suddenly, i woke to discover a white man in my bed. Once I got over the initial shock, I took a closer look and realized that the stranger sleeping in my bed really wasn't a stranger at all. He was my husband of seven years. Why had it taken me all this time to realize he was white? Why did this realization hit me at this precise moment? Would this awareness somehow change the nature of our relationship, hurt or even end our relationship? He -- the white man in my bed -- slept through my minor brainstorm. As I threw the covers off and opened my eyes to the bright sunlight filling our bedroom, I started thinking about my realizations. In the process, I couldn't help but notice the whiteness of the man in my bed. His skin was more than just white; it also had a translucent quality. Just beneath the surface of his skin I could see the blue traces of his veins, the purple fibres of his muscles and the delicate red etchings of his blood vessels. Lying next to him, I could see how truly yellow my skin is, with an opaque richness that hides everything beneath its surface.
White skin, I thought, is different in other ways. Sunlight scorches it faster and with more vengeance than it does other skins. It is injured more easily and takes longer to heal than other skins. I looked at my arm where there were scratches from our cat: they are no longer visible. I looked at the white man's skin: the scratches were still there even though we received them at the same time. What is it about white skin that puts me on edge?
Then I remembered. The night before, the white man and I had gone for drinks and dinner at the home of a distinguished Canadian poet who is also white. I didn't want to go, but I went to show the white man that I support him. After all, he had spent nearly every weekend of the last month going to rallies, marches and conferences for yellow, red, brown and black people.
"These people," he told me, "are very important. They can help me publish more poetry and reach wider audiences."
It began auspiciously enough. There was the mandatory ritual of "Welcome to my home. Let me take your coat." We were having a good time discussing our various travels around the world, the weather and the quirks of our respective cats.
Then conversation moved on to the Ontario minister of culture's new initiative to fund arts, filmmakers and writers who have traditionally been excluded from participating in the cultural life of the province. Everyone in the room except me was white. Everyone in the room, with the exception of me and my husband, disagreed with the objectives of the new program.
They didn't like them because they meant that the ministry of culture would stop funding existing writers, most of whom were white. But the white men and women in the room were not willing to own up to this. Instead, they claimed that aboriginal, francophone, immigrant and visible minority writers do not produce quality work.
I challenged these people on their notion of what was quality. "What I am suggesting," I patiently explained, "is that the writers' community in Canada excludes non-white people. It judges the quality of literature in terms of white European or North American literary traditions. When it does embrace non-European or non-North American cultures, it does so by appropriation. You invalidate non-white writing because it focuses less on the intellectual European tradition and more on personal experiences, which most non-white literary traditions -- aboriginals, African, Asian and Caribbean writing -- value."
The responses ranged from "I don't know what to say -- you're right -- but I don't know how to change them," to "It's certainly interesting, but you don't know anything about the writers' community." The distinguished Canadian poet, though, thought it was time to put me in my place. "I don't see," he said angrily, "what gives you the right to come here and call us all racists."
""I didn't come here to call you racists," I replied. "But when racism comes up, I call people on it."
"Why did you bother coming, then?" was the nasty rejoinder.
"That's like saying that because I'm yellow I should stay in Yellertown. You're all racists. I'm leaving." Tears flooded my eyes.
As I walked out the door, I realized there was a presence behind me. It was a white man. The white man I came with. Then I felt sorry for him, sorry that I might have damaged his career as a writer.
Later, the white man woke to find me watching him and thinking. Pulling the covers closer and squinting his blue eyes against the sunlight, he grinned and said, "It's early, go back to sleep." He reached for me and pulled me close. He was no longer a white man. He had become my husband again.
He dozed off but his arms were still around me. Even sleeping, his white body exudes a strength that is foreign to me. As I walked down the hall to the bathroom, I pondered the source of his strength. I turned on the shower. Stepping into the steamy spray, I soaped myself. As I watched, the white bubbles slipped from my breast, making my body seem white.
I wondered if it is the whiteness of his skin that gives him the sense of belonging he possesses. No one questions his right to be there. He can make what he wants out of his life. No one will say that all white people are like that because he's like that.
Later that evening the white man returns to my bed, and I don't know what to do with him. "Is my being yellow a problem for you?" I ask. "No, not really. Is my being white?"
"Yeah, sort of," I reply. "It sometimes creates conflicts for me. Like last night. I wonder -- marriage is hard enough."
"It'll be OK. Let's take it one day at a time, all right?" he says.
He becomes my husband again. The questions of interracial marriage still wander in my mind. I will think of them another day.
on the record
Excerpted from Talk About Identity: Encounters In Race, Ethnicity And Language, edited by Carl E. James and Adrienne Shadd (Between the Lines)