The other day, I was discussing the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" with a couple of African-American friends and one of them was talking about how he used to play with a little White boy who came from a very racist family that lived nearby. Now, there were apparently lots of kids in the neighborhood and lots of the kids were Black, but this little White boy would only play with my friend (I'll call him "K"). K tried to get the boy to play with some other kids, too, but he refused, finally explaining to K that he "wasn't like the others," that K was "almost White." I asked K what he had thought of that at the time and he said that he was so young, he wasn't sure what the boy meant.
Then, this morning, I heard a story about an African-American dentist back in the day who, because he practiced dentistry in a correctional institution, actually wound up with KKK members coming to him for his services in his private practice. I guess the "good ole boys" got used to him while they were locked up or something and just continued to see him when they got out. But what fascinated me was the thought of these rabidly racist guys--KKK members not being the kind of folks that are wishy-wishy on the topic of race--letting a Black man put his fingers in their mouths. Even to fix their teeth.
Eventually, the way the story went, the KKK members finally came to their senses and took the dentist out in the country for one of those beatings the Klan is so famous for. Now, that, I understood. It was the part about them choosing to go to his office and lay back in the chair, completely vulnerable, while an African-American with his face about six or eight inches from theirs reached into their mouths and pushed their tongue aside that I couldn't get my brain around. I mean, come on now, people of the Klan mentality still think Black folks ought to go back to Africa, stay at home after dark, or even step off the sidewalk when a White person passes.
When I expressed my amazement, I didn't get the feeling that the young man who had told me the story fully understood why the matter intrigued me so much. I mused aloud a few moments on how the dentist's White patients (at least before they tried to fix it so that he couldn't practice any more) probably told each other that he was "okay" or that he wasn't "like the others." In short, that he was "almost White." As it were.
As I reconsider these two separate tales, I'm reminded of the time in my mid-twenties when I was first introduced as being "not really White." It was a peculiar moment. It was in an old rooming house in a Black neighborhood in San Francisco, where I'd gone to visit a European-American artist I'd met who couldn't afford to live anywhere else, I imagine, and besides was known for sending strong messages about race with his work.
Anyway, we were in the middle of a conversation when a couple of Black guys burst into the room and then stopped short in consternation, obviously unsettled by my presence. The artist introduced me to them by name, but they were unconvinced that I should be accepted. This was back when the Black Panthers had a store-front in Oakland, you must remember, and White people were suspect, no matter who they were with.
Finally, with a laugh, he said, "She's not really White." And for some reason, I felt good about him saying that, though I didn't begin to understand yet fully what it meant.
Decades later, these stories are all filed in the same folder in my head under the term "racial identity." Racial identity--the single most important characteristic in U.S. culture--is supposed to be biological. Still, Black people can "pass for" White. White people, if they don't know everything about their family backgrounds, can be Black and not know it. But depending on who's talking and what the context is, a Black kid can be "almost White." Or a woman who looks like me can be "not really White." Or a Black dentist can be paid to get close enough to a Klansman to kiss him--without, at least immediately, repercussions. Which is why I call it "the socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'." And why--though I can be fascinated--I'm never surprised.