The other day, over drinks a friend of mine related a story. She was with her boyfriend, in a suburb of London when he whispered: “Did you realize we’re the only white people here?” She looked back at him, confused, and said, “You’re not white.”
That was meant to be the punchline, but instead it turned into a discussion about what “white” actually is. I proposed that it was a surprisingly subjective concept that everyone thinks is objective and widely understood.
Let me explain. I’m half Portuguese and half Chinese. Growing up, my Asian friends sometimes referred to me as the “white girl” whereas white people thought of me as exclusively Chinese or Asian. My mother’s family thinks of my father was white but my husband thinks of him as latin. In Africa most people bizarrely tend to think I’m white to the point of assuming blonde coworkers must be related to me.
Once, when I was in Ghana I was told to look for a “light skinned person”. I spent about five minutes sure the person I was looking for had stood me up because I couldn’t spot any white or olive skinned people. Finally, it dawned on me that they were referring to someone who was about three shades lighter than everyone else around them but still quite dark by North American/European/East Asian standards.
I think it works like this: the lighter you are, the fewer white people there are; conversely the darker you are the more white people there are. I know it’s slightly more complicated than this and that, in the context of what white privilege has meant over time, a somewhat loaded concept. That said, it is still an interesting observation that might help make the notion of racism seem even more absurd than it already is.
I asked my friend’s boyfriend if he identified as white. “It depends,” He said, “On who I am around.” My friend asked him if he thought I was white. He and I have roughly the same pigmentation: olive skin, dark eyes and hair. He considered this for a moment and then said:
“Well, when I met Dani she was speaking English and said she came from Canada. So, I thought of her as white. But let’s say she had been speaking Chinese, then probably I wouldn’t have.”
“But, really?” My friend was confused. “But she doesn’t look white.”
He shrugged, “To you, maybe.”
Morning after: cat suits, balloons, slot machines, Portuguese hospitality and tiny powerful women.
Back in a city I fell in love with, but with a very specific agenda.