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Who I Am? The Ultimate White Girl Question


Who is a white girl? At this time of year, we become the poster children for Pumpkin Spice Lattes and infinity scarves. But this, of course, is a caricature. And I mean, really, who doesn't dig a PSL? Yes I will happily sip one as I listen to Gangsta Party on my way to preschool pick-up.

I write a lot about race and culture. And inevitably, when a post on this topic goes live, it's not too long before someone gently points out that I misspoke about race.

My husband is of European decent, which explains his light, white skin. Um... Europeans are not all white.

Most of our friends are American or Latino. Um... those two categories are not mutually exclusive. (So true.)

I'm American! Um... are you referring to Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Paraguay, or Chili?

So how do I - white girl - identify? I think one of the challenges facing white folks who desire to talk about race is the real difficulty in naming our own cultural background. What am I supposed to call myself?

To say I'm "white" can dismiss Latino, Middle Eastern, or other ethnicities with members who also identify as white. To say I'm "American" may be more indicative of my cultural background, but it doesn't acknowledge the reality of white privilege and is confusing in a global context with both North and South Americans.

Saying I'm "United States-ian" is not a thing in English. I often use "Southern," but that can still mix up with the actual global South. And both of these labels again include a wide array of skin tones and lived experiences.

Sometimes I say "Georgian," but that's rarely used and hello, there's a country called Georgia So that doesn't really work. And maybe my last ditch effort is "5th generation German," but nothing feels further from my lived experience.

Of course, no one word can pin point my exact cultural background.

I am an olive-skinned white girl who grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. At 14, we moved to a small town in Kentucky with a high school that boasted its own tobacco barn and considered becoming an "agricultural magnet school."

After my freshman year of college at a private, Christian university, I moved to downtown Atlanta to live and work in an almost entirely black environment. Then, I moved to Nashville and attended another private, Christian university with diverse friends from all over the world. After graduation, I moved into a retirement home for a year (things seemed to be winding down, I suppose) before starting grad school at the University of Kentucky.

Then, I moved straight to Filipinotown in Los Angeles before settling in my South Central LA neighborhood that was 70% Latino and 30% black. There, I married an undocumented, white Guatemalan. Soon after, we moved back to Atlanta into a predominately black neighborhood, except for a few months when we lived in Buenos Aires. And for the last few years, we've been home in Atlanta and attending a Hispanic church with a significant Cuban presence.

No one word can sum that up. Not to mention the fact that this narrative ignores class, religion, and gender. It also cannot include all the other cultural touches along the way: when I worked for a predominately Jewish summer camp in Vermont, our Kiwi roommate, or sitting inside a one-room apartment eating boiled pigs' feet on someone's bed.

Of course, this is the part where we're sometimes tempted to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is why we shouldn't use labels! They are ineffectual and only serve to divide us! We're all part of the human race! We shouldn't talk about culture at all!

Part of this response is our fierce individualism in the U.S. We want to think of ourselves as defined solely by our own experiences, our own thoughts, and our own accomplishments. We want to feel like we "poofed" into existence devoid of privilege or hardship, starting on a clean slate in a fair world. I understand that temptation, but it's simply not true.

The reality is that few of us feel like our one to two word labels are a true descriptor of our entire cultural paradigm. And we're right. Still, language is used as a shortcut to help us have a starting place to understand each other and learn from each other.

I will still identify as a "white American," even if it is a flawed label. Because while it may not describe my exact, individual experience, it does help to acknowledge my collective experience in the world.

It tells you that English is likely my first language and that I had access to at least a 12th grade education. It means I can vote in one of the most watched countries in the world. And it also suggests I probably did not experience persistent, direct racism growing up.

I will keep writing about race and culture, even if I stumble on the words to use sometimes. Words are important to me, and I work to use language that promotes dignity. But I also encourage us all to be gentle with one another as vocabulary proves inadequate and we seek to define ourselves and understand others.

We all have a unique story to tell. And we are all part of a larger story happening all around us. And sometimes that's all just a little tricky to explain. Okay, off to find a pumpkin-flavored beverage!

What "label" do you most identify with? And feel free to share your paragraph-long cultural identity as well! You know I love it!

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