Sarah Valentine, “When I Was White”

Reader: Phillip Russell

Sarah Valentine grapples with her racial identity in this essay, arguing for the validity of transracial experience. She sets up her essay with a photograph (omitted in the print version of Waveform) of three children. Most readers, she imagines, will see two white children (her siblings) and a slightly older black girl (Valentine). However, Valentine grew up in what purportsarah-valentineed to be an all-white family and was taught to identity as white.

Her biological father was a black man who was not part of their lives, and because of her family’s self-conception, Valentine did not confront her racial identity until much later, although she did experience a sense of otherness throughout her childhood. When she found out the truth about her father’s paternity, “the difficulty did not lie in an unwillingness to give up my whiteness. On the contrary, the revelation of my paternity was a relief: It confirmed that I was different from my parents and siblings, something I had felt deeply all my life.”

As an African American, I found this essay easy to empathize with. While I’ve never gone through a transracial experience, I have had to confront my racial identity, both in my own life and in my writing. I have an ambiguous look—people have asked me if I am part Asian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, the list goes on. This has allowed me some privileges that other African Americans—including some of my closest friends—do not have, and for a long while I’ve tried to come to terms with this privilege, to understand it and myself better.

When looking at the picture of Valentine, who also has an ambiguous look, I can see that grappling with her own identity could prove challenging, not only for her personally, but also for those she has met. The photograph adds a layer of intrigue and play, allowing the reader to make assumptions right from the get-go that her essay can work through. Despite the brevity of the piece, Valentine covers a lot of ground, focusing not on dramatized scenes but instead on small reflective flashes that allow readers to come to their own conclusions and ruminate with her.

The most evocative scene comes when Valentine takes the reader back to a moment in first grade. She is entranced by the nosebleed of the only other black girl in her class. She presents herself as a voyeur, observing the girl cleaning herself up in the bathroom: “I stood transfixed as I wondered what color her blood would be when it came pouring out of her nose.”

This moment stands out from the rest, and Valentine shows humility in sharing it. The othering she places on the girl is so entrenched in her upbringing that she doesn’t realize she is doing the very thing that she has herself experienced. Instead of overexplaining this scene, she uses it as the inciting incident that destroyed the sense of exoticism that her upbringing had placed on black people. After that encounter, Valentine says, black people seemed “different,” but not as exciting as she had been made to believe.

This moment represents a shift in Valentine’s essay, and opens the final arc in her exploration of the splintering sense of self she has been grappling with for much of her life. She shows this progression by now referring to her past self in the third person, later revealing that she even chose a new last name to reflect the change she felt inside. This is a subtle way of showing the splintering of her identity.

I admire Valentine’s unwillingness to wrap everything up in a bow. Although she has made strides in her journey to accepting the person she is, she admits that there is work to be done: “There is still much that I am struggling to articulate and understand.”

I’ve found that in my own writing it is hard to admit that I do not know all the answers, and this often leads me to avoid topics that I am not certain about. However, Valentine’s honest approach helps her message come through—transracial identity is a real, life-altering experience that is messy and ongoing. It is easy for us to forget how much our racial identity—regardless of whether we want it to or not—affects our worldview, art, and perspective. “We all have a ‘raced’ understanding of ourselves and the world,” Valentine points out, “regardless of the racial group or groups with which we identify.” Her essay is a needed reminder that identity is a fluid thing that can wash us down if we refuse to address it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does your own identity (whether racial identity or something else is up to you) factor into your life or writing or both? Is there a way for you to show this dramatically on the page?
  2. Valentine’s essay covers complicated subject matter and a long period of her life. When looking at how you’ve changed over the years, is there anything that was fundamental to your worldview when you were younger that you have a changed perspective on now? Can you describe an inciting moment for this change?
  3. Valentine does not tell us how she learned about her biological father. What artistic reasons might have led her to omit that information?
  4. Valentine describes herself as a “mixed-race African-American.” Could she have chosen a different racial self-description and self-understanding?

On the Reader

Phillip Russell is a writer living in more than one place. Currently, he is a graduate student at Ohio University, where he studies creative writing with a focus in nonfiction. When he isn’t writing, he is working on his podcast The LoonCast, which recently finished its first season. His work has appeared in the Red Cedar Review, HyperText, New River, Burrow Press, and more.