When Sarah Valentine was growing up in the mostly white, middle-class suburbs of Pittsburgh during the 1980s, she assumed her experience was just like that of her peers. She embraced the traditions of her Irish and Italian heritage, did well in sports and school, and hung out with her white friends at the mall. "I didn't know much about race," she writes of a childhood friendship with a girl who looked like her, "but I knew it existed; I thought some people were black, but most people were normal."
But as Valentine came of age and became more conscious of her place in the world, something seemed a little off. For one, her skin was a darker shade than that of her family members. Her classmates called her "Slash," the nickname of the mixed-race Guns N' Roses guitarist. Her high school guidance counselor suggested she consider minority scholarships when applying for college.
Finally, when she was 27, after years of grappling with deep-rooted insecurities about feeling like an "other," Valentine confronted her mother about her suspicions. What she found out was disturbing. According to her mother, Valentine was the product of a rape by an unknown black man. The revelation, she writes, meant that her entire upbringing had been "an insidious lie."
Today, Valentine, a 2013 Lannan fellow who has taught creative writing and literature at Northwestern University, Princeton University, University of California-Riverside and UCLA, is still learning how to make sense of her true identity as a mixed-race black woman. Her journey to overcome depression and reconcile her parents' repeated lack of transparency – and in many instances, blatantly racist attitudes – is laid out in her moving, thought-provoking memoir, "When I Was White."
The Tribune spoke with Valentine about what it was like to grow up under such false pretenses, surrounded by a family and community clearly discomfited by issues of race. She also offers thoughts about what it means to be a mixed-race person of color in America today and why the statement "I don't see race" can be so detrimental. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In the United States, we're still learning how to talk about identities that fall outside of our traditional understandings of race. In your memoir, "When I Was White," you describe yourself as mixed-race African American. Why that, specifically?
A: For me, mixed-race experience is part of black experience in this country. Race is often seen as binary, but mixed-race people fall between categories and can encompass multiple identities. Growing up, my family denied my being black and mixed race, so it's important for me to reclaim those identities.
Q: Your memoir juxtaposes your own experiences with more universal truths about "living at the intersection of different identities and cultures" in America. How did the personal and the political balance each other during your coming of age?
A: The memoir chronicles my personal journey of changing my identity from white to mixed race and African American after learning that my biological father was black. The political aspects of that experience arise naturally from the fact that non-white identity is always politicized in our society. The more I embodied my black identity, the clearer I understood how race operates in people's lives; I learned that, as a person of color who had never voiced any concerns about racial injustice or claimed my own stake in blackness, the white people around me were comfortable and did not feel threatened. As soon I embraced my identity and began voicing concerns about racial injustice, I got a lot of pushback, both from my family and at work.
Q: Did your religious background play into this at all? You went to a mostly white, Catholic elementary school, right?
A: I am not a practicing Catholic now, but Catholicism played a big role in my life as a child. It instilled a practice of spirituality, which was a positive influence for me. But it also created a sense of indebtedness – like I could never make up for the sacrifices others made on my behalf.
This belief translated directly to how I felt about my parents. Even when I wondered why others in our community saw me as different, it felt like a kind of betrayal for me to question my parents. It felt like I should only be grateful and live in a state of atonement.
Q: What about education? In the book, you wrote that you took a world cultures class – the only course available on the non-Western world. Do you think your experience would have been different if you and your peers were exposed to more information about other places and cultures?
A: Only having one high school course on the non-Western world was merely symbolic of my community's overall lack of interest in other cultures. To me, education is one of the most important and powerful ways to broaden people's minds. But even if we had had several courses that had exposed us to different cultures and ways of life, if those worlds only existed in the classroom, they would have had a limited impact. The fact that none of the adults, activities or institutions around us actively supported diversity was the bigger problem.
When I see stories about teenagers caught using blackface, all I can think about is that neither the adults around them nor their educators ever taught them that people and cultures who are different from them are not punchlines.
Q: How did location and class play into your family's attitudes about race and racism? For example, you write that for your parents, "racial injustice was something that happened to other people in other parts of the country."
A: Race was only a concept to me growing up, because it was made to seem completely unconnected to the lives of the people and places around me. I think that kind of dislocation of the reality of race is a popular tactic that people use to distance themselves from the need to be concerned.
Especially in white, middle-class suburbs, which were designed to be segregated from the beginning, it's easy for people to think of racism as something that happens to other people in other places, but has nothing to do with them. Because that reality is so distant for them, it's also easy for them to reject the fact that racism as real.
Q: You were born in the mid-1970s, when people didn't talk openly about issues like race and gender equality. Thankfully, today things are evolving. Or are they?
A: I am very heartened by conversations I've had with younger people who seem much more cosmopolitan and informed than I was at their age. I think greater access to information and having more platforms on which to respond makes an enormous difference in the level of engagement people have on current issues.
But it's not as if no news outlets existed to inform people about issues like racism and sexism 20 or 30 years ago. Denial is and always has been an active choice. As you say, when I was growing up, controversial topics like AIDS, race and sex were seen as impolite subject matter, so there was never a chance to have a nuanced conversation about these issues.
Q: Lastly, here's a big one: When a white person says, "I don't see race," what does that mean to you?
A: When people say: "I don't see race," they think they mean that they do not judge people by their skin color. What they are really doing, however, is denying that race is an issue that affects people's lives. If you "don't see" race, you don't see racism either. This seemingly benign attitude is harmful, because it allows white people to remain comfortable in their sense of magnanimity, while ignoring the pain that racism causes those around them.
I wish people realized that it is entirely possible to not judge someone based on their skin color, while simultaneously realizing that racism might be negatively impacting the lives of their friends, family and co-workers of color. Acknowledging the reality of racism in others' lives is a crucial step toward enacting racial equality, not only because it acts as a catalyst for people to get involved in existing efforts, but also because it should prompt white people to reflect on how their own lives have been unhindered by racism.
In fact, this is the greatest obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of racial justice: white people's discomfort with being beneficiaries of racism, especially if they've never actively supported racist policies and consider themselves to be non-racist. If the injustices of racism become visible, the benefits of whiteness must become visible too.
'When I Was White'
By Sarah Valentine, St. Martin's, 304 pages, $27.99