Bleach, Sunscreen, and Other White Things
A swarm of 4 mae baans, or housekeepers, flooded my apartment while I was in the middle of sorting papers and organizing my desk. I answered their knock, invited them in and tried to carry on with my own task as they cleaned the dishes we had left in the sink, swept the floor, fluffed the pillows, made the bed. I have never in my life employed domestic help. Coming from a middle-class midwestern household I didn’t know anyone whose family had hired help growing up. That was the domaine of the very rich, not suburban Clevelanders.
The daily maid service comes included in our rent. Just put out the sign and voila! Return from work to a clean home. It’s easy to casually appreciate workers you never see. It was quite another to have to look at them, watch them tidy my mess, attempt to get out of their way as they apologize to me. I nodded, smiled and stepped past a woman sweeping my tile kitchen floor with a handmade broom and took my book to the rooftop. It was more comfortable for all of us to let them work in peace.
I am half way through Ta-Nehisi Coate’s Between the World and Me. It’s been on my list for a while. I’ve followed his work in the Atlantic for years. He writes the type of narrative non fiction I aspire to on my best days. A few weeks ago my roommate found a copy of the book in the library where we both work and insisted I check it out.
She’s from Northern Virginia, the same place in fact that’s been on the news for being the site of a white supremacist rally and counter protests. Her brother still lives there, walks by the police-lined streets daily. He doesn’t know the protesters on either side. They aren’t his friends. They aren’t his neighbors. He’s angry they've descended on his city, put a national spotlight on his town.
There are schools, monuments, public buildings in Virginia and all over the south named after confederate soldiers, leaders, former slave holders. There are town council meetings and petitions and arguments about who will pay to: change the name, alter the logo, redesign the uniform, tear down the statues. The progress is slow. It’s sometimes imperceptible.
My roommate self identifies as white. For college she attended a minority serving institution. She could claim Latina; her blood line allows it. She doesn’t. She looks white. She is privileged the way other whites are privileged. She knows race is a construct. It changes with the change in power.
My students in Chicago often asked me what I was. And what they meant was am I white or colored? They sometimes asked if I was mixed. I told them I was a mix of a lot of European countries. They were never satisfied.
“So you’re white?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“You don’t look white.” Or “Are you sure you’re white? You don’t act white.”
The subtext being that White People don’t teach brown folks on the west side. The subtext being that I didn’t meet the current stereotype of what it means to be white in America.
My Grandfather was black in the 1940s when being from southern Italy made you a minority. Now he’s white. He’s lived his whole life in Cuyahoga county. My grandparents used to be in an interracial marriage. Now they’re not. Context changes. Time passes.
Yesterday I played Apples to Apples with people from Australia, the UK and the USA. The topic was “Scary.” It was an Australian woman’s turn. Someone played “Washington D.C.” I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. But as she was reading our cards she said, “Hmm Washington D.C. I’m not sure it’s a scary place. I’ve never been there.” I was immediately and quite jarringly pulled out of my “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket" perception of my nation’s capital and realized that not everyone is consumed or even concerned with American politics.
My Lao students have asked me about the current president, mostly from a place of curiosity and bewilderment unlike my students in Chicago who asked me from a place of reassurance. Are you a good white person or a racist white person? Is there a line in the sand? Can you be white and not racist?
There is a coffee shop down the street that sells berry banana smoothies with oats and chia seeds. It’s not catering to the local Lao population. My six-story luxury apartment with a sauna, gym, covered parking, and daily maid service isn’t either. I am as far away from America as is geographically possible and I’m still benefitting from white privilege.
The mere ravenous desire of the developing word to speak English confirms the dominance of white culture. It is the language of power, the language of business and cash money and war. The language that sells hopes and dreams, promises you can have it your way and find happiness through unattainable physical beauty, expensive clothes, cars and whiteness.
Southeast Asian skin tends toward golden brown. Southeast Asian women tend toward covering every speck of their body, holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. There is bleach in everything from face soap to deodorant, sunscreen and lotion.
I try to blend in. I’ll wear a sinh, I’ll speak more Lao. I’ll try too hard, I’ll seem more Falang. I’ll say it wrong. And then I’ll get tired or frustrated and I’ll expect people to speak English. I’ll live in a house built for people like me and pay my rent with my government’s dime.
But I won’t know what my neighbors think of any of this. They don’t have the freedom of speech or the freedom of assembly. They’re hanging onto their freedom of religion by a thread. A freedom only regained in 1991. They don’t get to petition their government for a redress of grievances. I believe and hold sacred the bill of rights. And I firmly maintain that one’s rights end when they infringe upon the rights of others. And so I will keep educating, I will keep learning, I will keep struggling to find my place as a white woman in a white man’s world.
Mr. Coates says, “Perhaps our triumphs aren't even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise in unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
Here’s to the struggle.