Saturday, August 18, 2012

What is it like to be white?

I think another title for this post could be "What is it like to be in the majority?" but I it's not just any majority I wanted to write about today, the last day of my beach vacation in my home southern state.  No, it's the kind of majority that is racial, and cultural to a certain degree.

The view from our balcony
Southern man and I have been vacationing for the past week at a beach, lets call it "White Sands" since that's pretty much what the beach looks like.  Aside from a few storms when we arrived and one mid-week, it has been glorious each day--highs in the mid to upper 80s, Atlantic ocean that feels like swimming in bath water (particularly since I grew up splashing in the Pacific which is just plain frigid), and stretches of sand to lie out with a good book and to dry off from our swimming (or to jump in the water if we get too warm).

This is the kind of vacation I love--nothing to do but just hang out and read and swim and eat good food (in this part of the state it means Calabash which means fried, which is OK by me--I mean, I'm on vacation). 

So why am I wondering what it's like to be white (especially now that my skin is a toasty almond brown from all that sun)--because that's pretty much the only people who are here at White Sands beach.  Seriously.  We're been here for a week and I will tally up the number of people of color we have seen walking about a mile in either direction of our rented condo:

*Asian Americans:  4 (not including myself) -- 2 appear to be the transracial/transnational adopted children of a white couple

*Latino:  12 -- I should note that 8 of those have consistently been a work crew that is helping to prevent against beach erosion.  If you look at the photo above and see all those sandbags, for the past week a crew of about a dozen people, 8 of whom are Latino, have been building those sandbags outside our window.

*African American:  6

*Native American:  N/A -- I couldn't tell -- I'm sure that there were Native Americans in the various crowds of people we saw, or rather that there are people who identify as such, but I wouldn't have been able to guess by just looking at anyone.

*White:  100-200 -- I'm TERRIBLE at estimating, but I'd say at we saw at least 100 people the beach if not 200 people. 

I'm not even counting the number of people we saw at restaurants and supermarkets--I'd say for the most part that every place we dined in I was the only Asian American person.  One particular lunch place that is renown for their deep fried goodness was the kind of cafe that has the menus printed on chalkboards--not fancy but good.  We walk in and it's like a Western--every head in the cafe swivels to look at me.  Most look back at their food, but one particular gentleman, someone in his mid to late 1960s, white haired, paunchy and beady eyed.  This guy was eyeballing me like I was an alien who landed.  Like I was an unidentifiable creature.  Like I was the Viet Cong come back to haunt him (he had that kind of vet vibe going on, and here at White Sands there are a TON of those MIA/POW black flags around here, which always makes me nervous in a southern setting because I know they're looking at me and having flashbacks to the war).

Anyway, my usual thing to do in this situation is to simply stare back.  Hard.  Usually the other person is embarrassed and looks away.  But not eye-ball man.  He just keeps staring.  And staring.  And staring.  His table is right by the hostess station, and since they were packed, we had to wait a while to get our table.  So he stared long and hard.  And I stared back.  Southern man (who had gone to park the car) walked in and I immediately pointed out the staring guy (usually I'm discreet but in this case I openly gestured to him and said, "This guy will not stop staring at me!"  So Southern Man, being the diplomatic and polite guy that he is (his momma raised him right) looks at the guy and says "Hi, howya doing?" at which point the man grunts and looks down.


I'm glad that the staring is over but peeved that it takes my white southern husband to crack this guy.  I mean, I don't think he was happy to see miscegenation, but Southern Man is a big guy so I also think this guy realized that if I was unhappy then Southern Man would be unhappy and he didn't want to get Southern Man unhappy.  Or maybe it's some weird white man code.  I stare at your woman, you call me on it, I back down.

I will say that as we left to go to our table I noticed the eye-baller eyeballing me again.  I guess he just couldn't help himself.  I thought about flipping him off, but then thought that it wasn't the educational moment that would be helpful.  And that in the scheme of things, being stared at wasn't a big deal.  But it also wasn't comfortable and definitely it enacted my racial paranoia.

Which is why I wonder--what is it like to be white or to pass as white?  To be able to walk into places and not get stared at?  Maybe it's awful because if you're an anti-racist ally who is white you may have people say all sorts of awful things to you assuming you'll be down with their bigoted beliefs.  At least people generally don't say racist things about my group (Asians) and generally not about other groups also. 

But still, sometimes I wonder what it's like to live in white skin and never have to worry about which restaurants you can walk into or whether you are getting looked at because you're not white or whether the service is bad or someone in a store isn't friendly to you because you're not white.  I don't obsess over these things, but they're always in the back of my head--that extra radar of racial awareness.  And sometimes I think it'd be nice for it to be turned down because especially when I'm on vacation, I just want to enjoy the surf and sand and sun and not worry about weird old men eyeballing me when I want to eat my fried clams.

1 comment:

Dianne said...

A lot of people don't even realize how a situation like that can spoil a good time. I've been that white person that other whites assume I think as they do, and I've been the white person stared at because I'm on the arm of my black husband. Here's one of my posts on that topic.

Sounded like the rest of your vacation was fun!