Walking home from the bus stop one night after work, my cousin died. He was walking across a street when a large, expensive car sped through the intersection and hit him while trying to make it through the yellow light. Bystanders called the ambulance and police immediately but my cousin died before he reached the hospital. He used to wear funny t-shirts with pictures of cartoon characters.
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“Are you white?” I asked her.
“Aren’t I?” she responded. She wrinkled her forehead lost in thought for a moment. “Well, is it a geography thing?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I kind of thought people are classified in broad categories like Asian, White, Black…you know.” I said.
She looked white to me; white in the sense that she had blond hair and fair skin and was from Russia. If you saw her on the street and were going to classify her, you wouldn’t have called her anything other than white.
“My father tells me that a long time ago; Turkish people conquered our part of Russia and lived there. I guess Turkey was a much bigger country back then than it is now. So maybe I’m partly Turkish. And also, there were a lot of Bulgarians living around our area some time ago. If you see my sister though, some of her features are a little like an Asian. She has smaller eyes and high cheek bones.”
I thought about this for a moment and didn’t say anything.
“I thought Turkish people and Bulgarians are white though.” I said finally. “So even if you’re part Bulgarian and Turkish, in my book you’d still be white. Oh also, I think that the Mongolians may have conquered parts of Russia back in the day.”
“So maybe I have mixed blood then?”
“Well, I’m kind of confused now. I’m not sure what race that makes you.”
“You’re confused? I’m more confused.” She looked a little worried now. “So what does it mean to be white?” She tapped the top of the table with her thumb nervously, as though my answer would change her life.
We were sitting in our office break room trying desperately to kill some time and make the day pass by faster. After all, there were no promotions in sight and we didn’t think we’d ever be motivated enough to work all the long hours required to be considered for one even if there had been some way for us to move up in the company.
There was a coffee pot in the corner with some coffee left over from that morning. It smelled good. I always find the scent of coffee to be soothing. Since it was mid afternoon, this small room with just a few tables and chairs was empty. Everyone else was at their desks probably either working hard or pretending to.
She was pretty enough. She always dressed well and I knew that most of the other men in the office had tried to ask her out. But I couldn’t think of her as anything more than a coworker or friend. That was the year my cousin had died in the accident and I just couldn’t seem to think about anything for too long without coming back to him.
“Let me ask you something,” I said. “If you see someone from Russia, another person from Germany, and someone from England, can you tell which is which? Would you know which countries they were from?”
“I think I probably would. They all look very different, you know.”
“That’s strange to me because I think white people all look very similar,” I said. I knew what I was saying wasn’t supposed to be said at work. But she and I didn’t care. We’d had discussions like this before.
“Well, you can tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people, right?” She asked.
“Yes, I think I can. Or at least I could make a pretty good guess.”
“Yeah, that’s the same with me but about whites, not Asians.”