by Jayde Emery
Nominated by Scott Poulson-Bryant for AAS 393: Flawless/Formation/Freedom: Writing About Race, Gender and Popular Culture
At the end every semester that I teach my writing workshop, I ask the students “Which essay had an impact on you?” They could cite an essay that most impressed them; an essay that they found funny; the essay that moved them. At the end of Fall 2022, Jayde Emery’s “The Only White Man in the Room” was named by the majority of students in class. Some called it “powerful”; another student said, simply, “It stayed with me.” I wasn’t surprised. Jayde’s essay is a luminous and sensitive study in personal writing. Through clear, often lyrical prose, she mines the sometimes-fraught space where self-reflection often lives. In a class organized around writing about race, gender, and popular culture, Jayde’s essay thinks deeply about racial and gender identity and how family relations inflects them in explosive and lingering ways. It’s provocative work, disconcerting in the best way, and always surprising. I often ask my students what a piece of writing sounds like. Jayde’s essay sounds like a whisper that wants to be a scream. It’s a lovely piece of work.
- Scott Poulson-Bryant
The Only White Man in the Room
It was one of those summer nights when the TV’s gone stale, and my dad was flipping through the recent releases in a passive search for something to watch. X. My mom hated horror. Uncharted. My dad thought Tom Holland was annoying in Spiderman. Everything Everywhere All at Once. I felt the goosebumps formulating on my skin and the swelling feeling in my chest as I read the synopsis. My dad clicked “play,” watched a third of the trailer, and declared himself “not interested.”
“Do you want to watch Top Gun again?” he asked my mom. “Jayde hasn’t seen the new one yet.”
My mom said okay. My face, still flushed in a pink manifestation of my pride, fell.
My father sensed an uneasiness, an impending queasiness, churning in his stomach, that he was unaccustomed to but that my mother and I knew so well. He smelled the hint of lumpia and pancit wafting through the air; he heard the sound of Tagalog, my mother’s familiar yet foreign tongue, breeze past as sisters embraced one another nearby.
“Manang,” my mother cooed, beckoning me and my father to join her across the room as she greeted her cousin’s wife. We hugged; Manang Mems gave me a kiss on the cheek. My father hung back, comfortable on a folding chair and attempting to beat the 4,576th level of Wordscapes on his phone.
“Can you think of another word I could make out of these letters?” he asked when I returned to the folding chair next to him. I didn’t want to leave him alone for too long.
“Why don’t you socialize for a bit?” I asked. “You know that mom will never stop talking. Might as well do something in the meantime.”
He responded: “I’m the only white person here.”
My mother stood at the kitchen counter, slicing tomatoes and onions. She caught the scent of barbeque, drifting into the room through the screen door. Joe Buck provided background noise, giving a play-by-play in the living room. She plated toppings and arranged condiments, discussing politics and family updates with my dad’s sister. Did you hear Naomi has a boyfriend? I can’t believe she’s all grown up. And Shasta and Greg just bought a house. It must be a nice respite after spending so much time living in the city. My uncle was bringing in a platter of burgers, Angus Beef, all American. Mom was a vegetarian, but she wouldn’t comment on the forgotten fact. She took one and set it atop a bun and a bed of lettuce. Her stomach could deal with her later.
I had met someone. We’d been dating seriously for long enough by now that I had thought about how he’d fit into my family, envisioned him at the “kids’ table” (by now overcrowded with twenty-somethings) at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, wondered what embarrassing questions my grandparents would ask him. But it wasn’t long before I realized I had plenty to be nervous about beyond my mom showing him cringe-worthy baby photos.
We were at lunch with Dad’s side of the family when my apprehension began to set in. It’d been six months since I’d seen or spoken with most of my extended family due to my move out of town, and I expected that they, having found out about my partner during that period, would be curious about my relationship. I awaited the dreaded questions that always come when you’re the young adult at the table: How did you meet? Do you think you’re going to marry him? What’s he like? What’s his family like? Let’s see a picture—we want to see what the grandkids are going to look like.
But the questions never came. What came in their place was a quip about how, if I married my Persian boyfriend, I had better be ready to wear a hijab and pop out babies while he wins the bread. I felt the knot tie in my stomach, threatening to ascend, but past experience had taught me that prolonging the conversation would be for naught. I mentally shoved it down as I politely corrected the assumption and made my way through the rest of the lunch without another word or question directed at me. By the time I’d reached the backseat of my parents’ car, the knot had forced its way up to my throat.
Once I was alone with my mother later that evening, I expressed my frustration.
“I really wish they didn’t say things like that,” I said. “If they actually met him, would they say those things directly to his face?”
I knew that they didn’t recognize their own ignorance, that, from their perspective, they were merely being humorous and lighthearted and maybe even correct. But I knew, despite their intentions, it would be disheartening all the same for him to hear, and I could not bear to bring him into that heartbreak. She replied that if he could not be good-natured about it, perhaps he was not the kind of person I should be with.
The knot tightened, and I felt my face heating up. Good-natured? She thought that my partner should be “good-natured” about comments based in stereotypes and generalizations about his culture and his background? I appreciated someone who was not quick to anger, sure, and I knew my partner was not, but for God’s sake, the man should be allowed to feel and be anything but good-natured when someone treated and talked about him in a completely uneducated fashion, when they hadn’t even bothered to ask a goddamn question!
How could she, of all people, think that? She was an immigrant, having moved from the Philippines to Los Angeles when she was just eleven years old. She had gone from stealing sugar canes in her neighbor’s yard to witnessing someone staggering out of a garage with gunshot wounds. She had a scar in her heart, left by an American-born Filipino boy who didn’t want to go to a church banquet with a “FOB” (“Fresh Off the Boat”). She went through a year-long stretch during which she barely spoke a word after being mocked for her thick accent and snickered at for spelling the word “embarrassed” wrong in her school’s spelling bee. She was always the only person of color in the room. At every birthday, holiday, wedding, family reunion—she was the one brown face in a sea of white. But while she knew every detail about every nephew and niece and sister-in-law and grandchild on my dad’s side of the family, I couldn’t remember the last time that any of them had opened up the conversation to hear about her experiences, her life, her story.
But when I pressed her on this, she brushed off my concerns. They were good to her, she said. They welcomed her with open arms, never said anything openly abhorrent to her. Three cheers for human decency, eh?
In the deep wells of my eyes, the burning sensation that I had become well acquainted with in similar conversations with my mother made itself known once again. I was not convinced of her rationale, that they didn’t know any better, that they were just acting within the context and mindset in which they had grown up in. That they were not to condemn or be challenged. The remaining sparks of my childhood admiration of my mother—my iron-willed, fiery mother—were snuffed out. Didn’t she have a limit to her grace?
Defeated, I dropped the subject. Prolonging the conversation would be for naught, and I had learned to pick my battles. But I knew we’d have the same discussion again tomorrow, again next week, and we would have it again in twenty years. We both had a hard time letting things go.
And I prayed that, during one of those conversations, she would hesitate to respond that I was being too harsh. That she would refrain from criticizing me for not being “good-natured,” for not ever knowing when I should just keep my mouth shut, for not smiling and nodding. That she would understand why I cannot accept her acquiescence—for myself or for a person that I love—because I am the one who is half in both worlds, my left foot in hers and my right foot in my father’s. That she would one day say, “enough is enough,” and she would no longer willingly immerse herself in his world while he barely takes a step into hers, stopped in his tracks by, for the first time in his life, being the only white man in the room.