When I was white


Rachel Dolezal’s recent unmasking as a white woman living as black sparked a debate about the legitimacy of \”transracial\” experience. I cannot speak for Dolezal or anyone else, but I can state for a fact that racial transition is a valid experience, because I have gone through it.

While most people would look at this photo and see a black girl, two white boys, and a very surprised cat, they would be wrong. The girl in the photo is white, just like her brothers. I was raised in a white family from birth and taught to identify as white. For most of my life, I didn’t know that my biological father was black. Whenever I asked as a child about my darker skin, my mother corrected me, saying it was not dark but \”olive.\” When others asked if I was adopted, my mother ignored them. Eventually everyone, including me, stopped asking.

When, as an adult, I learned the truth of my paternity, I began the difficult process of changing my identity from white to black. The difficulty did not lie in an unwillingness to give up my whiteness. On the contrary, the revelation of my paternity was a relief: It confirmed that I was different from my parents and siblings, something I had felt deeply all my life.

The dilemma I faced was this: If I am mixed race and black, what do I do with the white sense of self I lived with for 27 years, and how does one become black? Is that even possible? Now, you may say that the rest of the world already saw me as black and all I had to do was catch up. True. But \”catching up\” meant that I had to blow the lid off the Pandora’s box of everything I thought I knew about myself and about race in America.

My first instinct, as an academic, was to approach the problem intellectually. I read everything I could get my hands on about the creation of black identity. But that was only a safe first step down a path that would tear me apart — physically, emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically.

\”Coming out\” as black cost me my relationship with my mother and some of my closest friends. It cleaved my sense of self in two. As I struggled to come to terms with what the revelation meant for my family (are they my real family?), my integrity (my whole life I had been passing without realizing it!), and my core identity (if I’m not the person I was made to believe I was for the last 27 years, who am I?), I began to experience symptoms of trauma such as exhaustion, weight loss, and constant all-over physical pain. My hair fell out in clumps. I couldn’t concentrate. I developed acid reflux and could not tolerate most foods.

\”You’re making a big deal out of nothing,\” my mother said when I tried to impress on her the seriousness of what I was going through. \”It’s only important if you choose to make it important.\” Needless to say, her dismissive attitude toward race and my existential struggle did not help. For her, I was and always would be the little \”white\” girl in the photo.

We all have a \”raced\” understanding of ourselves and the world, regardless of the racial group or groups with which we identify. The notion of people changing their racial categorization is conceivable only in societies where race is policed, where it determines your access to or denial of social and economic status. Otherwise, why would it matter?

This is not something I learned growing up. In my family, it was understood, even if it was never directly stated, that only people of color \”had\” race; whites were just people. Perceived racial neutrality is endemic to whiteness, and so, growing up, I understood race as something that applied exclusively to other people. In my white family and white community, race was a problem for other people, but not for us.

And, despite discredited notions of biological essentialism, it was assumed to be an intrinsic quality. If you were born black, well, too bad for you — you had race, like it was an incurable disease, deep in the bones and blood.

I remember being at a friend’s house in first grade with another girl, who happened to be the only (other) black girl in our class. She got a nosebleed and ran to the bathroom to grab a towel, and I stood outside the open bathroom door, out of sight except for part of my face peering around the corner, reflected in the bathroom mirror. I stood transfixed as I wondered what color her blood would be when it came pouring out of her nose. She’s black, dark-skinned, different, not like the rest of us, I thought. Surely her blood would be a different color, too. Such an important difference has to be more than skin-deep. Of course, the moment her bright red blood stained the white towel, I lost interest.

That was my first real lesson about race: Black people still seemed different — they just weren’t as exciting or exotic as I had hoped.

I leave you to judge for yourself the sad irony of this absurd racism coming from a girl who had been so indoctrinated in the delusional psychology of whiteness that she could not see her own dark-skinned face staring back at her from the mirror. It took that girl years of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, medication, broken relationships, and painful reckoning to shed that psychology and create a new one that allowed her to see and love her own blackness and to forgive the little white girl who did not know any better.

Did I change my appearance? No. I look pretty much the way I’ve always looked, just older. But I did change my last name. I needed to make a definitive break with the person I had been, with the person my family had told me I was. I no longer wanted to be complicit in the lie of whiteness; I needed to define my identity on my own terms. That caused a rift between me and the father who raised me, whose last name I had carried since birth. Until then he had been extremely supportive and understanding. Though he hardly spoke of it, I could feel his hurt and disappointment, and it broke my heart. But what could I do? Sarah Valentine is a different person than Sarah D., who had explained her darker skin as owing to her mother’s southern Italian and her father’s \”black Irish\” heritage.

It was both exhilarating and panic-inducing to be publicly black for the first time, to be able to answer, when someone asked \”What are you?\” (and they always asked), that I was a mixed-race African-American. Never mind that I felt like an impostor, that I didn’t feel as if I knew \”how to be black.\” Eventually I became comfortable in my own skin.

Ten years later, I can look back at that painful period of racial transition and say that I came out of it with a cohesive sense of self that embodies all its contradictions. But there is still much that I am struggling to articulate and understand.

I don’t know how others with stories like mine have handled the revelation of their racial identity, nor do I know if Dolezal’s is merely a case of passing or something else. But I believe it is time to probe deeper into the nature of racial experience to see if we can entertain the possibility of authentic transracial identity.

Author Bio: Sarah Valentine is a visiting assistant professor of English at Northwestern University.