It is hard to imagine how mystery writer Gail Lukasik must have felt when she discovered at age forty-nine a secret her mother likely hoped would never be uncovered–that she was passing for white. In her recent book, White Like Her, Gail writes that her mother left New Orleans as a mixed-race young woman to begin a new life as a white woman with a white husband in Ohio. She never looked back, keeping up the deception for the rest of her life.
Her mother’s racial deception exacted a steep psychological toll. For example, Gail writes about a few of her mother’s perplexing behaviors such as never going out in the sun without a hat and applying foundation to her face before bed. Gail also notes that her mother was depressed throughout her life, with the depression only easing after her husband’s death.
Most curious for Gail was that her mother seldom discussed her life in New Orleans, and didn’t possess any pictures of her grandfather. When Gail asked why they couldn’t visit New Orleans, her mother would reply that it made her too sad and change the subject. Gail’s grandmother was the only member of her mother’s family she met as a child. Her grandmother could easily pass for white and undoubtedly supported her daughter’s racial deception.
White Like Her describes Gail’s long and arduous journey learning about her maternal ancestors. It is a fascinating story because it is written from her perspective as a white woman who had no idea she was of mixed racial ancestry. Her discovery that both of her maternal grandparents were listed as ‘colored’ ‘mulatto’ ‘white’ or ‘black’ depending on which census record she checked, and that her mother was listed as ‘colored’ on her birth certificate was shocking.
As she wrote in her book, she went into the library as a white woman, but with the new knowledge about her racial ancestry, she emerged from the library not quite certain of who she really was anymore. When Gail confronted her mother about her racial ancestry, at first she denied it, but then made Gail promise not to reveal her secret until after she died. In one of the most vivid descriptions in her book, Gail writes that her mother seemed to shrink into the chair upon being told that her secret had been discovered. It was a powerful testimony to the role of race in shaping her mother’s life.
I enjoyed White Like Her for several reasons. First, Gail’s story reminded me of conversations my Louisiana relatives often had about people they knew who passed as white and who lived during the same time period as her mother. Second, I admire Gail’s tenacity and courage to seek the truth about her mother’s ancestry, and her own racial heritage even though this knowledge would undoubtedly alter her sense of self. Third, stories such as these add to the knowledge base about racial fluidity in America. Finally, White Like Her is yet another example of how racism diminishes all of us…a truth well worth the reminder.
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