Reminiscences

Jan. 22,  2017 

Why Are Some People Not White?

My mother, who was born in 1902 and raised in a relatively affluent household in St. Louis in the early part of the 20th Century, used to tell the story of the “Mammy” that helped to raise her and her younger brother, my Uncle Gordon.  I remember seeing a picture of Mammy, looking at her from the back dragging a two-year-old boy, my uncle, down the sidewalk.  She looked very much as Hattie McDaniel did in portraying Scarlett O’Hara’s servant, Mammy, in “Gone with the Wind.”

“When I was about four,” mom related many years ago, “I tried to scrub Mammy’s daughter to turn her white.”

As I recall the story, she and Mammy’s daughter were playmates, but in mom’s youthful naivete she either thought all people should be white, or that she was helping Mammy out by turning her daughter white.  As I understood the story, my mother even wanted to use steelwool to complete the cleaning job.

My mother’s story came to mind today while hearing author Eula Biss (who is multiracial) tell of her own young son’s question concerning why he was not considered to be “white” when his skin was actually lighter than that of a young friend who was Romanian and was darker-skinned than he was.  Biss didn’t tell us how she answered her son.  (That interview was on the NPR radio show, “On Being.”  You can hear it at http://www.onbeing.org/program/eula-biss-lets-talk-about-whiteness/9147)

These two episodes – occurring perhaps 110 years apart – reflect, I believe, the continuing myth that whiteness is not only the norm, but also the preferred norm.  Will we ever begin to look at reality of the many colors of people?

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