The many shades of white
I’m not your average white girl. I’m Californian white. There’s a big difference.
In the summer of 2001, I decided to travel abroad to enjoy a cultural experience and broaden my naïve horizons. I had no idea that it wasn’t the Italians or Greeks who would create such a lasting impression upon me, but the North Carolinians I was traveling with.
There were seven of us from California who were meeting up with 30 students from East Carolina University. My beloved sociology instructor from California State University, Sacramento invited her favorite students to join a mentor of hers from ECU on an annual summer study abroad program. Of the seven Californians, we had one Hispanic woman named Lupe, a Filipino brother and sister, and four white women including me. We became a united Californian front.
We were warmly greeted by our North Carolinian travel companions and I knew it would be a very entertaining trip when the southern drawls and “y’alls” filled our ears on the bus. Except for Lamar, the one African-American guy, everyone was white, and I mean pasty white. I would not be alone in my blinding light thigh expose!
Quickly I began to learn how my Californian white was very different from their North Carolina white. I was slightly shocked when Lupe introduced herself and received a chorus of “How do I pronounce your name again?” From that point on, she introduced herself as “Loopee,” to which I told her “there is no way in hell I’m calling you “loopee” and I hope that’s okay with you ‘Loopeh.’”
Later on that first night, our very sweet Georgia peach roommate gave us the “dirt” on her classmates as Michelle, Lupe, and I took mental notes. The three of us were dumbfounded when she referred to Lamar as the colored guy. I said, almost without thinking, “Did you just say colored?” She didn’t know why we would be offended by that word and I explained that the term “colored” was not acceptable where we came from. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, where I come from that’s the nice way to say it.” She was very sweet and asked us what words we would use. I was so happy she was receptive to us. Michelle and Lupe later vented to me that they had never felt so “ethnic” in their whole lives. Lupe said she felt like she had to provide proof of her legal citizenship to them and Michelle said she felt like a she just got off the boat with her chopsticks in hand.
I discovered that I was a white bridge. I encouraged the “others” to accept and better understand Michelle, her brother and Lupe. I also became the defendant or spokesperson for our little group and all our differences. One southern belle remarked how nice Michelle was and that it was nice to get to know her since the only Mexicans she knew picked in her Daddy’s tobacco field. Mexican?! I then had to explain to her that Michelle was Filipino, and what that meant. She said, “Oh cool, I’d never heard of one of those before… interesting.”
I felt most sorry for the painfully obvious gay guy. My “gay-dar” went off right when I saw him, but when I caught him ogling the Italian soccer players alongside me I knew for sure he was closeted. He played the straight role but the “gay” in him was busting out at the seams. He sang show tunes on the bus with me! I had a “gay-tervention” and explained to him what San Francisco was like, and eventually told him I knew he was gay, even if he didn’t want to admit it. I recommended California as a place to live. He looked like a thousand tons had been lifted off his shoulders. My Facebook research tells me he now lives in Los Angeles and is “interested in men.” In retrospect, maybe I should have suggested Vermont?
I’m not trying to play up a southern stereotype, and although it shocked me how real their cultural isolation was, what surprised me most was how receptive and open they all were to our views and differences. They even seemed fairly accepting when Lupe and Lamar started a romantic relationship on the trip. I wonder how often they see interracial couples in their area.
The trip was amazing for many reasons, but the night when Lupe and Michelle discussed their minority status on the trip, we all laughed at how I was also a minority since I was a Californian. I took flamenco dancing lessons as a child, own a Sari, have dated a variety of races and craved lumpia, and have marched in gay rights rallies. I may be just as pasty as other white folks on the outside, but I’m a product of my environment, and there is no place like California — I’m a melting pot of culture on the inside.
The academic focus of the trip was culture and religion. I learned a lot about the history of Catholicism and Italian art, but the greatest lesson I learned was about my own cultural background. Sometimes we don’t know who we are until we see our reflection in someone else.