When white means "weak"

For urban high schoolers, it isn't news that whites are a minority in California.

Published March 19, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I shrugged when I read the recent news from the Census Bureau that whites have officially become a minority in the state of California, making up just 49 percent of the Golden State today. It wasn't news to me.

I grew up in San Francisco, where whites have been a minority in the city's public schools for decades. Born to a father of mixed European descent and a Latino mother, I always had fair skin, and for me, color was destiny: From early on I was a "white boy." My own brother often called me a honky.

The school I went to was culturally diverse, primarily Asian and black, but drawing people from every race and every neighborhood. I was a minority there. It was fairly segregated, mostly by race and neighborhood, and I spent time with a lot of different groups, especially blacks and Latinos, trying to find my place.

My Latino friends didn't call me "huero" -- the word for light-skinned Latinos -- even though I had a Latin mother, because I didn't speak Spanish, had an Anglo last name, and looked white. My black friends would introduce me as a "cool white boy." At first, I thought this was an honor. Later I thought, "Who ever heard of a cool white boy? And if there is one, could I really be it?" Whites were usually busy trying to pretend they were another color, or spouting racial slurs, so my options were limited. Asians showed little interest in me.

I always felt as if I had to prove myself. I had to fight anyone who challenged me -- not because I had violent tendencies, but because I was prejudged as a sucker by the color of my skin. White equals "weak" in urban schools today. So if my friends were stealing, I had to steal more. If they were fighting, I had to jump in and hit harder. The only white men I admired growing up were Italian gangsters. I must have watched "Goodfellas" 50 times trying to perfect the accent, dress and attitude of my role models. I altered my mother's maiden name slightly to make it Italian, waiting to be initiated into the underworld. The call never came, but in pursuing it (wearing a double-breasted pinstriped suit and two-tone shoes to my confirmation) I became even more confused about my ethnic identity.

It may be hard for some people of color to understand, but I was plagued by an inferiority complex because I was white. I felt cursed by not being given an identity. With no particular cultural values from either side of my family, white seemed empty -- the absence of culture. I also knew, from my friends, and from what I learned in school, that whites were the problem with this country. We'd stolen land from Indians and Latinos, enslaved the Africans, forced the Chinese to build our railroads. It seemed to me that all the despair in America was solely the doing of the white man. Why did I have to belong to that group? If a group of black kids beat me up in the schoolyard, I assumed I deserved it because my ancestors had enslaved their ancestors.

In the years that followed, I fell in with a racially diverse group of delinquents and felt as if my problems had been solved. Finally, I belonged. But I had only traded one set of problems for another. When I was sent to juvenile hall, the abuse I suffered based on my skin color brought my self-hatred to a boil. (It's no accident that James William King, the white supremacist convicted of killing James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, became a violent white supremacist in prison; prisons are incubators of race hatred today.)

I'm 18 now, and finally coming to terms with being white. I got help with my anger, and my addictive personality. I live in a mixed race group home and have found a "brotherhood" there that transcends race. I've also learned, in the new California, that every race needs to struggle with a tendency to favor its own. Watching the Chinese sue the NAACP over access to schools; looking at data showing rising black-on-Asian hate crimes; witnessing the regular squabbles between Latinos and blacks in California high schools; it's become clear to me that white people have no monopoly on oppression and cruelty.

One thing that helped was my mother giving me a book, "The Color of Water," by James McBride. It was billed as a black man's tribute to his white mother. But what came across to me was how loving the author's mother was, which mattered much more than her race. The book started a long healing process that continues today. I learned to pay little regard to my parents based on their blood, but rather to concentrate on their love and the fact that I am a piece of each of them.

But my own experience has made me wonder: Are whites who commit hate crimes today more likely motivated by white supremacy, or white self-hate?

By Russell Morse

Russell Morse is a writer for Pacific News Service in San Francisco.

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