Welcoming Color in a World of White
by Jie Wronski-Riley
I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Typically it is a very white place. In winter snow’s continually falling all around and piling up everywhere. Wherever I go there’s white faces and white talk. Minnesotans are a pretty moderate, rule-following people. When you stop at an intersection cars get into fights about who goes last. Minnesota has good parks, fine schools, great bike paths, and lots of co-ops. All in all it’s a pretty nice place. It’s just so goddamn homogeneous! The population is 85% Caucasian. The street, the store, the library. My friends here are all white. My parents, my godparents, my extended family, and my teachers are all white. Until recently I haven’t even noticed it. Since so little in my environment reminds me of who I am and how I am not like them it has been miraculously easy to forget. I didn’t just forget that whites don’t dominate the landscape so thoroughly everywhere. I forgot that I am not white. That’s scary. It’s not like I look in a mirror and see a Caucasian face or anything, I know that I’m Chinese and I am proud of that. I don’t even want to be white (although it would make things a lot simpler). As I think about it more, everything is starting to pale. In my memories I am searching for color.
My life has been good. I enjoy my relationships. I am not whiteist. Sure it’d be great to have all the benefits and privileges that they do, but of course I don’t sunburn ;-). I feel like a white middle class teenager. But I’m not. My face doesn’t correspond to my personality. And what people see when they glance at me isn’t what I was raised to be. I don’t know how to be who they think I should be. I got the wrong programming living in my head and I can’t rip it out now. I am too tangled with “whiteness” to be able to separate my personality from it. So right now I am working on being hospitable to myself when I don’t fit into my skin.
I am visiting a school in Montezuma, New Mexico. It’s the campus of the United World College USA. I arrived on Saturday afternoon; it was about 20 degrees outside and the wind was blowing snow all around the car. We had to stop at the front gatehouse to be let in. After my mom and I had signed in and driven up the hill, we pulled up to a culdesac that had flags that represented the nationalities of all the students. We were greeted and walked around by Naomi, a teacher here. It was cultural night at the UWC and tonight it was the Middle East/Asia/Australia Day or MAAD for short. All the people that identified with one of these regions took part in a two-hour-long show, which included a dinner cooked by the students. Cassandra (USA) and Sunniva (Norway) gave me a tour of the grounds. I was introduced to many of the 200 pupils while getting to see the dorms, café, classrooms, greenhouse, etc. It is amazing to see so many different cultures! Teens from all over the world have come together to have an amazing learning experience. More than not the person you were talking to has an accent and came from over a thousand miles away. Yesterday I attended classes with Africans, Middle easterners, Asians, Europeans, and South and North Americans. The societal differences that the students bring seem to melt away. It’s one big family, like what I wish the UN would act like. While the school is so very isolated and remote, it is strongly connected to the world by its student body. News on the other side of the globe means so much more when your friend’s family is in the middle of it. There is so much diversity that comes together as seamlessly as I have ever seen.
I’m on the plane back to Minnesota now and I feel happy to be getting back to my friends and my own bed, but there’s a nagging feeling of dread at the prospect of going back to a place where there is one language, one race, one cultural heritage. Suddenly I’m alone, going home, wishing to be someplace where I was just a guest for five days. It’s strange what being around people who look like you does to your head. Holy shit! Having ruler-straight black hair that sticks up when it’s cut short is normal! Color is a good thing, suddenly there’s a spectrum in my environment and I get to be one of the hues instead of a mistake made by the color cartridge. Even the landscape was varied; mountains, forests, deserts with shrub bushes and mesas, instead of flat planes and lakes.
Photos by Jie Wronksi-Riley
Jie Wronski-Riley lives in Minnesota, where it is cold. She enjoys reading and science. While she does not identify with any religion, Unitarian Universalism has the closest theological values to her own.
What do you think?
I wish you well, Jie. This is very insightful and thought-provoking. I have heard that in some societies Caucasians are thought of as color-less. Wish the whole world could be like UWC.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful essay, Jie. I came to NE Tennessee 43 years ago - almost all Caucasian then - and a bit less so now. Very hospitable people to me and my family. It is easy to forget that I'm not the same color. Then comes a rude reminder - as during first Iraq war - when a threatening phone call came based on the assumption I was Iraqi. I'm not. Not that it should have mattered. There is always a feeling that there is less tolerance for my imperfections than those of others here. Just a feeling ...
Good luck in your journey. My husband and I moved to Seattle from Minnesota because in MN we always felt like the "cultural diversity" on the block and people would stare at us in the aisles at Cub Foods. Here, we're just a part of the crowd. There's nothing like fitting in without saying a word. Thanks for sharing your experience.