Author’s memoir recalls a childhood of not truly knowing herself

By December 10, 2019 No Comments

When I Was White Cover

By The Pittsburgh Current

“My friends would joke that the demographics of high school would change depending on how I wore my hair. If it was pulled back — one more white person. If it was out and big and ‘fro-y, well here was a black person,” Sarah Valentine explains. 

But, of course, when she was in high school, her race, the confusion and unknowns of it, were more elided than spoken of explicitly. “We would never articulate that part of it — everything was by implication.”

Valentine has been both inside and outside whiteness, both inside and outside blackness, in a way that few others have. It gives her a unique understanding of and perspective on race. 

She grew up in Wexford. The neighborhood was white. Her parents are white. And though she was darker complexioned than her parents and her two brothers, and her hair was, as she put it, fro-y when she wore it loose and down, race wasn’t spoken of. Kids would ask her brothers if she was adopted and it still wasn’t spoken of. Her parents maintained that she was white, just dark. Race was there. And it wasn’t. 

But biologically, Sarah Valentine’s father is a black man. There are scant details beyond that. Her parents never brought it up to her — she had to raise the issue as an adult. 

After graduating North Allegheny high school, she attended Carnegie Mellon, then went onto Princeton for graduate studies. She has taught at Princeton, UCLA, and Northwestern. She now lives in northern Nevada and spoke to the Current via telephone about her new book, When I Was White (Riverside Press, 2019). 

She says that her parents were tremendously loving and supportive. They encouraged her academically, athletically and in her personal relationships. They were, in most ways, wonderful parents, her biggest cheerleaders, and advocates.

And yet, there was this lie at the center of everything. Just as much as the social and political ramifications of her blossoming awareness of her race, she was grappling with lies and what felt like shame. 

“Couldn’t they have loved and supported me in the same way if we had known and talked about the truth?” Valentine said. “I felt very betrayed, just because I always implicitly trusted my parents. Trust, honesty and integrity, those were all values I was raised with. So it just seemed like such a gut punch when all of this came out. We have been keeping a secret about you all along.”

But why keep it a secret? Why do we keep things secret? Withholding this truth,  according to Valentine, is the high price of maintaining whiteness. 

She writes about a day when the secret could no longer be contained, it burst forth, all but hijacking her. Suddenly, she felt like a black person taking the bus, a black person getting coffee, a black person waiting in line. 

“It occurred to me since I felt inclined to mentally specify that I was black while doing these things, before that, I was not simply doing them in some neutral state but as white. It was something I’d never thought about, and it struck me with surprise and shame that my assumed whiteness — despite my persistent doubts — had been a condition of my whiteness. It also meant that if I felt this way, everyone else must, too. White people were walking around being white without realizing it,” she writes.   

Valentine’s memoir takes us on her journey to understand her own racial make-up, what the nature of it was, what it meant, and why the information was withheld from her. Her own grasp on it shifts and moves as she carries the reader to personal and intimate spaces, but also into public, political and societal spaces.

She cannot tie things up in a bow for us. She doesn’t have all the answers from her mother. But what Valentine can do, by sharing her experience, to enable earnest discussions about race. She hopes is that this book can carve out a safe island in a sea of fear and anger so that people can really communicate. 

“I felt like I had been passing — there’s obviously such a complicated legacy with passing in this country — so that was something I also had to come to terms with,” Valentine says. “People read the book and then want to talk about the experience, whatever their racial background is. It has been heartening — it can be something that can facilitate this conversation which is so loaded in this country, especially right now. If my book is something that can help ease people into that in a way that they’re comfortable expressing vulnerability, that’s the best thing that can happen.”

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