The Record

When I Realized I Was White/Not White

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story


While I had known all my life that I had dark skin and was therefore different, an experience in middle school made me first think about my skin color and what it meant. At my old school, in my seventh grade history class, we had just learned about slavery in America. In order to deepen our understanding of the subject, we were going to take a class trip to a former slave plantation. Before we left for the trip, a few of my classmates and I were talking about what we expected to see once we arrived. One of my classmates mentioned that he brought money for the gift shop and hoped to buy little slave figurines. Another boy responded saying, “there’s no need to spend money on slave figurines, we already have Taussia.”

Charlotte PINNEY (11)

After the 2016 presidential election, I, along with the rest of liberal white America, thought all was lost. Like this was the end, the worst possible outcome. I spent most of the week in a haze of disbelief, but then came Saturday. That night, Dave Chappelle was hosting SNL. After he spoke, the first sketch of night showed a group of white liberals descending into panic while the election results slowly seeped in. Meanwhile, Dave Chappelle just sits there and watches, unsurprised to see yet another white man coming into power. It became clear to me that the reason this election felt so monumental is because liberal white people got a clear momentary glimpse at what systematic racism looks like for the first time, and we couldn’t handle it. And for the first time I realized that I held all the cards, that I was born with them and that people of color had been playing the exact same game, empty handed, this entire time.


For the last fourteen years, I have grown up in El Barrio, East Harlem, where primarily Dominicans and Puerto Ricans live. I was considerably wealthy, and just stepping outside my apartment building proved to be like night and day. I think children start comprehending race and skin color when they interact with people unlike themselves in school. However, before I attended Kindergarten, I realized I was surrounded by drastic racial diversity, by people that did not share my skin tone, lifestyle, culture, and language, so I asked my two mothers why I did not look like my neighbors. They told me that I was white, one of the many different races that congregate and live in New York from all over the world. That day, I was first taught to treat everyone with the same respect and that no one race is greater than another, no matter how they live or have lived in the past.


Prior to my arrival at Horace Mann, I never admired the Indian and Hindu heritage that my family had embraced for years. My cultural appreciation governed only a small portion of my private life, while remaining completely absent from school. However, at the start of 8th grade,we studied Hinduism in history class. To my surprise, I was quickly singled out and labeled the “expert”, even though I had very little knowledge on Hinduism. But soon, the academic environment present awakened a hidden love for my once distant culture. To live up to expectations I began to explore Hinduism and Indian culture through independent research and discussions with my family. I now embrace and love my once distant culture.


In my white elementary school, my white friends and I from our white neighborhood would pass around the beige crayons we called “skin color.” This white world of white stories and white role models was crafted for our comfort. Later, we were sent to fancy private schools where we learned to talk about racism with our big vocabularies, but I didn’t recognize how much I profited from it until I stopped talking and started listening. I’ve had a lifetime of seeing my skin on movie screens, in public office, on the stick figures with the yellow hair and blue eyes that we drew in kindergarten with those white skin crayons. I didn’t think twice about it, and nobody thought twice about me. That is true privilege. My story is the least important, but it is my responsibility to use this privilege to make sure other peoples’ stories become the most.


Since Kindergarten, I would often be greeted in the halls with “ni hao,” squinty” eyes, or remarks about my flat nose by the other children attending my elementary school. I live in a small suburban town in Westchester with a very small Asian community. In fact, I was one of only two East Asian kids who attended my elementary school, which was primarily comprised of white students. Since early elementary school, I’ve realized that I was an isolated minority in a white community lacking cultural sensitivity and awareness. My eyes were different. My face was different. My cultural identity was different. Fortunately, after joining Horace Mann’s diverse and supportive community, I feel at home and wear my monolids with pride.


Living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attending predominantly Caucasian schools my whole life, I tended to always fall in the “majority” of the communities I’ve grown up in. It essentially took me over 15 years and a flight thousands of miles across the country to truly understand what it means to be white. When I attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference earlier this year, I was expecting to see a bunch of students like me from around the country — and I did; however, what no one told me was that I would be one of only 100 white kids in a sea of thousands. But I didn’t feel lonely or scared. Instead, I experienced a wave of acknowledgment and recognition of who I really am and what that means in the United States today. How could a set of privileges affecting my everyday life be unbeknownst to me for the past 15 years? I’m lucky to not have to think about how others will judge my physical complexities or my socioeconomic status or be questioned about my actions based on solely my race. Whatever this is to entail, I am now fully fledged into helping those who need help, providing a voice for the voiceless, and offering hope to those who need it most.


When I attended day camp in elementary school, there was a girl in my cabin who never wanted to play with me and always ignored me when I tried to talk to her. During free time, I noticed she would play with her American Girl dolls. Since I loved them too, I brought out my own doll the next day, figuring this would be a great way for us to finally become friends. But when I asked her if I could join the game, she looked me in the eye and told me my skin was too dark.

Leave a Comment

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

Horace Mann's Weekly Newspaper Since 1903
When I Realized I Was White/Not White