Despite two decades filled with her consoling image, images and particulars still nestled firmly in the nooks of my nostalgia—coffee auburn locks to match the scent of sweet coffee on her words—I was probably tipped off to her lurking whiteness not too long ago.
She hid it well. It might have been her near-devout fixation on all things ostensibly black, from her prized collection of African American Santa Clauses to marrying a Dominican man, my father, against the wishes of her family. Perhaps it was the feat of giving birth to two brown children, quite a deed, given this country’s paradoxical one-drop rule that holds a black woman can never give birth to a white child, as historian Noel Ignatiev points out. (But he also calls for the “abolition” of the white race—of its privilege, of its label; not of its members. Still, maybe we should take his words with a grain of salt, yes?)
Ultimately, my newfound discovery eluded me because, up until last time I checked over a Thanksgiving meal, she fervently denies it. “I’m not white,” she maintains defensively. “I’m Hispanic. I’m Indian.”
The nuance isn’t entirely too clear to passersby who see my mother’s hand entwined with my father’s as they walk down the streets of our ethnic enclave. (That’s Miami, or Hialeah for those in the know). Those hands might excessively gesticulate while talking—their tastes, both partial to rice and beans; their accents, both a little off but endearing; their prayers, to the same God—but their colors, their hues and tones, remain starkly disparate.
An Ecuadorian through and through—although she oddly expresses her affection for the diminutive nation through insults and political apathy—she wants to maintain a connection to the native peoples with whose plight she empathizes. But it’s more than that. As much as her reddened, pale skin betrays her legitimate claim to native roots, she unabashedly enjoys her minority status. She revels in playing the underdog. She’s lived the bulk of her American experience impoverished, ostracized by her poor English-speaking skills, feeling culturally dissonant in a structure (the US Army) that demands conformity—and she’ll be damned if she’s going to let skin color get in the way of that.
Now my father, he can be black if he wants to. Born to a culture that rejects blackness as code word for Haitian (Dominicans, they say, speak Spanish and are civilized), he’s now well adjusted. His experiences alongside his brethren in heavily-Hispanic South Florida, and outside that bubble, have led him to accept this truism: color matters. And my mother accepts that. She acknowledges that we all do not fit harmoniously under the banner of pan-ethnicity, that even within this ideal of unity, political coalition, and shared identity, those stigmatized few will fall by the wayside, will remain stranded on the outskirts. But there’s something noble in the attempt.
She’s not been an accomplice to white flight from the Hispanic label. She’s refused to become a player in this mad dash toward ascension on the racial hierarchy, to feed into the hysteria of becoming white.
But, sometimes, it makes for a strained interaction. It first dawned on me that she might actually be white the first time—at age 18—I donned, or attempted to don, a backwards cap. Disapprovingly, she remarked that I looked “como un negro común y corriente”—or like a common black man. I was offended, largely because I had learned the fad from white, Final Club-attending Ivy Leaguers. I was offended, largely because when they wore that look, they were sportily preppy but when I did, I was sketchy. I was offended—unfortunately, foolishly, and ultimately—because she was white.
I think I’ve decided—and this, just now—that my mother isn’t white. Whiteness isn’t concrete. It’s not as apparent or obvious as people make it out to be. It’s negotiated. It’s constructed. It’s malleable. Its boundaries shift so often that groups once categorically relegated to non-white status, groups highly racialized—like the Irish, the Italians, the Germans—are now firmly in the white camp.
I’ll still poke fun at it, just as I jest about my father’s English-language faux pas. But her whiteness, or lack of it, is really non-negotiable. It’s whatever her heart and mind tell her, and that’s the way racial ascription should be: bottom up, not top down. I love her in all her non-white glory.
It’s no longer the white—err, pink—elephant in the room.