giving it up is both liberating and devastating.
I won’t pretend that since that day, over 20 years ago, I’ve been any kind of an angel. Like anyone else born into a system of privilege, I struggle every day with my own manifestations of racism, sexism, gender bias, and homophobia. Every day I have to check myself on some issue or another, some ugly thought that comes burbling up from the way, the place, the time I was raised. I was born after the Civil Rights era, but during the period of second-wave feminism, and before the AIDS panic brought the concept of gay rights into the public conversation; issues that are simply facts of life to college kids today are ones I approach with a dreadful rigor. I have not become a perfect person, but I have become a better person, and what equipped me to do that was the accidental revelation of my own privilege. Labor taught me that an injury to one is an injury to all; but privilege taught me that there were kinds of injury that I couldn’t even see.