(TW: brief mention of sexual abuse)

Yesterday, my girlfriend Charo and I listened to two of scholar-activist Dr. Yaba Blay’s “book tour” talks online—she’s been having amazing discussions about the new edition of her book One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, which explores Blackness through nuanced historical context as well as stories and portraits of Black people who have had their Blackness questioned because of their appearance.

And I couldn’t help but think: these are such Saturn-square-Uranus conversations.

Saturn = barriers (and skin = a barrier, in both a literal and figurative sense), separation, restriction, systematization, the patriarchy, institutions, entrenched power, and one could argue—white supremacy

Uranus = shaking up, rewriting, re-imagining, the collective, revolution, futurism, disruption, all that is radical

Saturn is in Aquarius right now, and air signs = dispersion (e.g. diaspora)

Saturn in its highest form (credit to Caroline W. Casey for this characterization) = inhaling back your authority from the corners to which it’s been flung; inhaling your authority back into yourself

Saturn in its highest form doesn’t want you to abdicate your authority uncritically to some outside source. Saturn wants you to locate your authority within yourself.

In astrology, a square aspect is formed when two planets or points form a 90 degree angle to each other, and this aspect is a creative, conflicting, friction-filled, action-oriented, generative one.

Dr. Blay was talking about the Black (global, diasporic) community redefining Blackness for itself—outside of the confines, systems, and definitions of whiteness.

She’s shaking up (Uranus) deeply entrenched systems (Saturn) of value (Taurus) by inviting a diasporic community (Aquarius) to inhale back its own authority (Saturn) and redefine itself, for itself, by asking the right questions.

And I’m sure that many white people are unnecessarily threatened by this, because white culture is ultimately void culture—it fears and hates its own nothingness, since it is based primarily on an accumulation of power, a flattening out of culture, a subsuming and consuming—and it panics when it is unable to define itself. It needs Blackness, because white power has only ever been able to define itself in opposition to the Other, in a violent, binary way. I think this is one of the reasons why white people go out of their way to create problems, and why they generally seem unable to let Black people just…live their lives.

Charo and me, being real cute. Charo was the one to point out to me that my skin color actually changes drastically according to the light. Here I am at my palest, lit up outdoors, after months of indoor shelter-at-home life.

Charo and I have bonded over our differences and similarities when it comes to our complex lived experiences in navigating race.

We are both the daughters of brown mothers who come from island nations oppressed by Spanish colonialism.

Whereas Charo is never assumed to speak Spanish (and people have even questioned how she got such a Spanish-sounding name), people have assumed that I do.

Charo knows Spanish because it is her first language, and she speaks it constantly at home. Being bilingual is just a part of her life. I know Spanish because I studied it, though I’m very shy about busting it out—which confuses people even more, because I have a good accent but the self-consciousness of a non-native speaker.

We are both people who get “read” a particular way—or ways. We often don’t have the experience of someone accurately understanding our respective racial/cultural backgrounds at first glance. We are not instantly recognized as “belonging” to certain communities.

Whereas my skin tone, hair texture, and eye color have fluctuated wildly over the years, causing me to be read as many different races (Japanese, Hawaiian, Thai, Native American, Mexican, Brazilian, Spanish, Indian, French Algerian, generally “Asian,” generally “Latin American,” “half white, half something else”), Charo has been assumed to be a different race based on the context she’s in. On the east coast, she was occasionally read as Iraqi or even Indian, or—accurately—as Dominican. Here in LA, she assumed to be African American.

Charo is often assumed to be something she’s not, but no matter what she’s assumed to be, she’s subject to discrimination.

Meanwhile, I often have the experience of people reading what they want to see in me, and sometimes that means they read me as familiar (e.g. a Brazilian assuming I’m Brazilian), or sometimes as “exotic” (“I was wondering what you were! I’ve been trying to guess and just can’t put my finger on it…What are you?!”)—in other words: othered, but not in a way that will put me in danger.

I have the privilege of sometimes passing as white if I haven’t gotten a lot of sun. And a byproduct of the pandemic has been…staying inside, and out of the sun. I can think of two times in my life that someone has assumed out loud that I was 100% white, and one of those was very recently. Granted, the first time came from a drunk person on a harshly lit dance floor, and the more recent one was from a doctor viewing my face with a mask on, but interestingly, they both ended up triggering a bunch of identity feelings.

Little me, with wheelbarrow.

Why am I offended at being assumed to be “just” white? Is it because of some sort of self-hatred? A need to be special and different? An inability to sit with my own variety of white guilt? I think it’s more complicated than that.

I’ve heard some half-white biracial people say: “Accepting the non-white side of your identity doesn’t mean you have to cut off your white side, or your white parent.” The thing is: I have cut off my white parent. Because he is narcissistic and abusive, in an unchanging, pathological way. In my mind, he is associated with all the traits of toxic whiteness: entitlement, exploitation, extraction, hunger for power, appropriation, gaslighting, fragile ego, projection, lack of empathy, victim mentality, blind adherence to capitalism, misogyny, compartmentalization and repression of feelings, exotification/fetishization, believing in the false meritocracy of America, arrogance, denial, ignorance, white liberal-ness (is a registered Democrat, likes to claim the moral high ground on social issues, but is low-key racist), and an extremely narrow window of tolerance (trauma terminology meaning that he can only tolerate a very narrow range of experience before he shoots off into triggered responses like denial or anger).

He is a narcissist, and I see the distinct parallels between narcissism and the void culture of whiteness.

I was raised nearly devoid of culture, and so, in a sense, I was raised white.

In my early childhood years, there were still remnants of my mom’s Filipino culture around—in the food we ate, and the language spoken around dinners at my grandparents’ house.

Then both of my grandparents passed away, one after another—quite young. We stopped having those dinners as often. Bikol (my mom’s first language) was not really spoken. My mom had never taught my brother and I more than a few words of it, and there was no one else around to speak it to. My brother developed a soy allergy, so my mom stopped cooking her usual Filipino dishes, all of which contained soy. We lived in a neighborhood and went to a school that was white as white could be. My dad—the white patriarch—was the dominant force in the house. Centuries of colonialism and a legacy of forced assimilation had conditioned my mom, and other Filipino immigrants like her, to blend in as much as possible.

My dad had a habit, as narcissists do, of vampirically sucking my mom’s life force dry—and with it came any markers of her uniqueness. Somehow, her energy, her personality, the complexity of her heritage, her interiority, and her lived experience all became flattened out, shrunken, dismissed, ignored. At the same time, my dad acquired tokens of whatever he decided to cherrypick from her “exotic credentials”: he stole parts of her culture—or actually, something adjacent to it. Rather than engage with Filipino-ness, he decided to co-opt a Hawaiian aesthetic. Probably because it seemed more Western, palatable, shiny, and therefore attractive to him. Foreign, but not too foreign.

He decorated our home and landscaped the backyard to be “tropical.” He grew bamboo so high in the backyard that our neighbor complained. He stenciled hibiscus flowers around the top of my bedroom. He hung up paintings of Hawaiian women hula dancing. The topless one was hung in my parents’ bathroom. We went on trips to Hawaii, to stay at fancy resorts. When we were there, he complained that my mom was treated better than him by locals—who saw her face and skin color as warm and familiar. He wore Hawaiian shirts. He used a Hawaiian slur once, claiming it was actually acceptable.

He made a lei from scratch and draped it across my mom’s neck on her deathbed. She lay there, unconscious—an object for him to decorate. He tried to loop it around her neck and—with only her brain stem still functioning—she recoiled dramatically, instinctually, at his touch. He played Hawaiian music from his iPad as he ticked down the minutes to her passing.

We had long suspected my dad of cheating on my mom. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had continued throughout her cancer treatment, up until the end. We found a stash of condoms in my dad’s nightstand—despite the fact that he had a post-menopausal, extremely sick wife, who slept in a different bed on a different floor from him. What was stashed along with these condoms? A bottle of “Hawaiian” massage oil.

My best friend, who’s known my family since kindergarten, told me that she didn’t clock the fact that my dad was white until I mentioned it a few years ago. I laughed in disbelief when she told me this. How was that possible? He was the whitest person I knew.

She told me that when she pictured my family, she pictured my mom, my brother, and me. We were tan. Asian. And then my dad’s face was just a blur to her. She said she always pictured him in a Hawaiian shirt. Her brain approximated him to be half islander, almost by proxy.

From a backyard Christmas card DIY photoshoot.

I didn’t grow up around any other Filipinos. Other than my cousins, that is, who were all half white—my mom and her siblings (all seven of them in total) married white people.

I don’t look Filipino—not now. I’m whiter than I’ve ever been.

I hardly grew up with any Filipino customs (and no religion).

I am not recognized by other people of Filipino descent at first glance as being “like them.”

I can only catch about 20% of Filipino cultural references.

I never learned to speak Bikol, let alone Tagalog. There are really no resources out there on the internet to learn Bikol, and no one around to practice it with (I am not in contact with any of my family members except for my brother), and Bikol is, sadly, one of the many endangered languages dying out in the Philippines. (There are 175+ languages across the archipelago—languages, by the way, not dialects; they are more distinct from each other than French is from Spanish). The only reference I have in my possession is a skinny little dictionary given to me in childhood by a white man—some acquaintance of my parents—who had married a Filipina and retired in the Philippines, because, man, the prices there are so cheap. Go figure.

In the past few years, I’ve been learning about the history of colonization in the Philippines. I’ve also been learning about pre-colonial customs. But sometimes I tell myself that it all feels conceptual, like play-acting, like I may be trying something on that’s not really mine—all in an effort to not be “just” white.

I’ve never been to the Philippines, and my mom never went back after her family emigrated. She never really expressed a desire to reconnect with her roots—during life, or even in death. Through a psychic medium, after she passed away, I asked my mom about my conflicting feelings surrounding my heritage—hoping for some sort of response that would affirm or ground me—and instead my mom said that where she came from didn’t matter much to her, and that I shouldn’t bother worrying about my half-Filipino identity.

Incidentally, just then, the medium was interrupted by one of my guides (and I had never learned anything about my guides before)—an ancestor of mine from the Philippines, who came through strongly, saying she was ready for me to channel her for the healing of myself and others. I tried to ask more about her in a brief moment with another psychic, but she didn’t come through then, and I was filled with doubt over whether I was grasping, yet again—grasping onto something that wasn’t really mine to reclaim.

My best friend and me. We were all made to dress up for our “Hawaiian-themed” 6th grade graduation at our 99%-white elementary school.

When it comes to being half Filipino, or really just, half non-white, I’ve often said that it seems like I didn’t get any of the fun, prideful, relatable stuff, or the sense of community or belonging or history—instead, all I got was the intergenerational trauma.

Because that is the only thing I know for sure: I inherited a legacy of unhealed, unresolved, intergenerational pain. And I am doing my best to work through it.

Sometimes I look at myself and think: I was raised “white.” I look white now. Am I just white? What is even the point?

Why did I choose to incarnate into this particular body? Was there a particular purpose? Did my soul sign up to grapple with complicated issues of identity and self-perception?

Was it ultimately meant to trigger empathy for a wide range of unquantifiable experiences? Am I meant to be an undercover agent for POC causes? Am I meant to struggle with how to define myself, for myself, outside of what other people project onto me?

Is there room in the world for this internal conflict? How do I find places to discuss this? And what about the critical part of me that tells me this is trivial, this is self-indulgent, and there are bigger, more dire things in the world to pay attention to?

Lots of little Sarahs with various tans. From some school assignment where we had to make a collage of ourselves, I guess.

I am tasked with the complex prospect of holding space for all the things.

At this point in time, I look pretty white. AND I am biracial, and I have moved through the world looking like many different things.

I was raised in a middle—then middle-to-upper class—and then just upper class—family. Anyone can see that by looking at the zip code I lived in for most of my childhood. AND I still carry within me the inherited scarcity trauma from generations of colonization, poverty, and hunger. AND I know from firsthand experience that all the material security in the world cannot make up for a lack of emotional safety and love.

At this point in time, I look fairly queer. AND I lived 99% of my life being read as straight. About five years of that was spent as an out queer femme, wondering if I would ever be recognized by other queers out in the world as being “like them.”

I used to identify as bisexual. AND that is still technically true, though I grow gayer and more misandrist by the day.

I had a shiny childhood, seemingly, with every opportunity afforded to me. AND under the surface, I was grappling with emotional and sexual trauma, in an environment where I was not allowed to speak about any of it.

My parents said we were spoiled. That they gave us so much more than they had ever received themselves. AND I recognize that emotional wounds and gaps and voids still festered underneath everything—no matter how much they tried to cover them up materially. These were voids that they tacitly made me responsible for, that they expected me to tend to.

I have no memory of being physically, sexually violated by my father. AND I have nightmares, and childhood drawings and writings, as well as memories of other, less severe instances of encroachment and fetishization.

I’ve experienced privilege and confusion, opportunity and guilt, advantages and trauma.

There are no labels I can easily claim without triggering a swirl of self-doubt in my mind: POC. Filipino. Survivor. Someone who had a “hard” childhood.

My mom in the Philippines, in the midst of an objectively very hard childhood.

The short answer to the “am I just white?” question is: No, not from a basic hereditary standpoint. But what about my lived experience?

The answer is still no. The question of racial identity is something I’ve had to navigate for most of my life, and that is not something that most “just white” people have had to navigate.

Sure, I’m well-versed in whiteness, and its institutions. I was raised in a wealthy white pocket of Orange County. I went to Princeton for my undergraduate degree. When it comes to white people, I like to joke that “I know their ways.”

When I talk with a white person, do I feel that I’m just like them? No.

But do they feel like they are like me?

Sometimes white people think that me being “half” white makes me akin to them. Close to them. Familiar. Approachable. Non-threatening. A cousin. Someone “safe” to dump on, when they have messy feelings about their white guilt.

But me being half-white actually doesn’t mean that I have half of their lived experience. It doesn’t actually mean that I can relate to them.

Many white American people have grown up without having to question their whiteness. Without having to question race at all. They grew up with two parents that belonged to the same race, to the dominant group. If there was conflict between their parents, there was no racial undercurrent to the power dynamic.

Does being half-white mean that I had half of that experience? No. It actually means that I saw close-up, everyday, the legacy of colonial dynamics playing out within the theater of my own family.

And, early on, I had to navigate the gap between people’s racial projections of me and my own self-perception and identity, or lack thereof.

What is it that I share with white people? As I’ve mentioned here already, I share the fact that I was largely reared on void culture. And that makes me angry.

None of us, originally, come from void culture. Even white people can trace their roots far enough back to original cultures of some kind.

But my anger is different from that of a white person. My anger is fresher in my ancestry, and runs hundreds of years deep, and it springs from a diverse islander lineage that was arbitrarily grouped together and then deemed savage, sub-human, and systematically and violently oppressed and exploited by white colonial forces for centuries.

My anger over the robbing of culture, of identity, of history, of language, is different from that of a white person’s, and that is one of the reasons why I see a gap between their experience and mine.

Pale baby Sarah. My “normal,” untanned skin color.

White people who are just waking up to their race are especially grating to me.

And I know that part of that impatience and annoyance that I feel with them is also a reflection of the critical and unforgiving lens that I sometimes turn on myself.

It is hard for me to create space within myself for the complexity, confusion, and messiness of my identity. And so I have little space for white people navigating their own mess, which I perceive to be much less complicated than my own.

In theory, shouldn’t I be the one—out of anyone in the POC community—to have the bandwidth to talk about white guilt with white people? With all my privilege and proximity? In theory, maybe. But our experiences are much too close and yet much too far away for me to have the space for that. I’m over here trying to put my own oxygen mask on first.

Present-day, queer-presenting, white-ish-passing me.

My Saturn return kicked off last year, and Saturn has been transiting my fourth house, the house of roots, family, childhood, ancestry, home, and safety. Uranus, meanwhile, has been shaking up my seventh—the house of partnership and the Other. And they are both now aspecting my Ascendant—in other words, the point in my chart that represents my physical appearance, my outer identity, the way other people perceive me upon first impression, and the primary way in which I navigate my external world.

So, needless to say, I’ve been thinking about Roots. About the Other. About Appearance. About Identity.

All of these thoughts have poured out of me the day after the first Saturn square Uranus transit of the year. And we’ve got two more to go. I can’t wait to see what gets shaken up next.

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