Friday, April 30, 2010

When I Was a White Girl

By Lori Cullen

As a child, I was quite sure that your ‘race’ was something you were born with. Once I moved to North Philadelphia to a neighborhood in which a white face would cause people to whisper and stare, I learned that race is not as simple as that.


For most of the years my family lived in Sutton, Surrey (England), we were the only black family there. The few others that came through were like a parenthesis; they never stayed. It wasn’t until the last family came and left that I wondered why I had to live there, why I couldn’t move to Croydon or Brixton where other black people lived.

When I was about 10, Alex Haley’s "Roots," the miniseries, aired for five days on TV, and the whole country watched. Now slavery was no longer something I listened to through soothing lyrics that crooned from Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff records that my father played. Now it was common knowledge. All of my classmates knew, but when I went back to school, we didn’t talk about it like we talked about Vikings and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was like a secret we stuffed back into a bag.

As if in answer to my daily prayers to move somewhere else, my grandfather, who lived in America, had a stroke. It seemed to me, then, that transforming my life was as simple as taking a passport photo and packing a suitcase. One moment, I was skipping in Heathrow airport, so excited that I was going to America. Eight hours later, I arrived.

As I walked through the Philadelphia airport, in just one sweep of my eyes, I saw more black people perhaps than I had seen in my whole life. As we drove through the streets towards my grandparents’ home, I smiled inside at all the brown faces walking in the streets and sitting on the stoops. When I went to bed that night, I lay with the warmth of what was to come.


My father enrolled me at Frederick Douglass Elementary School within days of arriving in the US. It pleased me to shed the blue and gold Devonshire Primary School uniform for regular clothing. I had ironed my best dress and hair ribbon to match.

In my new classroom, I was careful not to fidget as my new teacher stood me in front of my classmates and told them that I was from England and that they should help me get settled and feel comfortable.

Someone raised a hand to ask if I was from New England near Connecticut. I answered that no, I was from England. The country. Near Spain. As I spoke, a silence fell over the room. It would be one of the only times I would hear silence in that classroom.

“Why you talk like a white girl?" students would ask me. Soon, they would ask of each other, “Why she act so white?” as if I wasn’t even there.

I spent the next several years in a quest to acquire what I thought were the accoutrements of blackness. I begged my parents to buy me shelled-toed, Adidas sneakers—the kind with fat laces that, if coordinated just so with just the right shirt and the pocket stitching on a pair of designer Jordache or Sergio Valente jeans, would transform me into a real black girl, and not the imposter my classmates assured me that I was.

I memorized Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rap songs, and spent hours in the mirror trying to dance. No matter how many hours I practiced speaking American, my voice always betrayed me. When I met new people, as soon as I opened my mouth, that silence would follow. Whether or not they said it, I knew what they were thinking: white girl.


Well into my young adult years, I struggled to make sense of how I could have skin as brown as a chestnut but be white? In England, race was firmly attached to a person’s skin. In America, it seemed to me, certain markers, like an accent, education or way of dressing, could cause your race to get loose. If it got too loose, you could get the boot. It wasn’t until I went to college that I began to understand the complexities that were at play.

“Cultural Capital,” one professor explained to me. So this was something I could possibly take and deposit into a 401(k)?

I came home from college one day, with both my identity and the issue of race all figured out, or so I thought.

“It’s just a construct,” I said to my parents, certain they’d be proud of my new found intellect. “Race doesn’t really exist. It’s something that can change when it intersects with things like ethnicity and class, for example,” I said. “Theoretically, you could escape it.”

My mother kind of cocked her head and looked at me in the way that she does when she thinks I’ve said something stupid. Then she stopped rolling flour dumplings and, with a quick thrust of her head, pointed there, outside of our house, which we’d bought from the last white person to live on our street.

“You think race is made up,” she said. “You go on outside and ask them if they think they can escape their race.”

What do you think? Is your race something that is fixed or is it just a concept?'

Writer Lori Cullen has just launched a blog on the Times Union's website. This blogpost, "When I Was A White Girl," ran first at her site at

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