The Day I Found Out I Was White

by Peter W. Pruyn

 

From 1992–1994, I was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of the Seychelles. The Seychelles had no indigenous peoples. It was first settled by the French as a colony for slaves and freed slaves. It was then ceded to the English when Napoleon lost. Because it is along the trade routes to Asia, there is also a population of Chinese and Indians. After 200 years of ethnic mixing, the skin pigment of the Seychellois people is a continuous spectrum. As a result, this can create certain challenges for Seychellois when they travel for the first time to countries that are more segregated. The following are a collection of anecdotes from Seychellois who lived overseas, as well as a couple of my own. Listening to their stories helped educate me about my own racial privilege and the dynamics of power surrounding race.

 

The following story was told to me by a Seychellois named Peter who studied overseas for four years at a small university in England:

When I arrived in the town, I knew no one else there. Every afternoon I would go jogging. Occasionally I would run into a Swedish woman who happened to go running around the same time. One day the woman struck up a conversation with me. She asked if I was doing anything for dinner. I said no, so we decided to go to a certain restaurant that evening. That night, while they were walking down the street together to the restaurant, a car full of young men drove by. As they passed, one of them leaned out the window and yelled, “You white-woman-stealing nigger!”

I stopped. I turned to her, and I said, “Uh, I don’t think this is such a good idea. I’m not going.” I started to go back to the bus stop. She said, “Oh, no. It’s all right. Forget them. Come on; let’s go.” And I said, “No, I’m sorry. I have to go. I’m sorry.” And I took the bus back to my dormitory.

That day, that was the day that I leaned that I was Black.

 

This anecdote is from a Seychellois named Benjamin who attended a university in Montreal:

One of my classes was in a large lecture hall. One day, I realized that the rest of the seats in my row always remained untaken, regardless of which row I sat in. This puzzled me. And then suddenly, I realized, “Ahhh, so this is racism.”

After that, I began to notice racism in many different ways, some very subtle, like whether someone gives you your change by putting it in your hand or leaving it on the counter. When I was looking for an apartment, I’d speak with the landlord on the phone about the place and would be told that it was still available. Then when I’d show up to have a look in person, they’d tell me that it’s been taken. It got so bad that when I’d call I got into the habit of starting right off by saying, “I’m Black, and if you have a problem with that, just let me know, and I’ll try someplace else.”

“Oh, no! No problem, no problem at all!” they’d say.

 

Brigitte was one of my students:

Brigitte’s mother, Sonia, went to a state university in Alabama for four years. Sonia brought her three children with her, who attended the local schools. Her eldest, Brigitte, went to the local high school. On the first day of school, Brigitte was asked to fill out a registration form. One of the questions on the form was: “Check one: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American.” She did not know what to put. She thought to herself, “Well, I’m from Africa, so I’ll put ‘Black.’”

That evening Brigitte told her mother about the incident and asked, “What am I?” Her mother had recently gone through the same experience in registering at college. She didn’t have an answer.

Later on in the year, Sonia had to fill out some other form that asked the same question. This time she asked the woman behind the counter, “Excuse me, but what should I put here?” The woman looked at her a moment and said, “You’re … Hispanic. Put ‘Hispanic’” So she checked “Hispanic.”

When Brigitte went to take her driver’s test, she filled out her application as she had for high school. The examiner took her form, read it, looked at Brigitte, looked at the form, looked at Brigitte and said in his southern accent, “You’re not Black!? You’re White!”

 

Approaching the end of my Peace Corps service, I attended an official week-long Close-of-Service training at a Peace Corps training center in Lake Naivasha, Kenya, 50 miles north of Nairobi:

One day we had a guest speaker who was a White volunteer who had previously served in Kenya, returned home to Chicago, and then came back to Kenya to work as a Peace Corps staff member. She came to our training to share her experience of being home after living in Africa for two years. She had loved her time in Kenya and described the intense and multi-faceted reverse culture shock of returning to one of America’s largest cities.

This was the early 1990s, and at that time in the US, a racial incident had occurred that prompted racists to wear buttons that had a picture of a watermelon with a circle around it and a slash through it. Upon coming home, she said she saw these on the lapels of White Chicago businessmen on their way to work.

And then something that I would not have expected happened: she choked-up. As she paused to cry standing at the front of the room, I tried to make sense of what was happening.

First, my White upbringing had insulated me from watermelons as a racist slight, so I wasn’t completely sure what was going on.[1] But more importantly, this was the first time I had seen a White person cry over racism directed not just at an individual or someone who was with them at the time, but an entire racial group. Their pain was her pain.

I took that in.

What does that take, I wondered? What kinds of experiences does a person have to have to feel another group’s suffering as if it were their own?

 

I’ll end with an anecdote that happened to me at home:

One day when I was in preschool and my sister was in kindergarten, a family friend asked us, just out of curiosity, how many Black children were in our class. And we didn’t know – because we didn’t know what it meant to be “Black.” So it was explained to us what it meant to be Black, and the next day after school we could say how many Black children were in our class.

Twenty-five years later, after hearing Peter’s story about being with that Swedish woman in England, I remembered this incident, and I realized, for the first time, that that was not only the day that I learned what it meant to be Black. It was also the day that I learned that I was White.

 

Peter W. Pruyn (“prine”) is a psychotherapist in Northampton, Massachusetts and a member of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation (NESTTD). This piece is excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, Up: One Man’s Journey to Feminism.

 

[1] Starting in the 19th Century, African-Americans were stereotyped in racist cartoons eating watermelon, a common crop in the southern United States. For more on this see “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke” by Jacqueline Woodson, The New York Times, November 28, 2014.

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