Journey Through Theoretical Whiteness

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

Privilege defines my life and my journey from perspective to philosophy. Like a snowflake–a label I’m proud to reclaim–I am unique, but paradoxically as author Franklin Veaux once commented, whilst we might all be snowflakes we are not as unique as we think we are. We all have six sides; our actions and our experiences are ‘consistent and repeatable’. There’s many of me or at least there are many folk with my slivers of my experience, who perform the same actions although the particular pattern of my experiences is my own. Some though, I’ve rarely come across.

Those who look at me recognise me as a white woman. I benefit from white privilege and that’s mostly true. Except when–very ocassionally–it’s not. I try to use my privilege to empower those without it… but I am also personally motivated, because many don’t know that my Greek-American father wasn’t considered white as a young man. The definition of white changed within his lifetime.

But people don’t tend to ask because I look utterly white, a caucasian through and through. It’s such a small thing, that it barely scratches the surface of the racism discussion. And yet weirdly enough my realisation of what this means is emblematic of our globally-expansive-yet-locally-intolerant times.

The idea of what a Greek looks like is a heavily westernized romantic notion–when I look at my family photo albums with their peeling pages, my ancestors look what you might believe is more middle easten with their olive skin, bulbous noses and flashing brown eyes. My father’s family were Ottoman Greeks, Orthodox christians indigenous to Anatolia, now Turkey. Yet with the rise of the Ottoman empire the Greeks became a minority population guaranteed limited freedoms but generally treated as second class citizens. And in the years of the Greek genocide by the Ottoman Empire following world war one, my grandparents fled to America where my father was born in 1930. My grandfather ran a burger joint, as many Greek immigrants did back then.

The very notion that whiteness is a social construct rather than a descriptor of skin tone, is difficult for white folk to understand. Perhaps knowing that my Greek father with his facial features and olive skin was back then not considered white, may help them to understand that whiteness is more about normative privileges than about race or skin tone. It certainly helped me. Because I realised that the definition of who is white and who is not, has shifted over time. And still now…

People assume that I am purely British which they unconsciously equate with white. They assume this right up until I tell them my Greek surname, at which point they are shocked. I become an unknown quantity, a foreigner and a mongrel. Somewhere deep inside, they categorize me differently. I tell them my father is of Greek heritage, and acceptance is warily given–after all nowadays Greeks are white or ‘as good as’ white dependent on personal opinion. Then I say that he is from Turkey and it throws them off guard.

There’s been a huge debate over whether Turkey can be accepted as part of the EU; it is a predominantly muslim country and many people have middle eastern features. To my mind the pushback from the EU on accepting Turkey has been less about whether Turkey is geographically located within Europe, and more a matter of whiteness. Greeks are white, Turks are not–even though historically the border between and the definition of Greece and Turkey has shifted so many times over the years that the notion of whether someone was a Greek or a Turk in some areas only truly means something in modern times. My great-grandmother was a Turk born in Turkey and her husband a Greek born in Turkey, both my grandparents were also born in Turkey. But the entire family was treated as Greek when the massacres came.

I’ve found it interesting to see my friends struggle in front of me to rationalize my paradox; most often they say ‘Oh, now I see your greekness in your eyes.’ My eyes are bright blue. And as I’ve been brought up to be polite and unassuming, I find it rude to then inform them that I am adopted–Greek-Turkish-American-British by nurture but by blood as British as they come or at least as British as my biological ancestors have become since they followed William the Conqueror over the channel from Normandy. Moreover I don’t want to, because I’m extremely proud of my adopted heritage. It is part of me–only by nurture, rather than nature. But what’s fascinating is that they can ‘see’ non-whiteness shine through just because I told them my father is from Turkey.

I am a woman with white privilege. But just occasionally, until they find out the truth of my adoption, I become in their eyes a woman with white passing privilege. Just a notch ‘lower’ because whiteness is a social construct. But I do pass, so I don’t experience racism although xenophobia is a different story. And I multiply that look of shock, and sometimes even faint disgust by one person for my own adopted sliver of foreignness, that difficulty people have with spelling my name and asking me ‘where are you really from?’–by millions. It counts though. Every snowflake counts. because just like snowflakes, those attitudes turn into an avalanche of bigotry and discrimination.