My father arrived in America in 1972. Shortly thereafter, he had to fill out a form. I assume it was for driving or getting a job.
The story he tells goes like this, “I looked at the form, and there was a line. It said ‘race.’ There were two boxes. And next to each box, there was a choice. One choice was ‘white’ and one choice was ‘black.’ I drew next to that my own box and I wrote ‘SIB’ next to it. The man I gave the form to, he said, ‘What is this ‘SIB?' ’ And I told him, ‘Somewhere in between.’”
My dad is one of those dads that tells the same story over and over again and forgets that this is the thousandth time he’s told you the story. The good thing is that he’s a gifted storyteller, and every telling has its new nuances. I don’t remember which iteration of the story it happened on, but one day I asked him what the guy said after he said “somewhere in between.”
My dad smiled and said, “He said, ‘white’.”
Just like that my dad went from brown immigrant filling out a form to having whiteness conferred upon him. This was the story of how, years before I was born, my identity as a model minority was decided upon by some bureaucrat who likely worked in a DMV in Chicago.
We lived on that privilege for a long time, me and mine. Right up until the late eighties and the early 90s with “Desert Storm.” Around that time, all of the lovely things that were said about us – that we were hard working, intelligent, clever, resourceful, dignified, etc. – began to slowly evaporate.
Now, instead of having hard working parents who were firmly committed to my education, my teachers started saying that they felt sorry for me because I was “trapped between both worlds.” That is a direct quote. The idea behind that statement, by the way, was that my heritage was archaic and opposed to modernity. See, whiteness always starts to distance itself from non-whiteness with talk of modernity. Because whiteness equals modernity. And modernity is awesome and everything else is, well, not. We should all want modernity! Nobody wants to be “somewhere in between”, right? The swan song of my Pakistani Muslim family’s model minority status occurred on 9/11. After that day, it was over. We were no longer hard workers. We were sleeper cells. We were no longer contributors to society. We were direct threats who were going to have “terror babies.”
It was after 9/11, whether by coincidence or circumstance, that I begin to dig deeper into the history of American Whiteness and its evaluation (or devaluation) of other American groups. While each story is different, it was an interesting discovery on my part that a certain thread was common – whether the group was African American or Japanese or Native American.
American Whiteness is lazy. Exasperatingly lazy -- lazy like a teenager who is playing video games in the middle of the summer and hears his cell phone ring on the other side of his room but calls to his mom who is in the kitchen downstairs to come get it for him. American Whiteness must be fed its broccoli like the three year old who refuses to eat anything green. “Please eat this, it’s good for you!! How do you know that peaceful coexistence is gross if you won’t even take a bite?!”
I know you’re lazy, American Whiteness, because all those years ago when my dad didn’t have a box to check, you told him he was white. And 30 years later, some guys who were the same religion as my dad but not even from the same part of the world killed 1,000 people in New York City, so you took whiteness away with the same lack of effort with which you gave it.
In fact, I bet American Whiteness is so lazy that I now have to write a little explanation here so the few white people in America who are reading this don’t get their feelings hurt thinking I’m calling them lazy. American Whiteness is the collective identity of all white people. It’s not you or Santa Claus, Virginia. It’s all of you together, the power you hold, the things you refuse to see and the things you refuse to do as a collective.
The only time American Whiteness has evolved is when marginalized groups have forced it kicking and screaming towards progress. It has never, ever, said, “Hey, look at those people over there being treated unfairly. Let’s do something about that.” It has always said, ”three fifths of a person, bullets, dogs, burning crosses, internment camps, are-you-a-member-of-the-communist-party, tear gas, water torture, Guantanamo Bay and no-fly lists!!”
The hardest thing about the election victory of Donald Trump was listening to the very genuine sadness and regret about his victory from white people themselves. It was difficult because some of those folks are my friends and I love them, and I know they are sincere.
The really difficult part was being intimately familiar with the level of commitment that most white people have to understanding the American experiences that exist outside of American Whiteness. That level of commitment stops at “ask a brown person.”
You know how whenever ISIS chops someone’s head off, I have had to explain to at least ONE white person why that’s not okay with mainstream Muslims? Whether it was Boston or Nice, you know how I have to explain that Muslims are, in fact, condemning these tragic acts of violence? You know how I have to explain that Muslims are not a monolith? How I have to remind American Whiteness that I am sitting here right now with them, chilling out, being their friend and not trying to cut their heads off? I have been cool with having to explain this…until now.
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, I thought of how when each of the times I was asked by a white, Christian person to explain the difference between extremist political Islam and mainstream faith-based Islam, not one of those white people ever bothered to explain to me how they were different from the white people who, I don’t know, bombed churches, lynched young black men for side perceived glances at a white women, or shot a Sikh who was perceived to be a Muslim.
Even in its progressivism, American Whiteness is STILL lazy. It cries and mourns the loss of progress, and it ignores the fact that the woman it would’ve elected as an effort to evolve is just a watered down version of American Whiteness. When I spoke to American Whiteness about my concerns about HRC’s involvement in exacerbating conflict in the Middle East, it said “nobody is perfect.” When I told American Whiteness that their Majesty of Progressive Hope offended me when she intimated that I was valuable to America insofar as I could provide “intelligence” to keep America secure, it responded, “don’t you think it’s time for a female president?”
It thought asking its Muslim friend about her religion was going to be enough to help us all be safe from a fascist. American Whiteness doesn’t understand that it has to learn about itself now before this brown girl can give it more lessons.