Emily Timbol

Fiction Author. Good at making stuff up.

On Being White, But Not Really


The literary world was shaken this past week when it was revealed that white writer Michael Derrick Hudson had won a poetry contest after using an Asian pen name during submission (a name he stole from a former classmate.) Hudson was completely unapologetic. He felt that the fact the poem was rejected 40 times under his own name, yet accepted under his Chinese pen name, meant that there was some discrimination at place when editors thought he was white. This ridiculous idea was perfectly dismantled by writer Jenny Zhang in a Buzzfeed essay that went viral, They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist. I loved her essay. But it gave me some pause about whether I was the “They” in the story, or the “We.”

So, as writers are wont to do, I wrote an essay in response, for The Salt Collective. Below is an excerpt. You can read the full essay here.

I’ve only had a racial slur directed at me once in my life. It was so unexpected, so rare, that my reaction was pure confusion.

“Did that redneck just call me a ‘coon’?” I asked my friend. “That’s bad right?”

We were in high school, at a church beach retreat, and some older boys had gotten into the hot tub we were in. When I said something one of them didn’t like, he replied with, “Shut up, coon.”

I am not black. That particular summer I was incredibly tan, and it was dark out, and I do have kinky, thick, dark hair. I convinced myself that he was either really stupid or really drunk, or both. But I couldn’t shake it. Because I’m not, technically speaking, white.

This experience was one of maybe only a handful of times racism seemed to affect me, personally. I was born more resembling my white mother. My sister was born looking more like my 1/2 Filipino, 1/2 Italian father. I look white to most white people. And indeed, 3/4 of me is. Because of this, I’ve almost always considered myself white. Race isn’t about accuracy right? It’s about perception. Prejudice. Overcoming systemic disadvantages and injustices, and dealing with frequent microagressions. These didn’t happen to me.

They did happen to my grandfather, and my father, and my sister. My grandfather was segregated when he left the Philippines to join the American Navy (illegally) at 16. They made him a cook, like the other “coloreds,” and he served captains and white officers. When he met my Italian grandmother years later, they married and settled in Italy. They moved to America when my father was ten. My father met my (white) mother in the 80’s, they married, and I was born. My childhood was normal, and happy.

When my little sister came along, six years after I was born, women would sometimes stop my mother in the grocery store or on the sidewalk. They’d coo over how cute my sister was, then pause, their voices lowered to a hushed tone. “Is she adopted?” I remember feeling confused and angry each time this happened.

My sister and I both grew up surrounded by languages we didn’t speak or understand. At family get together’s there were buffets of pasta dishes lovingly made by my Italian Zia’s, sitting next to Pancit and Lumpia cooked by their Filipino husbands. Tagalog and Italian were spoken just as much as English. This was nothing but normal to me, so I never considered it wasn’t, for a “white” girl.

– See more at: http://thesaltcollective.org/am-i-a-white-writer-or-an-asian-writer/#sthash.Pb64TaWZ.dpuf

Leave a Reply