Cepeda column: White people should all read ‘My Time Among the Whites’
CHICAGO — When you grow up surrounded by white people, you become, in many important ways, white.
Your neighbors next door, your teachers at school — everyone from the person behind the counter at the bakery to the mail carrier. If they’re white and they treat you with respect and affection, part of you becomes white, too.
This is my story, but it’s definitely not what happened to Jennine Capó Crucet, author of the newly released book “My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.”
Capó Crucet’s story reminded me of the context Michelle Obama laid out in her memoir “Becoming.” Both women of color lived solidly in the middle class, grew up in single-family homes that belonged to their parents, attended schools with students who looked just like them, in communities where everyone — including doctors, lawyers and other professional role models — shared their race and ethnicity.
Both women showed up at elite universities as fish out of water and learned, quickly and painfully, what it’s like to try to live in spaces where white people were not always used to having people like them around.
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It takes a tremendous level of skill, personal insight and love for your fellow humans to be able to write about such matters as being “with the whites” without alienating readers, like me, who happen to adore “the whites.” I was raised among them and, like Capó Crucet, married a white man.
As such, I have two reactions to this beautiful and heartbreaking book.
The first is that any nonwhite person who grew up in the U.S. was trained to read — and internalize, identify with and enjoy, even love — stories by and about the white experience. This isn’t a criticism, per se, but a statement of fact.
The opportunity to read the observations and experiences of a U.S.-born Cuban American is a gift. This is not just because the author shares the demographic category of Hispanic, but because she’s not Mexican.
No shade to the Mexicans of the world (I’m a halfsie, on my mom’s side), but theirs is the narrative that’s usually centered in literature, mostly because we share so much culture and the U.S. is so jam-packed with Mexicans. The Ecuadorian side of me adored reading someone whose viewpoint is Latinx but not Mexican.
My second reaction is that — though it would be wonderful if every Hispanic/Latino/Latinx or other person of color read this book — the world would be a significantly better place if every white person who thinks they are politically progressive or an ally of people of color read “My Time Among the Whites.”
There’s plenty here to chew on for Latinx readers, including what kind of privilege we carry around depending on our parents’ wealth and education, the color of our skin, the whiteness of our names and even the opportunity to have a university experience.
But Capó Crucet illustrates what it’s like when the people around her take a look at her name, listen hard for an accent and then decide it’s OK to truly be themselves around her. It isn’t always pretty — declarations of love and support for President Trump, complaints about “all the Mexicans” taking white people’s livelihood and grousing about the customs, practices or cuisines of other people of color.
That’s just the baseline stuff. There’s a stunning story Capó Crucet tells at the end of her book about a white college student reacting negatively to a speech the author is giving “at a predominantly white college in the American South.” The student declares that the author’s ideas for diversifying the faculty are racist, then she bursts into tears at the mere thought of passing over white candidates in favor of nonwhites.
“Is it uncomfortable, reading all this?” Capó Crucet writes. “Does your answer depend on your race, on whether or not you consider yourself white? Are you feeling like that white girl in the crowd who wanted to tell me about reverse racism? If you do consider yourself white and don’t feel like that girl, are you not yet uncomfortable because, despite this being about your people, you don’t think it’s about your people? Because, as a white person, you’ve gotten to be just you your whole life?”
Answer these questions honestly, white readers. The fate of our next election and the future of our society largely balance on whether whites will be able to reckon with people like Capó Crucet being their neighbors, their peers and their teachers.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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