Confessions of a Former White Guy
It came to my attention recently that I’m no longer white.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a certifiable Caucasian. My ancient Armenian ancestors hailed from the high plateau below the mountain range that lent its name to the so-called white race. I’m more a child of the Caucasus than your average Dane or Irishman. But it seems that history and politics have exiled me from the realm of whiteness. Let me explain.
After 9/11, I began to notice that “Middle Eastern” had become a separate racial designation on application forms – along with the customary “white,” “black,” “Asian,” “Pacific Islander,” “Native American,” ”Hispanic” and “other.” Apparently I had lived half a century under a grievous misconception: that “Caucasian” was synonymous with “white.”
It was a natural mistake. After all, vintage comedian Danny Thomas was a Middle Easterner like me. With that majestic honker of his, he could have passed for one of my uncles. And most of us still would have regarded him as white.
But the controversy came to a head this past Christmas, when conservative pundit Megyn Kelly had the audacity to proclaim that Jesus was white. In the firestorm that followed, it became manifestly clear that the Son of God was to be regarded as a person of color – along with Omar Sharif, Andre Agassi, Sandy Koufax, Tiny Tim, William Saroyan and everyone else of Middle Eastern origin.
That bit of news sealed it for me: the writing was on the wall, and I had no choice but to bid farewell to whiteness. No matter that the title role in the latest Jesus movie went to a man who looks like a J. Crew model. Jesus was now a former white guy, and by extension, so was I.
I should have known all along. I was always the darkest denizen of my grade-school class, even though I never felt slighted on account of my swarthy complexion. Still, I used to notice that the ideal American kid – especially as portrayed in Walt Disney films of the pre-diversity era – was almost always blue-eyed and freckle-faced. That wasn’t me up there on the screen. Plunk me down in a desert for a week, and I’d be as brown as any Bedouin.
I have to confess that part of me is relieved to be a person of color. After all, white people have been taking it on the chin ever since the Civil Rights era. I’m grateful that I no longer have to shoulder the blame for slavery, Jim Crow, systematic oppression, colonial imperialism, hegemonic dominance and whatever else they’ve been teaching about white people (and especially white Christian heterosexual males) in today’s academic Grievance Studies departments. Living under such opprobrium can weary the soul.
In fact, now that I’m nonwhite, I can start railing against “white privilege” – that most diabolically ingenious of grievances. You see, white people can’t do anything about the fact that they’re white. It’s a designation that will haunt them for life and render them helpless fodder for all manner of race-based accusations. We can wag our fingers at them and they’re not allowed to wag back. In short, we have them trapped.
As a former white guy, I can safely raise the spectre of “white privilege” whenever I’m rejected by a publisher or snubbed by the membership committee of the local country club. I can seethe inwardly whenever I think about white investment bankers making deals with white politicians (as we all should).
But as a former white person and a student of history, I also know that white people aren’t some unified, monolithic juggernaut. Just look at the record: these folks have been fighting one another for centuries. The Hundred Years’ War… the War of the Roses… the War of Jenkins’ Ear… even World War I – these were whites-only conflicts, declared by white alpha males upon other white alpha males, and fought almost entirely by lower-ranking white males who willingly gave their lives to oblige their masters.
It becomes apparent, if you do a little cursory research, that white people are divided into dozens of distinct nationalities – not all of whom have enjoyed special privileges in the past or present. I mean, can I really point to Romanians and Bulgarians as the authors of my systematic oppression? No? How about Serbs, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Latvians, Finns and Norwegians? If they’re off the hook, who do I blame?
I suppose I can always aim a self-righteous barb at the WASPs, whose British ancestors were – along with the Spanish conquistadors — North America’s first illegal immigrants. After all, those WASPs swiped a continent from its original inhabitants, introduced slavery to these shores and dominated American life until the Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians and other upstart groups forced them to share the glory. The fact that they also gave us George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony and Elvis Presley is almost irrelevant.
But which WASPs should I blame? The farmers and townspeople of New England? No, they may have been starchy and antagonistic to the notion of pleasure, but they were, on the whole, sturdy and virtuous folk. Do I blame the good Quakers of Pennsylvania or the enterprising Knickerbocker merchants of old New York? No again; they did little or nothing to oppress me and my kind; in fact, they were generally liberal in their attitude toward minorities and newcomers.
Well, then, how about the Southerners who profited from the back-breaking servitude of enslaved Africans? Now I’m ready to pounce. But the problem here is twofold: first, only a tiny fraction of Southerners ever owned slaves. Second (and probably even more important), every last one of those slave-owners is DEAD. Not only dead, but currently crumbling to dust in their graves.
I don’t know about you, but I generally have a hard time blaming crumbling skeletons for ruining my life. And because I don’t endorse the Old Testament concept of collective guilt, you won’t find me castigating today’s white folks for the sins of their great-great-great grandfathers. This former white guy will always judge individuals as individuals. It might be a better world if we all did.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.