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…