Opinion What pretending to be a White guy taught me about privilege

(Molly Magnell for The Washington Post)
(Molly Magnell for The Washington Post)

Annabelle Tometich is a journalist and restaurant critic in Fort Myers, Fla.

I spent 15 years pretending to be a White guy.

For more than a third of my life, I wrote restaurant reviews under the pseudonym Jean Le Boeuf — as one in a long line of Le Boeufs at the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla. The name dates to 1979 and has been handed down critic to critic. Le Boeuf could, in theory, be anyone. That was the point. But if my inbox served as indication — where emails started “Dear Sir” and “Cher Monsieur” — most readers assumed Jean was a dude. A French dude.

I liked being a French dude. Perhaps because I’m not at all a French dude. I’m a half-Filipina, half-Yugoslavian/English/Canadian woman, born one year after Le Boeuf was created in the same place he was created: a city named for a Confederate colonel.

Being who I am in a place such as where I’m from can lay the groundwork for one hell of an identity crisis. And with the 2020 U.S. Census numbers showing more people counted as multiracial than ever before — 33.8 million, compared with just 9 million in 2010— I’m confident I’m not alone in having experienced one.

My racist White grandmother called us grandkids “Mongoloids,” told us to stay out of the sun so we didn’t become “negroes.” My Filipina mother hated her, but that didn’t stop my mom from pinching our flat noses, trying to make them thinner, more mestizo (i.e., European) and less indio (i.e., Filipino).

My White father was the one person in our family who didn’t care about race. He relished his mom’s meatloaf and his wife’s lumpia. He relished food in general. On Friday mornings, he’d read me the latest restaurant review — “Let’s see how many stars Jean gives this place!” — and I’d lean over my bowl of Chex, eager to learn from the almighty Le Boeuf.

Not caring about race, I now realize, was my dad’s privilege — a privilege I spent 15 years chasing.

My father died when I was 9. When I graduated from college and skipped medical school to work as a line cook, it was his long-lost voice that answered my mother’s frantic screams of “Why are you throwing your life away!?”

“I just really like food,” my father and I told her.

Cooking turned to catering, which led to a part-time job at the News-Press. When a prior Le Boeuf left, I pounced. When I got the job, I was overjoyed. I’d always been seen as Brown, as mixed, as never quite enough. But as Le Boeuf I could wield the ultimate power: Whiteness.

“One of the greatest underrecognized privileges of Whiteness might be the license it gives some to fail without fear,” the critic Adam Bradley recently wrote. I get it. As Le Boeuf, I was fearless.

Annabelle Tometich discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

I railed against rubbery deviled eggs and tired fusion concepts. I did so knowing no one would mansplain to me what eggs should “really” taste like or troll me with some “Stick to Chinese food!” nonsense. I told people where to eat, and they listened. This was power as I’d never known it.

But this power came at a price: my identity. That price felt cheap at first. I’d never embraced my identity. Why start now?

Over time, though, I began to see how steep the price was. I spoke to Rotary clubs who listened politely before asking: “But do you know Jean Le Boeuf?” On my seldom-used résumé, I wrote “restaurant critic*” then tried to succinctly explain why I wrote under the name of a fake Frenchman.

When the News-Press acquired the neighboring paper and added a second Le Boeuf position, I waited for reporters to pounce as I had. The only person to show interest asked the question that had never crossed my mind: “Why can’t I use my own byline?”

At first I wanted to tell them how much the name means to this town. How we all grew up reading and loving Jean. But at some point, I realized no one needed him more than I did. The name’s power and privilege had consumed me. I’d gone from never being enough, to being no one.

So earlier this year, I did something that struck pure fear into me: In an essay, I revealed myself as Jean Le Boeuf. I waited for readers to unleash on me, to accuse me of killing a local icon. The first email I received was addressed: “Dear Ms. Tometich.” The next: “Hi Annabelle!” I didn’t get hate mail. People wrote “thank you” and “great job.”

For the first time in my professional life, I felt like I belonged.

Belonging, connecting — that, I have learned, is true privilege. I’m not exactly fearless in this new life, but I’m no longer afraid to be myself. To my fellow multiracial Americans, I say: four stars. I highly recommend it.