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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: When I Was White by Sarah Valentine

When Sarah was 27, she learned her father wasn't her father, and that she is biracial.

With that premise, who can resist picking up this memoir? Not me! Sarah and her family were always asked if she was black, if she was mixed, if she was adopted, if she was Hispanic. She didn't look like her little brothers. Her skin was darker and her hair was frizzy and unruly. Plus her mom was always weird about things, like confiscating her Bell Biv Devoe tape. There was certainly no blatant racism in her house, but whenever Sarah showed any interest in anything overly black, including other children, it was quickly shut down. (There were exceptions for things like Michael Jackson albums, which were mainstream enough to pass muster.)

When Sarah did find out, this massive family secret, it seemed like everyone already knew. But it also was like she already knew. She'd had suspicions for a long time. She eventually just asked her mom. Even though her mother and father had gotten married before she was born, she knew her mom was pregnant when they did. But it's hard to question your paternity when you have photos of your dad in the delivery room. Also, her father, in the summertime, was often darker in skin tone than Sarah was! There were always excuses or explanations. But in the end, something was always... off. And so Sarah asked and she found out.

Well, she kind of found out. Her mother was reluctant to give her details. And what she said, changed. She wouldn't tell her the name of her father, and mostly claimed not to even know who it was. Sarah spends years asking more questions, investigating on her own, and asking around people who knew her parents back then who might know more.

In the meantime she's having to grapple with having been raised white in suburban Pittsburgh, when in fact she's half African-American. She knows next to nothing about her race, and the understanding of who she is is suddenly ripped out from under her. She has no one she can talk to about it, and has to start to try to figure out herself on her own.

As she is a college professor, the book is well written. Very occasionally, she does lapse into a tad too much detail, but it's easy enough to skim those short sections. Overall, it really makes you think about what you would do if you suddenly found out you weren't who you thought you were, and about family secrets--how they can both be so pervasive and so toxic.

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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