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My Year in White

A sociology professor records her experiences.

Freeform by Duy Huynh

Initiates into the Santeria priesthood must wear only bright white clothing, and forgo alcohol, parties, dancing, being photographed, touching adult noninitiates, and enjoying public spaces. A sociology professor records her experiences....

In the days immediately following my initiation into the service of the Orisha in the Lukumi religion, I wrote very little, though I have fragments of memory from that time. I remember clearly the brightness and confusion of the supermarket on the first day I was freed from the seven-day ceremonial seclusion.

Newly bald, covered head to toe in white layers—a long white skirt; chokotos (ankle-length pants); a roomy, long-sleeved blouse; and multiple head coverings—I was extremely self-conscious about my appearance. I worried about the ubiquitous mirrorlike surfaces on car and shop windows. My godsister told me not to be concerned, to just forgo focusing on the reflections I was obligated to avoid during my first few months of the year in white.

I recollect also the tentative, awkward way I moved about the public space, as if I really was taking the first steps of a new life. And I remember at the airport the next day, on my journey home across the country, feeling both unsettled and excited by the great numbers of people around me, enthusiastic about the sense of fresh potential, empowered to have passed through security so seamlessly despite my bizarre dress, musing about whether it was a coincidence or if I enjoyed mystical protection during the yaworaje, the year in white that follows the kariocha initiation in the Lukumi tradition. Once I recovered somewhat from the initial shock of the year in white, I began to write regularly in my journal. I recorded people’s reactions to me and my responses to them. I noted the internal changes I sensed and the external changes I found difficult, wonderful, frustrating, liberating, and transformational.

A month into my year in white, I made the trip back to the West Coast for another godsister’s ocha ceremony. As the most recent initiate of my Santeria godmother, I was required to accompany my godsister on the trono (throne) during part of the seven-day ritual, just as one of my godsiblings had attended me. In transit to my madrina’s house, I wrote the following in my journal:

As I was buying water and chocolate at the airport kiosk, the cashier said to me, “My cousin did that; the whole white thing.” I noticed her possibly Cuban appearance and I smiled. “But she’s little,” the clerk continued, gesturing to indicate a small child. Not knowing what to say, I smiled again and thought about how in some multigenerational communities today it’s not uncommon for children to undergo the priestly initiation. I wondered how different my experience would have been with the year in white if I had been raised in the religion. I also noticed the careful way the cashier had spoken, choosing words that carried no stigma or even any cultural or religious reference easily identifiable to an outsider.

Such a positive interaction with a cultural insider was much more comfortable than most of my dealings with strangers. Only two days before, in the mechanic’s shop, I endured a more typical exchange:

Holding a coupon, I stepped up to the guy with a nametag. “Are you a chef?” the mechanic labeled “Larry” queried enthusiastically. I hadn’t yet come up with a good response to this common question. “No,” I said. “I’d like the 75,000 mile service.” I just wanted to get my car in the queue so I could complete my business in a timely fashion.

Or consider the interaction I had with a middle-aged woman while waiting for the elevator as I was leaving the laundromat in the basement of my building:

“That’s a lot of whites!” she exclaimed, waving her hand toward the large laundry basket I set down. “Yes,” I said. “I mean that’s really a lot of whites!” she persisted enthusiastically. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that many.” I considered what and how much to tell her. I settled on: “It’s all I wear lately.” “Well, it’s a great time of year for it,” she opined. I made some sort of noise indicating agreement and I wondered how things would change in the cooler months. Would I be noticed more because my fashion was out of season? Or would people around me have become used to my appearance by then?

Journal entries like these helped me process the everyday adventure and drudgery of the year in white.