Memoirist Recalls Her Journey From White To Black

Aug 15, 2019

Growing up in Wexford, Sarah Valentine felt secure and loved by her family and friends. Still, there were moments: the basketball coach who assumed teen-aged Valentine was accompanied by the black woman she stood next to in line, rather than by her own father, who was white; the counselor who suggested Valentine look into scholarships for minorities.

Valentine wasn’t adopted; her family, who raised her as white, told her that her darker skin came from Mediterranean ancestors. It wasn’t until years later, at age 27, that Valentine demanded in an email that her mother level about her biological father.

Learning as an adult that she was part African-American is the subject of poet and scholar Valentine’s new memoir, “When I Was White” (St. Martin’s Press). The revelation’s fall-out for Valentine included years of anxiety, self-doubt, and adjustment both out of her old identity and into a new one.

Among her first reactions, she said, was to wonder whether she would start behaving differently, now that she had suddenly “become” black.

“I think as someone who grew up as white I had internalized so many media stereotypes and so much outsider information about what it meant to be black or African-American,” she said in a recent interview. “And I thought, ‘Well, if I've lived as a white person, is there something that will automatically change about how I am or how I interact with people?’”

There wasn’t. But Valentine’s journey was just beginning. Her mother told her that she’d become pregnant with Valentine after being raped; she’d married the man Valentine knew as her father shortly after. Valentine never fully accepted the rape story, and her attempts to unravel it consume a portion of “When I Was White.”

Valentine’s relationship with her family, which includes two brothers, was also affected, of course. Many elements of her past life were cast in a new, and unflattering light as she considered the big lie that falsified her racial identity. At one point, she writes, she wondered, “Why couldn’t we have the same experiences as a family without pretending I was white?”

"Why couldn't we have the same experiences as a family without pretending I was white?"

“That was a question that was very important to me, because in so many ways I did have a normal happy childhood and upbringing, and I always felt loved and accepted by my family,” said Valentine. “Looking back then, I thought, ‘Well, why was it necessary to maintain this silence around the fact that I was African-American? What was it about that truth that seemed so unspeakable?’ Or you know, would it shatter this happy family that we were? And that was really troubling to me.”

Another complication was Valentine’s white-dominated field of study: The Carnegie Mellon University graduate specialized in Eastern European literature -- she’s fluent in Russian – with post-graduate stints at Princeton and UCLA.

Valentine also explores what it meant to her to be black, for instance experimenting with natural hairstyles. She also changed her name, from the “Dunn” she grew up with to “Valentine.”

It was important to me to distinguish between who I was growing up and who I was an adult,” she said. “Not in a way to disavow my family in any way. We're still very close and I love them very much and I know that's how they feel about me. But just psychologically and emotionally and as a way to mark this turning point in my identity.”

"I had internalized the racism that was both explicit and implicit around me when I was growing up"

Valentine, now 41, lives in Carson City, Nev., where she is a full-time writer. "When I Was White" has debuted to strong reviews; Publishers Weekly called it "fervent and heartfelt."

In American culture’s current discussion of race, Valentine's story grants her the unusual role of a black person – she identifies as mixed-race – who acknowledges that she was once unwittingly complicit in white oppression.

“I had internalized the racism that was both explicit and implicit around me when I was growing up,” she said. “I had a lot of anti-black racism that I directed outward and that informed my worldview and who I was in the world.”

But such reckonings are necessary: Valentine said one lesson of her story is that, unlike her family, we need to talk about race.

The topic of race shouldn't be taboo,” she said. “It shouldn't be something that’s as difficult as it is, and as uncomfortable it may be for white people especially to address because of our country's history with racism.”

But she also learned to think about racial identity differently.

“There are as many ways to be black and as many variations to that identity as there are black people in the world,” she said. “I've heard a lot of stories from other people who talk about also feeling not black enough for some reason, which was an anxiety that I had a lot and still have to some extent.

“I've also come to realize that, you know, my identity is as valid as anyone else's is. It may just be different.”