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Hey world, I am what I am

Katherine Khorey | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It was in my last semester of high school that I first heard the basics of Post-colonialism explained in plain language.

“So it involves a white colonizer,” Mrs. G explained to a class full of kids who either needed the English credit to graduate or were just taking the extra class for fun. “Colonizing a subject country that’s non-white. Think of China, South Africa, India, Ireland …”

I raised my hand. “Ireland is considered non-white?”

Mrs. G paused, and tilted her head in thought. “Huh. Hmm … well, I guess Ireland would be an exception there.”

We went on to discuss mimicry, the imitation of one’s colonizer. Mrs. G submitted afternoon tea in India as an example. Then we discussed technology as a means of “civilizing” the colonized. I remember a classmate proposing that irrigation might not always be a means to oppress a desert community of Others.

The outcome of that discussion hasn’t, for whatever reason, stuck with me. But Ireland, as “non-white?” That has.

Maybe because a little over two years later, studying post-Famine emigration in a very different class, we learned that “whiteness” was only a construct, such that more established, “real” Americans were considered “whiter” than the also Caucasian Irish newcomers.

Now I may owe an apology to Mrs. G. If “whiteness” is a term for social dominance, then Ireland, while colonized, would constitute a “non-white” civilization.

So I’m sorry, Mrs. G, for briefly off-tracking the lecture. In terms of critical theory, you were right. Now, how about a nice cup of tea while we wait for all this discourse to blow over?

But seriously. Whiteness?

Language may evolve. Connotations may change. Some words grow unusable; others become proper.

But “white” and “whiteness,” and other terms referring to color, refer on an actual, literal level to just that: physical color. Sure, at some point color came to connote what we and others historically have called race, but far from accurately. In Pre-K, I was confused when I first heard a girl on my bus, the girl with the pretty pink and green beads in her hair, referred to as “black.” What? Lena was brown. My mother, at around the same age, had a scar on her arm “puff up” (say hello to the keloid genes). She too was confused when someone told my grandmother that this must have resulted from “colored blood.” Mom was unaware at the time that some blood is clear.

So from the Upper Midwest in 1992 and my mother’s England in the 1960s, let’s jump to Notre Dame in the late 2000s. Here my gorgeously porcelain skinned acquaintance Raquel once complained that a crude loudmouth on the quad had incorrectly identified her as “white” (and felt the need to make his misconception clear to her. Someone back home needs to learn to hold his Natty).

So “color” terms, whether socially acceptable or offensive, may not accurately describe “race,” however that term is defined. Yet “white” and “non-white” now not only refer to color and race, but also apparently to status (in the case of immigration) and character (in the case of oppressive tea-mongering colonizers and unassuming, blissfully un-irrigated subjects).

And there’s the problem. Too many meanings – some contradictory – are conflated in too few words. We should phrase it this way:

Color is color. As in, what kind of light a skin cell reflects.

Race, for whatever that distinction’s worth and hopefully it’s constructive, is race.

Status is status.

And people are people.

I’m not white. I am a person of color. Specifically, a pinkish-taupe. On forms and by the census definition, I am Caucasian. But if I apply eye-liner in just the right dimensions so that my Arab comes out, you’re likely to notice that by commonly held standards I’m not considered 100 perent “white.”

That’s not uncommon. A dear friend of mine, who so nicely wrote up what happens to be my own perspective on an explosive issue here in the Viewpoint last week, is pearly-skinned like Raquel. She would find it much harder than I would to choose the correct “race” bubble on the Scantron form. Another friend is dark-skinned, “black,” but hates being called African-American, because she’s not.

As for people being people, the four of us, in spite of and along with everything else, remain ourselves. No one, no matter the theory, is put in a box. One is not just “white” or “non,” colonizer or subject. One is not just one’s religion or romantic preference. One is not even the sum of one’s conduct as that is viewed at this very instant. One is who one is, that is, a person. The suggestion that one is anything else is dehumanizing.

Which may be why most explanations of Post-colonialism don’t involve plain language.

Katherine Khorey (kkhorey@nd.edu) is a junior studying English and Russian at Trinity College, Dublin. She still

appreciates “Stuff White People Like” and its spinoffs, the keyword therein being “people.” Also, she discovered the title of this column on AOL Radio Showtunes. If you can name the musical, she may or may not buy you a nice Tazo Refresh in the fall. She will not try to

colonize you.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.