Becoming white
The 1940 census lists the writer’s mother’s family.

Becoming white

I wonder at the absurdity of this system that caused my grandmother, my mother, and me to be seen as just like every other person with white skin, of this system that causes darker-skinned people to be seen as worth less.

BRATTLEBORO — My Nana Lekas sacrificed all she knew and all she was in order that her children could become Americans. She knew that she herself would never become one, though she lived in this country 67 of her 89 years and came over on the boat when she was merely 22.

When Nana worked as a maid in a wealthy Boston suburb, she would come back to her children - my mother and aunts - and present the new ways of doing things - the things she had learned on the job - to her children as if these ways were the right ways of doing things.

People set the table this way. People iron clothes this way. People do this. People do that.

Her daughter Adela, my aunt, would think to herself, “Why does she say that? Aren't we people?”

My mother told me this story decades later, and it was still fresh in her mind.

* * *

Nana Lekas had an accent. She never learned good English, or much English at all.

She continued to read newspapers in Lithuanian all her life, and she told us, in her broken English, the one fairy tale she knew: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

She knew she could never truly be recognized as American, but she knew that if she made a point not to teach her children the old ways, they would, in fact, Become American.

She herself was made fun of, disrespected: by the bus driver who was disgusted at her lack of English, by the doctor who was willing to allow her to die during childbirth because she was one of too many immigrants. (She miraculously lived - as did her child, my mother.)

She herself knew that she wouldn't teach her children to hunt for mushrooms, to crochet, to stuff sausage into pig guts, or to learn the herbal remedies and midwifery. These were the old ways.

She knew that, in order for them to survive, they had to be modern. She knew that, in order for them to survive, they had to blend in.

While it might not have been a conscious thought, she knew that they had to be White.

* * *

Becoming White and becoming American were one and the same - except, of course, for dark-skinned people who could never become white, no matter what.

That was the thing. Unless you were black - in which case, there was no hope - you carved yourself into another shape to fit whiteness. You had to strangle the person you were and become somebody else.

It wasn't enough to leave your family and country behind. It wasn't enough to never see your brothers or sisters, your parents or farm, again. You needed to leave your identity on the boat.

Or, if you just could not do so, you at least needed to not pass your culture on to your kids. That was crucial.

This is not something you thought about consciously, Nana. It was in the air you breathed. The air we still breathe.

* * *

I still feel like I'm passing for White. When I'm around people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, people who automatically feel comfortable with all things British - Morris dancing, for instance - then I automatically feel like a peasant.

I'm not sure whether they see me as one of them or whether they feel the difference. Probably some of each.

But for me, I haven't been here all that long. My mother's mother. My mother's father. And my father's mother and my father's father. Not one of the four was born here. Not one spoke fluent English.

But did they pass on the language from the Old Country to me? No. My mother's first language was not English. Instead of passing down her first language, she passed down her attempt at whiteness. She passed down her attempt at becoming middle class.

* * *

In some ways, it works. If you don't scratch too deeply, I'm White. I have the many privileges of being White. No one would look twice at me and wonder.

Except for me.

I wonder at the absurdity of this system that caused my grandmother, my mother, and me to be seen as just like every other person with white skin, no matter what our circumstances or background. Of this system that causes African-Americans and other darker-skinned people to be seen as worth less.

I wonder at a system that attempts to force us to identify with people with whom we have little in common other than our skin color, while we are supposed to see dark skinned people as “other.”

I'm amazed at the insanity of such a system. Beneficial to some of us? Yes.

But no. Very much no.

This system hurts those of us with dark skin so much more than others, but it strangles all of us. It deprives us of our unique identities as well as our common humanity.

* * *

I loved Nana dearly, and I appreciate the amazing sacrifices she made, the amazingly brave journey she took overseas, leaving her family behind for a better world away from the czar, away from the village, and away from all she knew.

She left her family behind forever. Forever. I'm amazed at her quiet strength and love.

But in one way she failed.

I didn't blend in. I continue to fight this insane system that sorts us into useless categories (but useful, of course, to those who want to divide and conquer, and that's another very long story).

I cry the tears of my grandmother - and the many other grandmothers who had and have to give up parts of themselves for this ridiculous and murderous system.

I cry for all the cultural richness we've lost. And I cry for the richness we continue to lose by being separated from one another.

* * *

I very much look forward to the day when we see the categories “white” and “black” merely as tools in a racist system that defines us as such. No one really benefits from this sickness where some people see others as being worth less and, in the process, become worthless themselves. In a system where black people have lost their lives and white people have lost their souls.

At the recent Root Social Justice Center forum, I was impressed with the wisdom and thoughtfulness of many people speaking, both those people who are labelled “black” and those who are labelled “white.”

I can't wait for the day - and I realize it might not come during my lifetime - when those labels mean nothing. The day when people stop using the word “race” and when they look back in amazement and horror at the crazy disease of racism.

Meanwhile, the meeting helped inspire me to work toward that day, not to go belly up with helplessness.

I am so very grateful to all of you who are working on creating a world of justice and humanity.

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