It was a question I'd never heard before, certainly never expected, and it startled me, left me speechless for a couple of seconds.
"Are you white?"
I found the flip answer, "Don't I look white?", and instantly the look on her face told me it was the wrong way to respond. You don't give a flip answer to a twelve-year-old kid who's asking a sincere question.
Let me supply some context.
I have a gig directing musical theatre productions with sixth to twelfth graders in an after-school program for credit at a nearby community college. On this day about a week ago, I'd arrived early and our rehearsal hall was still occupied by real college kids taking a dance class, so I found myself cooling my heels alongside a couple of my younger students who were the first to arrive for that evening's class. They were having an excited conversation comparing each other's ethnic backgrounds -- Julia was proudly Salvadoran and French, while Athena had an Italian dad and a Filipina mom. She got the Greek name just because her mom liked it.
Then Julia turned to me and popped her astonishing question, astonishing because it never occurred to me that someone would look at me and not see just another white guy. After my first ill-considered reply, the realization hit me that she wasn't asking about my skin color. That's apparently not what she meant by "white". She was just curious about my ethnicity, maybe prompted by the incongruity between my Hispanic surname and my Euro-American physiognomy in a part of the country where Hispanic almost always means Mexican. So I shared a little bit of my family history -- whitebread Anglo-Americans on my mom's side and from my dad a Spanish grandfather (Catalano to be precise) and a Dominican grandmother. Julia and Athena were way impressed to learn that I'm part Dominican. I think it gave me third-world cred.
Driving home that night, I couldn't stop kicking that brief conversation around in my head. When I was Julia's age, growing up in rural upstate New York during the '50s and early '60s, there were whites and Negros, a clear bisection by skin color into two distinct classes with absolutely no doubt about which side of the line you were on. When you looked at someone, you knew whether or not they were white. My family was white. Of course, Dad had a healthy tan year-round, but that was just something that came with being a Spaniard.
The truth is a little more complicated.
My paternal grandparents were both dead long before I was born. I'd never met my grandmother or even seen a photo of her until my Aunt Lola considered me old enough to be given the full story of her mother's origins. My grandmother Herminia was the bastard daughter of a prosperous Santo Domingo lawyer and his Afro-Caribbean mistress, given to nuns to raise and educate. When she was grown, she became a servant in the household of an American diplomat's family and returned with them to their home in Philadelphia, where she lived until she married my grandfather, an immigrant from Spain. My father was the first of their eight children.
So in fact, I'm the product of at least three generations of African and European mixed-race pairings on my father's side.
And even on my mother's side, along with the Waltons and Fosters, good Pennsylvania Quaker families, I've got a great-grandmother Norton whose forerunners include an early Western settler who took a Mexican bride, according to my cousin Augusta, who's a geneology hobbyist.
So am I "white"? And what exactly does that question mean these days?
As I thought about Julia's question, it became clear to me that whiteness means something fundamentally different to the kids I work with than it did to me at their age. Among my students, and also among the twenty-somethings of my own kids' cohort, the idea of whiteness seems more like an absence of color than a distinct racial or ethnic category. It's the empty pallette not yet enlivened by paint, the blandness of a dish unspiced, one possibility in a rich diversity of skintone, attitude, style, expression.
I'm not trying to say that we've attained a post-racial society, that racial tensions and race-based class differences belong to the past. I'm aware that northern California isn't exactly typical of most of the country, and we certainly have our share of unresolved problems with prejudice, resentment, exclusion, injustice.
But when I see my students, sixty-one teenagers with skin of every shade from black coffee to cafe au lait and lighter, with family origins from at least five continents, working together, supporting each other in a common cause, laughing and socializing and dancing in groups that form and re-form with no apparent selection by race or ethnicity, it gladdens my heart and lifts my spirit. They're comfortable with themselves and with each other with an ease that was almost unimaginable a generation ago.
They and their younger sibs will be the first generation of Americans to grow up in a country with a mixed-race family as its most prominent public face. They will see themselves, as I hope we all will see our better selves, in that family. The votes of their older brothers, sisters and cousins helped make it happen, and we should be grateful to them.
I'm grateful, too, to Julia for her simple unguarded question, for making me stop and notice and reflect.
Are you white? And what does your answer mean to you?