An honorary White American eyes suburbs

Edge of the Village

Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2004

In cultural adoptions, individuals are ritually accepted into social groups different from the ones to which they belong. After adoption, persons are considered honorary members of the new group, and they assume the group's ceremonial rights and obligations. Although it is a common practice for Native Americans to bestow their identity on others by means of cultural adoption, it is rare for Natives to be ritually accepted in like manner. However, I have received that honor, and I am proud to say that I am now an honorary White American.

I was raised among White Americans. I have lived among them all of my life. I have been a student of their culture since before kindergarten. I speak their language, I know their history, I have studied their art and their heroes. One day I hope to become professor of White Studies. I dare say that even without adoption, I am White American in spirit.

Being culturally adopted changed my outlook on life. Now when I look at politicians, national leaders, grade school teachers, middle school teachers, high school teachers, university professors, and authority figures such as doctors, lawyers, judges, social workers, bailiffs, and police, I enjoy a sense of kinship. I take one look and say - here are my people.

With my adoption came responsibilities. I pay White American taxes, eat White American food, shop at White American stores, and dress according to White American custom. Every spring, I buy a pastel pantsuit and attend Easter services. Every summer, I celebrate the fourth day of their month of July - Independence Day in their language, which in my old culture would more accurately be called Dependence Day. I wave their flag, eat hot dogs, and drink lots of soda pop. Every fall, I pin an "I voted did you" cardboard onto my lapel and watch as my adopted people are elected governor, senator, and president. By this time my outfit is no longer new, but I keep all my clothes very clean. You could eat off my clothes. This is one of the customs that came along with my adoption. I don't mind. It's another responsibility I gladly assume. It demonstrates my respect for their beliefs.

My new privileges outweigh any inconvenience. As an honorary White American, I freely enter places at which I would not otherwise be quickly welcomed. At the department store, I am no longer ignored by clerks. I am no longer followed when I browse the aisles. On the streets of large cities, taxis stop for me without hesitation. Back at the department store, I can assume that any merchandise I return will be accepted without suspicion. I am no longer randomly stopped by police. I no longer fit any profile that would cause them to suspect me of a public crime. When I visit the local drop-in center to write a check for a donation to the homeless, I'm no longer mistaken for a client and directed to the coffee pot. I can go anywhere in the United States and most foreign countries to tell poor, uneducated, non-Whites how to live their lives, and no one will question my prerogative.

I now understand classes and meetings on multiculturalism and diversity taught by White Americans. I am comforted by the faces of my adopted kin in every movie and every magazine, on every television program and every street. Media are crowded with beauty queens, models and stars my daughters can now emulate. My grandchildren are no longer assumed to be at risk when they have problems at school. The state court no longer routinely declares my relatives' children to be in need of aid. My sons are no longer hurried off to jail.

I'm thinking about moving to the suburbs. Gated communities will receive my application gladly. I am now desirable. I am now the standard. I am an honorary White American.

• Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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