Sawyer Wilkins / by Michael Falco

Who is Sawyer Wilkins?

Sawyer Wilkins has lived in Richmond for the last couple of years attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Sawyer's father was in the Army so Sawyer lived in Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and Ohio. Sawyer's father is from North Carolina and their mother from Louisiana. They were raised religiously around the Unitarian church. Ethnically, Sawyer has British, German, Irish and some Native American ancestry. They are 24 years old and planning to attend graduate school for Business Psychology. Sawyer identifies as a transgender male and is polyamorous and pansexual. 

Excerpt from interview with Sawyer Wilkins by Whitney Dow, 2018

Q: Is there anything you want to ask me?

Wilkins: [14:56:15] No. I did think of one other thing I could share in terms of that moment that I started thinking about my racial identity. For me, there wasn’t really a moment when I thought about being white so much as there was a moment when I realized that my cultural heritage wasn’t as celebrated or visual as other cultures that have historically been oppressed in this country. And I was around fifth grade when this kind of hit. You know, teachers started focusing a little bit more on Black History Month. And, I’m pretty sure there’s a Hispanic History Month. But it might be a Latino History Month. One’s a race. One’s an ethnicity.

But the conversation I had with my mother after the first day of school that I kind of noticed that was going on, that I was like, oh, everyone keeps talking about the culture that they come from. And I literally went home and said, “Hey Mom, what’s our culture?” And I think she did her best in explaining that then. But it really wasn’t until years later that I kind of conceptualized it as the reason I don’t see my culture as something separate is because it’s treated like it’s a default, that being a white American means that most faces you see on television will look like your own. And most of the ways people speak in interactions are going to sound more like how you speak.

So, I think part of the reason that I put my own racial identity out of my mind is that I felt there was an absence of a cultural identity. I didn’t really realize that the culture that I live with, or the culture I live in, feels like it’s everywhere. It feels like it’s just the air that I breathe. And I don’t think about breathing much because there’s always air. But it is different from how other people experience their own culture in the context of living in America.

Q: That’s really interesting. And it’s interesting, the fact that we’re a couple of blocks from Monument Avenue to say, like, there’s no white culture. The main street of this town is like the celebration of white culture. And we don’t see it. It’s just a backdrop, when of course it’s not, right? So, I would love to know, what was your mother’s answer when you said, Mom, what’s white culture?

Wilkins: [14:59:06] I think I had asked her specifically about our heritage. I was kind of like, you know, people are talking about African-American heritage. And, we’re not African- American. But what’s our heritage? Where do we come from? What do people where we come from do? And how is that different from today? And her answer was pretty basic. She said that we’re Irish, German and British, that I think we have some Native American in our family. And after that conversation we did start getting involved in a few more community activities around that.

But for the most part, she said that because we as immigrants came over sooner than other nationalities, and also because of the way we came over, which was kind of a delicate way of putting “We weren’t slaves.” We see our culture everywhere. She was kind of trying to find a way. I think she brought up examples like—I’m going to mispronounce gingham. That might be how you pronounce it. But she brought up examples of, like, Christmas trees and gingham cloth and things that are very German, or British, or French that we just don’t think of as being part of that culture because they came here first. They defined the culture. And then everyone else just kind of tried to find a way on top of that or around it. But it takes up the most space.

So, we don’t have to think about our own heritage or our own culture because it’s taking up so much space. It’s part of our everyday life. And it’s really not until we interact with other cultures and other people from other cultures that we see there are different ways of life. I probably said it in more words than she did. But I think that was kind of a defining moment for me, seeing the value in interacting with people from different cultures. Of just this notion that, oh, I’m not going to see how I’m different unless I see someone different. And it made me a little bit more excited about the really intimidating experience of meeting someone who doesn’t automatically have all of this cultural capital of how to treat you and how to speak to you.

Interview Transcript