“White” doesn’t define me. I’m Cajun.

Charlene Leger

I grew up on the outskirts of a city that is almost 70% African American, on a family farm that was right next to the farm of a black family. All of us kids, in both families, grew up thinking that we were one family. I was devastated when my elementary school teacher informed me that there was no way my uncle was really my uncle. It was my first taste of racism.

As I grew older, I found out that as a white, Southern woman I often had only two options: express remorse for a part of history my ancestors took no part in, or be labeled a racist. I live in Acadiana, where Cajuns are plentiful, but I know that only a few hours drive north, east, or west, and I will find myself the ethnic minority. Few people know, or care, that the Acadian people faced genocide and exile from Canada, that in Louisiana we faced persecution and discrimination.

The high school I went to was 80% African American, but despite their majority (or maybe because of it) white students were considered second class citizens. When I suggested that we celebrate Cajun history month, so that people could learn about the history that of the ethnicity that many students (white, black, Asian, and Latino)shared, but was told that Cajun history was “white history,” there was no need for a “white history month” and to suggest so was to be racist. (There is very little, if any, mention of Cajuns in history books, even in Louisiana.) I quickly learned that when school officials talked about “increasing diversity” they meant “excluding white students”. When they spoke of “ethnic pride” they left unspoken “unless you’re white, then you obviously have no ethnicity, and certainly shouldn’t be proud of anything” although they meant that. For my junior and senior year, I was homeschooled, but I think the damage of my public high school was already done.

I hear people say all the time, “No child is born a racist. It’s something families teach them.” I agree with the first part, but I know that my parents never uttered a racial slur or taught me to disrespect anyone. Any distrust I have of black people came from my experiences with their racist attitudes. I am sick to the teeth of being labeled a “white woman” as though that is all there is to me. My family includes white, black, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander people through marriage, adoption, and biology. Most of us, when we choose to, label ourselves by our ethnicity, though: Cajun, Creole, Haitian, Japanese, Chitamachan, Scottish, Samoan, etc. because these things tell much more about who we are than just our skin color. Even this, though, serves to divide us, and so we often just ignore the labels all together.

I wish the rest of the world were like that.

Because it is what it is, though, I refuse to label myself “white”. When I have forms to fill out and it asks for my race, I choose “other,” and fill in “Cajun”. It’s my way of telling the world that I’m more than the color of my skin. I’m the descendant of exiles. My grandparents were beaten in public schools for speaking their native language. I’ve had people, both black and white, burl the derogatory term “coonass” at me. I’ve had people from other areas of the country express shock that I speak English, read, and wear shoes; such is the effect of stereotyping of my ethnic group in movies, TV, and books. Still, many feel that I have no right to express pride in my ethnicity or anger when people are derogatory or prejudice, because, after all, when so many of them look at me, all they see is a white woman…

Keep the conversation going - comment and discuss with your thoughts

  • Some call me racist

    So true. The racial double standards are unjustifiable. Blacks can be proud to be black, Mexicans can be proud to be Mexican, but Whites must be ashamed of our heritage. It’s no accident that the most “racist” people are the people that have to live around blacks. These liberals who live in their middle class communities don’t have to worry.

    • JD

      I’m white and not at all ashamed of it. I’ve never been told to be ashamed. Where is it written, discussed or stated that whites MUST be ashamed of being white? I’ve seen racists foist this claim upon whites to gain their sympathy. It’s right out of the Nazi playbook. No I’m not exaggerating, it really is.

      Have SOME of our collective ancestors (be they strictly racial, political, or familial) committed heinous acts? Yes, they have.

      /No race is immune from this fact of history./ Some family lines are.

      Being proud of yourself and your ancestry includes /recognizing/ and /acknowledging/ the bad behavior of others in your family tree (metaphoric or literal) and then /working to ensure that you don’t perpetuate those reprehensible attitudes and behaviors./

      Sitting back and whining about others individual pride while feeling guilty about some of your own ancestry will do nothing but piss you off. Choose to be happy, to be productive, and to make the world a better place for all people. You have it within you.

      Make the choice, and do the hard work to get there.

  • Tim Childs

    Anyone can be a racist and probably everyone has some prejudices about other people for whatever reason.

  • Mark Freeh

    Thank you Charlene for your touching story and for opening my eyes to the Cajun experience. When will people realize there is so much more that connects us than divides us?

  • J. Thibodeaux

    I hear you. I am also Cajun. I have Chitimacha, Isleno, Mexican, French, French-Canadian, Acadian, Scottish, Mestizo, Mi’kmaw, Irish, and Spanish ancestry. I’m not White…I’m Cajun. To say I’m White would be to deny my ancestors.

  • J. Thibodeaux

    I feel as if Cajun is the name of our tribe–our clan. We have our own unique culture, food, language, history, and we are all related. I’ve done genealogical research, and I would find it very strange to not share at least one common ancestor with any person of significant Cajun heritage. We should have a Cajun History Month. The Exile was an attempt at culturecide, if not genocide.

  • J. Thibodeaux

    It is important to remember; however, that those of us with lighter skin have White privilege.

    • J. Thibodeaux

      I mean to say that we aren’t discriminated based on the color of our skin, if our skin tone happens to be light, and we should remember that we are able to walk about in the world as White, unlike people of color. Racism is a system of oppression that is largely based on skin color, while ethnocentrism is oppression based on ethnicity and culture.

  • TheKnowerseeker

    I’m a Duhon, and my family does not consider the offspring of a Cajun and a black, Hispanic, or Asian to be Cajun; those children are simply “American”. Only white or Native American (usually Coushatta) blood are accepted in the Cajun community I know of.

    • TheKnowerseeker

      To clarify: Only the offspring of a Cajun and any other white or Native American person is considered to be Cajun by the Cajun community I grew up with. And that’s only if the children decide to embrace Cajun culture.

  • Gator Jeaux

    Sounds like you’re describing my life story. Only difference is I proudly identify myself as White. I identify myself as both Cajun and White. I think it’s up to the individual. Some Cajuns feel they are separate from Whites, others feel they are the same. We do have our own rich culture, but so does every other subcategory of the Caucasian. The Irish have their own culture different from the English, the English have their own culture different from the Germans, etc.

    What I hate most is when people of other races feel they can’t be racist, or that their racism towards us is “reverse racism.” Anyone can be racist, and my definition of “reverse racism” is racism against your own kind. I’m sorry you were treated the way you were. I’ve been treated the same way. I believe the same thing you do. Integration is just a politically correct way of getting rid of White culture. And along with that goes all the subcategories of the Caucasian including us Cajuns. But, never lose pride in who you are. I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my ancestors, and I have no remorse for anything my ancestors did.


Tweets by Michele Norris