Sarah Valentine’s educational path was focused on Russian literature and creative writing. With a B.A. from Carnegie Mellon and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton, she was fully prepared to make her name in academia. However, after teaching literature and creative writing for twelve years at Princeton, UCLA, UC-Riverside and Northwestern, she finally confronted her personal heritage by writing a memoir entitled, When I Was White. Raised as a “white girl” in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, her life turned inside out when she learned that her biological father was a “black” man who assaulted her “white” mother in college.

At this supercharged time in American race relations, Stay Thirsty Magazine was very pleased to visit with Sarah Valentine at her home in Nevada to learn more about her perspective of growing up “white” and the consequences of discovering that she was, in fact, biracial.

STAY THIRSTY: In your memoir, When I Was White, you vividly recount the life you were brought up to lead and the reality you came to know. What was the one moment when everything changed for you and how traumatic and life-changing was it?

SARAH VALENTINE: Everything changed for me during the phone call I had with my mother when she explained she had been sexually assaulted in college and that the perpetrator, who would become my biological father, was black. On one hand, I was relieved to find out that I was mixed-race and that there was a logical reason for all of the experiences I’d had throughout my life when others assumed that I was African American. On the other hand, the knowledge was traumatic and jarring because of the circumstances of my conception, the fact that my family had lied about my race and identity for so long, and because I now had to go about the difficult and confusing task of fundamentally changing my self-conception.

STAY THIRSTY: Race in America has been an issue since the country was founded. During the past two and a half years, old wounds have been re-exposed by divisive politics and heated rhetoric. How do you feel as a person who identified as white because of your upbringing but now accepts her African American origins as you walk down the streets of America?

SARAH VALENTINE: The fact of my white upbringing does not impact how I feel about or experience racial discrimination now. I am intimately acquainted with the coded rhetoric whites use to express racist beliefs without stating them outright, but the blatantly racist rhetoric, that has surfaced in the last few years, does not hide behind euphemisms. The years since 2016 have been frightening for all non-Christians, immigrants, and people of color in this country, and as I walk down the street, I am acutely aware of my racial difference and the potential violence that could befall me or someone like me at any time. That need for constant vigilance as I go about my day is emotionally and psychologically taxing, and it is an added burden that few white people experience in their day-to-day lives.

STAY THIRSTY: On a personal level, how does racial identity impact your relationships and your career?

SARAH VALENTINE: My racial identity affects every aspect of my life. When I identified as white, I was oblivious to the racial dynamics playing out around me and, ironically and sadly, to those that affected me directly. To identify as a person of color in America is to recognize how your body is perceived by the people around you in all personal, professional, and social settings. I have found that I cannot form deep relationships with people who exhibit the same tone-deafness or obliviousness to matters of race as I once did because I now understand how damaging those attitudes are. For years I dismissed the racism and microaggressions that I experienced as isolated incidents unconnected to how people perceived me. It took years for me to process my pain, anger, and grief once I acknowledged that those experiences were part of our society’s systemic racism and that, as someone with a racialized body, such experiences would follow me for the rest of my life.

Sarah Valentine

STAY THIRSTY: You recount the anger you felt at your family upon discovering your true biological history and at the discrimination you experienced from others that seemed unjustified prior to that time. How have your experiences changed you as a person and how has discovering that you have Bipolar Disorder complicated your view of who you really are? Was writing this memoir therapeutic for you?

SARAH VALENTINE: Writing the memoir was creatively and personally therapeutic for me. I experienced many ups and downs as I revisited the most difficult and painful events of my life, but at the same time, organizing those events into a narrative helped me gain distance and clarity in my feelings. Growing up my racial identity had been marked by erasure. In writing the memoir I knew my experiences would never again be erased. Discovering I had Bipolar Disorder helped me make sense of yet another aspect of my identity as someone struggling with mental illness. I realized I needed to care for myself and protect my emotional wellbeing rather than cater to others’ beliefs about who I should be. As difficult as my journey through multiple identities has been it has made me more confident about who I am and has enabled me to own the complexities of my identity no matter how confusing or unusual they seem.

STAY THIRSTY: Family secrets and hidden pasts are not unique to you and your family. Does forgiveness play a role in your future? Does acceptance of truths and incorporation of them into your self-worth free you from the hostility you felt at having involuntarily lived a lie? Are there broader societal lessons that can be gleaned from your experiences?

SARAH VALENTINE: One of the most difficult aspects of my identity transition was learning to forgive myself for having been caught up in a colossal deception and for having internalized racist views. Even though I was an unwitting participant in my family’s lie, I had to work through the shame, guilt, self-loathing, anger I felt going along with their denial. I had to work through what it meant that for most of my life I had passed as white. I have come to accept that my story does not have the neat all-has-been-revealed ending I hoped it would. I have accepted the messier and perhaps more realistic fact that my personal history is made of fragments, conflicting accounts, and lingering racial tensions in my family. Paradoxically, these rather disappointing truths have strengthened my sense of self-worth because they freed me from my sense of obligation toward my family and my need for their validation. Discovering my identity as a black and mixed-race woman and creating community with those who relate to my experiences and share my interests as a writer, educator, and artist has smoothed the rough edges of my feelings about my upbringing. As adults we are responsible for becoming the people we want to be, and my experiences have empowered me to embody the best, most authentic, version of myself.

The broader lesson we can learn from my experience is that, even though we have long acknowledged race as a social construct, it remains a force that shapes people’s lives, sometimes fatally. Race shapes how Americans relate to one another; it shapes our society’s laws, cultures, and institutions. I’ve often heard that if we just stop talking about race it will go away. My experience proves that is not the case. If all we needed to do to end racism was stop acknowledging it, my claim to whiteness would have never been contested. Instead, I was constantly made aware of my difference in my mostly white community. My parents’ staunch refusal to acknowledge my race did nothing to change that. The antidote to racism is not color-blindness as it exists today. Looking squarely at racism and acknowledging the mechanics of white supremacy and white privilege that keep it afloat is crucial as our society strives for equality and justice for all.

(Photograph of Sarah Valentine credit: Marcello Rostagni)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.