SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

KaMaili Jones

White at the End of the Tunnel

photo     Bianca, Natalie, and I were the best of friends in the 4th grade.  We talked about everything, giggled for nothing, and had fun like young girls do. We attended the same school in Tolleson, had the same teachers, and even went to church together.  Our lives were so simple, until Ashley moved into town.

   With little apprehension I walked into Mrs. Norton’s fourth grade classroom.  As usual I stood in the doorway as the sea of heads turned around to greet the “incoming foreigner.”  I could hardly believe my eyes…and ears.  The morning announcements were on and the students began to recite the pledge in both Spanish and English.  For the first time I felt like and outsider, and true foreigner.  It was as if I walked into my worst nightmare.

   That day, Ashley had walked into a world that was completely unknown to her.  The only world which I had ever known was not the world of wealth and status which she was accustomed to.  In a desperate attempt to escape back to her old life Ashley quickly searched the sea of brown eyes for something familiar, somebody white.  Finally her eyes rested on me.  She found familiarity in my light skin and green eyes.  I instantly became the link to the world she had once known; a world of privilege and prosperity, a world without color.

   KaMaili and I got along great, at least until lunch time.  She told me she has some friends she wanted me to meet so we walked through the lunch line together and then slowly, I half-heartedly followed her through the giant maze of tables with the two Mexican girls.  I faintly recognized the girls from our class and decided there was no way I could possibly sit with them. Just look at them.

When we got to the table I introduced Ashley to Bianca and Natalie and then asked her if she wanted to sit at our table for lunch on that first day.  She openly declined the invitation and proceeded to sit at a table in the corner of the cafeteria by herself until the bell rang.  From this point forward I knew that the link we had made earlier had suffered irreparable damage.

   After class I quietly made my way over to Ashley’s desk. “Is something wrong?  Why didn’t you want to sit with me?”

   I pointed my finger at Natalie and Bianca and said, “You were sitting with them."

   Confused by what she meant, I asked her why that mattered.

   As if she didn’t know, I replied, “They’re different.

   The appearance of my two best friends was the most outward indicator of difference.  Not only did they have dark skin, they were not prim and proper in their physical appearance.  Bianca’s clothes rarely matched.  On that day I can remember she wore a hideous rainbow polka dot shirt, a pair of flowered shorts and old, white, scuffed dress shoes.  Likewise, Natalie always wore the same pair of pants, had thick coke-bottle glasses and unruly curly hair.  To Ashley, the physical appearance of my girl friends automatically implied their racial and class inferiority.  It is true that we three girls were unique and different, but never before had it become a negative factor, as Ashley had construed it to be.

   “They’re different.”  What was seemingly a simple answer in the 4th grade has now become the complex story of my life.  For years I have tried to understand the meaning behind this phrase.  However, the more I try to analyze it, the more confused I become.  Did Ashley intend to discriminate against and ostracize my two best friends?  If so, she missed the mark by a long shot.  Instead she somehow left me feeling like and outsider and questioning my own difference. 

   Coming from a native Hawaiian family I was, perhaps not the “white girl” that Ashley had perceived me to me to be.  At the time of the incident I was surrounded by dark complexions at home and at school.  With respect to my skin color, I had never before felt a sense of not belonging among them.  After the incident, I began to question how really included I was among those with whom I had spent my whole life.  The question of my ethnicity became extremely problematic with regards to family relations.  Although I am Hawaiian, how can I identify with my colored family if my skin is white?  At family functions, am I seen as the “different one” in the way that Ashley saw my friends?  Does my family view my personal and academic accomplishments as an unearned privilege of having white skin?

   The memory of the incident remains so vivid because of the parallel that it has to the relationship I share with my sister.  Although Hana and I are very similar with respect to our personalities, there is a striking difference between us: out skin color.  I am very light skinned, whereas Hana is very dark (especially in the summer).  When Hana and I played together as young children we were typically faced with the challenge of people who did not know our relationship and questioned our friendship.

   Although I was too young to understand it at the time, in hindsight I can see how the incident with Ashley is a glaring example of the power of whiteness.  When Ashley walked into the room, she was immediately drawn to me, not because of my personality or smile, but rather because of the color of my skin.  In this particular situation, my perceived place at the top of the racial hierarchy had granted me an unearned social privilege.  Because being white held obvious advantages, I chose to identify with the white community.  Although I still cherish my Hawaiian heritage, it is much easier to explain my white skin by identifying as a “white”!

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