At the age of 27, Sarah Valentine discovered that she was not, in fact, the white girl she had always believed herself to be. She learned the truth of her paternity: that her father was a black man. And she learned the truth about her own identity: mixed race.
Valentine's pain when her mother refuses to let her attend a school dance because her date is black, dismisses black people as lazy welfare spongers who live in the ghetto or bans Valentine from watching TV shows with black people is palpable ... Valentine is at her best when we see her sift through this history, creating well-crafted scenes that resonate with depth and emotional weight in a commitment to get to the truth—even if it paints her in a negative light ... As the United States continues to become more brown and black and less white—resulting in a xenophobic backlash against brown and black Americans and a nostalgia by some for white European immigrants—the ideas in When I Was White become even more necessary. Here, quite simply, is a masterful explication on the formation of self and identity—of learning to trust yourself instead of the lies other people, no matter how close, tell you about who you are.
In this densely packed memoir, it’s not really the destination that matters most, but rather the journey itself that goes over very rough territory and asks probing questions about race, ethnicity, and racism ... honest, unflinching, and true to herself ... Valentine sheds light on the pathological American obsession with race. She shows how devastating racism can be, both for people who identify as white and people who identify as black ... goes all over the place. It might have been more focused and less all encompassing, though that would have been a challenge ... to read [Valentine's] memoir is to go through a psychological inferno. It’s not for everyone. But it can be rewarding for those who make the arduous journey.
Author Sarah Valentine is that rare person who has lived both with white privilege and without it, and her account is moving and analytically rigorous ... When I Was White is part mystery: Ms. Valentine doubts her mother’s rape story, and the narrative is driven largely by her attempts to learn who her biological father is. We also follow her through her short-lived first marriage, therapy, and early career moves in academia. But the book is most compelling as an exploration of identity.