My Inner White Guy
I am my father's daughter. Of his five children, I am the one who copied his mannerisms and inherited his compulsions, his bluster, his sense of rightness. Once, in a time I sense more than truly remember, I was supremely in love with myself, the way my father has always been. My father explained that I was his equal, and my inner-self developed in his image; confident, even arrogant, although in adulthood I've learned these qualities are dangerous in someone who looks as I do.
I don't physically resemble my father at all. I am short and brown, with the compact sturdiness of my mother's Japanese ancestors, but none of their grace; I have a body meant for stooping over crops and birthing babies in the fields, the sort of occupation reserved for those of literally low stature. In his prime, my father was a skinny six-foot-two, a handsome cross between Gregory Peck and Marshall Matt Dillon, with blue eyes, a shell-pink complexion and a head of jet-black, curly hair. His appearance had the force of magic in my infant mind. Doors literally opened for him.
I remember a visit to his office when I was a short-legged 10-year-old trotting to keep up with his lanky stride. As we approached the glass tower, the huge doors swung open. "G'morning, Mr. MacPherson," the doorman said, smiling. My father nodded, lost in thought as his long limbs propelled him toward the elevators.
I surged eagerly toward that shining portal, eager for the same royal treatment. The doorman gazed at me. His features collapsed into a wrinkle of distaste. He emphatically pushed the door closed. I pressed my nose against it like the urchin he thought I was, yelling "Daddy!" through the thick plate glass.
My father turned at the elevators, looking for me, slightly annoyed. Spotting me outside, he gestured to the doorman. "It's OK," he said. "She's my daughter."
The doorman's eyes saucered in disbelief, moving from my father to me and back again as he inched the door open. For the first time I realized that, solely on the basis of appearance, I, my father's doppelgänger, his favorite child, the one with his aspirations embedded in my DNA, would never live in his universe and that he could never understand the reality of mine.
Yet the white man I internalized as a child lives on. As I go about my day, stoic in the face of the thousand wearying obstacles brown people must hurdle, he squirms like an alien pod creature trying to burst from my chest in fury. When someone asks why I speak English so well, he silently screams: "I was born here, idiot!" When an editor rejected my story ideas because "Mexicans don't read our newspaper," I had to fight to shush my white dude's indignant flood of invective. He expects the doors of approval to open without hesitation; he's shocked when, instead, we're tailed by the security guard.
The inner white guy cries for justice, but not too loudly. After all, if he's too vocal about his identity around his minority brethren, he'll get his brown ass kicked. Miscegenation has ugly historical connotations for most people of color, so one shouldn't squawk too loudly about the ofays hiding in the family tree. Yet the promise that has drawn so many to this land is that anyone has the opportunity to become, in effect, a white guy.
The punchline is: It's extremely difficult to earn the props of a white guy unless you actually look like a white guy. Privilege is a reward of perception; fighting to be perceived as worthy of white-guy status is so exhausting.
I hardly speak to my father these days. My siblings and I couldn't quite overcome the consequences of our color, and I think he finds that painful. After my parents' divorce, we children were tired out by no-good-reason police stops, decrepit housing, stern caseworkers and the other pinpricks of societal suspicion. Some of us, briefly, became the shoplifting juvenile delinquents everyone expected us to be. My father now lives in a comfortable, familiar, predominantly white world that I don't visit.
Not that I regret it; for all that brown folks put up with, we are the most loving, resilient people I can imagine, and belonging there is a privilege worth every molecule of melanin I possess. But I do feel for the white guy who believed men like himself would love his half-breed children, would recognize the qualities he observed with such pride, and he hurts to admit that so many of them cannot.
Chiori Santiago, a writer in Berkeley, California, is the daughter of a Japanese-American woman who married a white American soldier (of Irish-American extraction). Through the alchemy of ethnicity in California, Santiago self-identified as a Mexican-American, adding a fluency in Spanish and Mexican culture to her skill-set (she has been married twice, to men whose parents were from Puerto Rico). This article originally appeared as part of In These Times magazine's six part series, "The New America: How Immigration Is Transforming our Society."