As the daughter of two light-skinned blacks, law professor Judy Scales-Trent inherited genes that make her look white, an appearance that leaves her pulled between both sides but accepted by neither. In Notes of a White Black Woman she offers a series of essays, by turns poignant and pugilistic, about what it's like to straddle two worlds.
"Calling the categories into question troubles people," says the author, who—with skin like milk and hair like steel wool—causes a lot of turmoil. After she points out that she is black to some teaching colleagues who don't know it, Scales-Trent is called in by the school superintendent who wants to announce over the PA system that she's really black, "just to avoid trouble." When one of her black law students receives a poor grade, he writes to the university, "I don't understand why you thought you hired a black professor. She looks white to me."
Scales-Trent uses these anecdotes to show that ethnic definitions have regressed into stereotypes. In a world where many people are confronted for being outside the norm—"You don't look Hispanic," "A blond Jew?" "You're not like other Native Americans"—readers will find Notes strikes a chord, if not a sore spot. Scales-Trent ultimately refuses to feel guilty about who she is. "Don't even think of passing me a plate full of guilt anymore," she writes in this affecting collection. "Life has better things for me to eat." (Penn State, $19.50)