Where do I begin?
After dinner, my fiance, David, retired to the bedroom to do some reading for grad school. David is a Presbyterian pastor who is getting a second Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy. This dude effin loves school. David plus academia, sitting in a tree.
David, my fiance, also happens to be white. Is that what you’re supposed to say? He just accidentally fell into Caucasia through the random vagaries of genetics (science, wtf, amiright?). I think it’s such a funny thing that we do when we need to mention someone’s race but we’re also not racists. We start verbally tip-toeing through our sentences like the spaces between the words are filled with sleeping wolves. “He’s a… person of… white… descent? He’s an American-American.” I mean, this doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens enough. I find myself doing it a lot more than I’ve done it in the past. I’ve built a locally moderately successful-ish “career” out of standing on stage and telling funny stories about race. But now that I’m engaged to a, um, you know, I get self-conscious about pointing it out.
Other times I literally cannot wait to log on to Facebook to post about whatever crazy white shit this man did today. Like the other day he was talking about how his skin was really dry because we have radiator heat that our (otherwise wonderful) landlord permanently sets to “brimstone.” I immediately transformed into a very opinionated Mother of the Church. I grabbed his arm, looked at it over the bifocals that suddenly appeared on my face, and clucked. “You should be moisturizing, child,” I declared. “White people need lotion, too!” He looked at me and, in seriousness, this white man said, “Do they?”
Girl. I am still laughing. “Do they?” Honey, what do you think, they made Bath & Bodyworks just for black girls? They don’t make anything just for black girls. Somebody has to be buying all that coconut lime verbena.
I ended up buying him a bottle of Aveeno. I considered writing “Whites Only” on it Sharpie but I didn’t because sometimes I offend myself.
Anyway. David, the white man who lives in my house, was in the bedroom reading for grad school. I came in after a couple of minutes to find him staring a little bewildered at his iPad. Poor thing, I thought. I slid into bed next to him to read over his shoulder. This semester he’s taking sex therapy so I like to entertain myself by veering wildly between being absolutely scandalized by everything and making the same damn Dirty Sanchez joke every time he reads. I have a Ph.D in being an asshole.
I peered over his shoulder and what prurient analysis did I find? (Heh. Analysis.) This man was on the Pottermore site!
“You getting ready for your Defence Against the Dark Arts midterm?”
He looked at me, bemused, and did not even acknowledge my hilarious and timely pop cultural joke. Instead he sighed and turn the screen to me.
“I took the Pottermore Sorting quiz again because it’s been a few years and they put me in Hufflepuff.”
Girl. Red alert.
First of all, I love that this wonderful dude takes the Sorting quiz every few years like he’s renewing his passport. Second of all, David, my fiance, is definitely a Gryffindor.
Like, Harry Potter was less of a Gryffindor than David. David is like Hermione Granger if she were a man. And white.
David is a pastor who works with housing insecure people and the LGBTQ population; he’s an Eagle Scout; he has a multiple crash bags stored around our house in case of emergency, natural disaster, terrorism, or dementor attack. He’s so Gryffindor that when he went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter the guy playing Dumbledore was like “Damn, son, I’m getting really intense vibes from you and it’s freaking me out, tbh.”
So, this development with the Pottermore site was, without hyperbole, a disaster. Get the crash bag.
I was of two minds about this, actually. On one hand, I saw that this was seriously shaking the foundation of David’s sense of self. On the other hand, I thought it was hilarious.
I, it should be known, have always been Hufflepuff as fuck. First to the kitchen, last to the battle, please! Sure, I’m pretty type-A and I will get in your face about paint swatches with a quickness, but deep down I’m just trying to lead a happy life. Honestly, I think most of my type-A-ness comes from the fact that a version of my happy life also includes massive multi-platform professional success and enough money to swim in, Scrooge McDuck-style. Also, I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack non-stop and that shit will make you hella assertive in a business meeting. Or subway car. Or anywhere.
Anyway, I laughingly reassured David that he was still the Gryffindor that dressed as Harry and took me to the Harry Potter festival for our fourth date. “Maybe all this work at being a therapist is setting off some Huffle vibes,” I suggested.
He seemed to accept that and hopped off the bed to get a glass of water, but minutes later I found him staring forlornly out the kitchen window like Fantine in Les Mis. Or Cosette in Les Mis. Or anyone in Les Mis. God. Those people are so sad.
Our kitchen window doesn’t even have a view. It faces a brick wall. And it was night time. He was legit despondent over this quiz. And I think I knew why: he’s of the age where Harry Potter was an integral and constant part of his coming-of-age. I’m a little bit older so I boarded the Harry Potter train a little late and saw it mostly as a fun pop culture thing of which to be a part. Sitting in Rittenhouse Square on the day that the Deathly Hallows came out and realizing that everyone else around me was reading it, too, was cool, but so is live-tweeting an episode of Scandal. My relationship with Harry Potter was transactional, or casual, I guess. David’s is emotional. David plus the Order of the Phoenix. Sitting in a tree.
David also has a very different understanding of the world of Harry Potter after having spent some time in Scotland after college. He’s able to speak educatedly about Scottish history, cultural shifts and diversity and the way that manifests itself in the Potter world.
Me, I’m just like, “Uh, McGonagall taught me that not all witches are the devil. So that’s cool.”
Honestly, like honestly, I did not even know all that stuff about Scotland and Harry Potter. I actually don’t even know it now as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t even remember enough details to accurately fill that paragraph so I was just like “Eh, they’ll either know what I’m talking about or they won’t.” A pathological aversion to research is one of my better qualities.
Later in the evening, David, still reeling from the Pottermore shock, took to the couch to convalesce. I sat next to him and tried to figure out the best way to appear comforting while still being able to see my phone.
Apropos of nothing, he stared into the middle distance and muttered, “I wonder what the world will be like for our kids.” Oh, Lord, he’s going into the light. I paused the Hamilton soundtrack and turned my attention to him.
“I’m sure they’ll have wonderful lives and I promise to never tell them you once got sorted to Hufflepuff.”
He looked at me perplexed. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the future.” He explained that he’d done pre-marital counseling with a couple earlier in the day and asking about their families and cultural traditions had sparked his imagination.
We talked about what values and traditions we’d instill in our kids. For him, it was a love of travel, exploration and Harry Potter. For me it was, “never pay full price, always order dessert, and try not to leave the United States if you can help it.” So, basically these kids are set for life.
David wondered, “suppose we adopt a white kid. By 2020 whites won’t be in the majority. Do you think they’ll have a different understanding of white culture? Will they live in a sort of intersectional moment?”
And then we talked for like an hour about what white culture is without once mentioning a pumpkin spice latte.
I think white culture is such a fascinating idea, no offense. (Who am I saying no offense to? Rachel Dolezal? I don’t know. No offense anybody.) I have jokingly said for years that I love white people and white things but when you start to take it apart I’m not sure what’s actually there.
This isn’t to say that white people aren’t cultural. Or important. Or, I don’t know. No offense. I said, no offense!
We developed this theory! This is what we do in our house, we sit around and develop theories about race. Cam and Mitchell we’re not.
Anyway, so here’s the thing, if you try to point out things that are inherently white American, you will frequently find yourself naming things that actually are rooted in European countries. This makes sense, many white people’s families are from Europe. But as we get farther and farther from the point of immigration, those cultural hallmarks become more obscured, more ingrained in plain old American culture.
I think this probably feels shitty.
That’s my academic opinion.
I think it’s probably hard to look at the black community and black culture–which, itself has been subdividing, mutating, fusing and assimilating for many generations now–and think “It would be nice to have something that is just mine, too.”
And the irony is not lost on me that, ostensibly, everything is for white people. They don’t make all that coconut lime verbena for nothing.
But it’s hard to point at Bath and Bodyworks and say “This is white culture.”
And even if we do we are having more and more, as David put it, intersectional moments. So, more people are being welcomed into the mainstream and it’s widening and changing to accommodate them. And those spaces that used to be tailored only for white people, at first only certain white people and then more and more white people, are now being tailored for a larger pool of people. And if you resist that widening, you get labelled a racist.
And it’s not hard for me to imagine that some people, some people, some white people, are not actually being racists when they wish for a narrower time, when things were made for their experiences or perspectives (or at least the perspectives they’d been conditioned to think were theirs). Instead I imagine that it’s an experience somewhat akin to staring forlornly at the Pottermore site, having been told all their lives that they were Gryffindors and now being told that they’re Hufflepuff. And, to extend the metaphor past its expiration date, not only are you not a Gryffindor, but being a Gryffindor is wrong.
I can imagine that.
What I’m saying is that as we, slowly, become a more inclusive, varied country, I think some people who were told that their experience of the world was the “normal American way” are starting to feel unmoored. Because what we’re not saying is that though being an American doesn’t only mean a pickup truck, blonde hair, blue eyes, and two legs that work, that isn’t one of its many meanings. Or maybe we are saying it. Maybe I’m just not hearing it.
Either way, I’m writing about it. I’ve been writing about it for a while now. My new play, Time Is On Our Side, (which opens in June) is basically two hilarious hours of LGBTQ people wrestling with history, asking “What do we keep and what do we leave behind?” One character, Curtis, is a black man who is estranged from his affluent family. He spends the play struggling to carve out a place that is both steeped in history and yet totally new. “I invented myself!” he declares with a tragic amount of sincerity. Curtis is the opposite of the unmoored white person I’m imagining, but the estrangement is strikingly parallel.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt like that sometimes. Whereas David’s life experience is rife with historical echoes–family heirlooms, stories from the old world–mine is comparatively new. There’s nothing that my family has passed down that is older than a century; most is much newer. We don’t know where we came from prior to America; slave trade erased our roots. But because so much is new, so much had to be rebuilt, I at once feel closer to “my culture” and free to establish new traditions, to pivot and to reassess.
What I love about David and about our place in history is that he is able to grapple with a bit of cultural unmooring without become a Trump acolyte, clinging to the good old days. He’s able to pivot, yes, but he’s also able to reach back in a way that I am not. And when we have children, they’ll be able to see in more depth and complexity than we currently are able to. They’ll see the recent past and the days of yore as equally open to them; they’ll be able to locate themselves culturally as citizens of the world as much as they are progenies of specific countries; they’ll be free, I hope. Freer than any of us is.
And, no matter what race they are they’ll use lotion.