I am not white and yet I feel white. Some might say, I am brown or olive skin. Though to me, being olive makes me sound like I’m green around the edges. I’m not, of course.
Whatever I am on the outside, I can tell you that inside I feel as white as the driven snow. I am first generation American. Born in this country and raised by parents who’d moved here from Venezuela to a neighborhood that was largely white.
I don’t have a Spanish accent like Maria or Anita in “West Side Story,” though we all know that Natalie Wood as Maria was faking that accent. Whereas, my accent is typical New York. It’s real and it’s something I wear like a badge of honor.
I grew up in a Caucasian world, learning tennis in the summer—I was awful at it—playing Beethoven on the piano—I was average, but I enjoyed it to no end—and taking bike rides along the Long Island coast, something I loved very much. I also reveled in visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reading “Jane Eyre” and reciting Shakespeare sonnets to my first boyfriend.
That was me.
Sure, in my home Spanish was the primary language. I can roll my “r’s” with the best of them and I’m practically fluent. But out in my neighborhood with friends, it was English all the time, which is my language of choice.
My mother would often prepare for us arepas and empanadas, staples of my family’s culture. But on Fridays, we ate what most good Catholics ate: warmed up frozen fish sticks. We’d dine on Salisbury steak, peas and mashed potatoes when spending the day in the city, and school lunches pretty much consisted of cream cheese and deviled ham sandwiches. Very bland, very white and extremely tasty to my young palate.
We didn’t watch Spanish language TV—I don’t think there was any available then. But we did watch the “Smothers Brothers,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Mary Tyler Moore” of whom my brother once said reminded him of me. A sweet compliment if ever I heard one.
Only once did anyone ever ask me if I was “colored.” I was aghast at the question and also crushed by it, but I plowed on and hung out at the mall with friends who had names like Wendy, Carol, Melody and Elizabeth. I developed school crushes on white boys named Cliff, Fred and Jeff.
It was a culture shock for me when I first went to college at a school that was mostly white but had just started its affirmative action program and when it accepted me, lumped me with all the other minority students–largely Puerto Rican, Chicano and African American. We weren’t housed in a dorm but in a large Victorian house on the edge of campus. Far removed from the hub of activity. It was there that I first became consciously aware that I wasn’t white, and got into a fist fight with an African American girl in the process.
And then it hit me. I’d been living in an identity that wasn’t necessarily mine and yet I felt out of sorts with the identify that was supposed to be mine. It’s a conundrum I’ve lived with ever since. Suffice it to say, that today the person I am is somewhere in between both worlds, making the most of this balancing act.
During a road trip to a conference on diversity, earlier this summer, I had an epiphany. My traveling companion, who is Asian, mentioned to me that she felt white inside, having grown up, like me, in a white community.
And when she said it, I felt relief. Suddenly, the floodgates had opened and I could talk about my own identity issues with her. I’d been living with a bit of guilt for feeling as I did, more white than Latino at times, but now I knew it didn’t matter. It is what it is and it’s okay to honor all the layers of my identity.
Though I am now at peace with who I am, I must admit that I often find jarring how it seems others perceive me. Those who don’t know me seem to see me as Latina first. It’s most noticeable when I’ve joined dating sites and soon realize that the white guys who are my age and who I’m interested in, generally aren’t interested in me. After all, I’m not white in appearance, and it seems to be hard to see beyond the color of my skin.
Hard to explain, but there you have it. One thing’s certain though. No matter how I see myself, I take comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one whose identity doesn’t always match up with skin color.
How about you? Where do you fall on the spectrum of life?
Monica, I appreciate you calling it how “you” see it – that is, how you perceived this incongruence between how the world sees us, how we see ourselves. I was reading and couldn’t perceive intellectually, why these experiences you mention gravitating toward, where deemed “White.” I was processing them not as “white,” but as preference for experiences that might have simply fed your soul. I didn’t get that there was this denial of who you knew yourself to be at all.
Lord knows I can hardly look White, nor would I ever want to, but I always had an appreciation for my own culture, as well as what others perceived as “white,” -certain literature (Jane Eyre for example, though not Jane Eyre alone 😉), classical music and theatre (though I can still appreciate a HipHopera), walks along the shore, and sitting beneath a starry night sky.
While I consider that I am simply feeding my soul what it might crave, that I am reaching for something that I believe inherently speaks to me, others will interpret my actions as an identity crisis of sorts. I know exactly who I am, and that is, the product of all of my experiences and exposures. Can’t help it if I happen to like stuff I’m exposed to or believe I should very well have full access to, now can I?!
There’s no getting around who we truly are! The world will quickly set us straight even through its blurry lens. But who we truly are is nuanced, complex, layered, a composite of our nationality, with ethnicity, and more importantly, our soul vibrations -what we are inclined to enjoy, dislike, gravitate toward, make us feel a certain way, how we respond to the world we live in, and how it responds to us, etc. Who you are is beautiful and whole, regardless of how others see and/or characterize you to be.
I’m not even sure what it means to be white, given the ethnic — and rich — mix that encompasses the majority of our population, and Christian Zander did a wonderful job of spoofing ‘Stuff White People Like’ in a blog that became a book. But that’s not the point here — it’s your self-identification, and the jolt of not realizing that others may see you differently that touches me. In the best of all possible worlds, we’d be color-blind and thankfully many of us are. Not enough, by a long shot.
Monica, it’s like you were writing about me. Although our stories are slightly different, you could very well be me. I grew up in South East Asia where British colonization, in spite of Independence, influenced almost everything we did; attending private christian all-girls schools, learning to play tennis and piano – I had British examiners from the Royal School of Music and the Royal School of Music and Drama judge me. I did not enjoy piano, although I progressed to 8th grade. Drama I loved and even won an island wide competition playing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion. Shakespeare, Shaw and Wilde were our constant companions, while we analyzed Tennyson, Byron and Wordsworth.I took Classics, French and Ancient Civilizations my first year of high school. I am the color of milk chocolate or cafe au lait. I never wore my color.
I moved to Australia. My parents were diplomats, so the move to a High School with kids from the diplomatic community should have been easy. Starting a new school at 16 wasn’t. I still didn’t wear the color of my skin though, it was never needed until I was crossing to school one day and this man in a big truck yelled at me to watch where I was going .. you stupid, black b****.. were his exact words. I noticed my color then. I was forced to wear it. Although my school community was supportive and growing up in Australia, I never did have to wear my color again. I have been white on the inside for a long time. Philosophically, I’m eastern but with everything else I’m white, I think that way, I speak English, heck I sound like an Australian most of the time or English I guess. I am fluent in my native tongue although my kids aren’t and would like to learn. I’ve sort of been on the periphery all of my life.
We could talk so much more about it, you and I…
Thank you, MM, for your carefully thoughtful response. You could’ve turned this into a post of your own! I had no idea how similar our upbringings were. Kismet my friend. Serendipity. No wonder there’s so much I love about you. And to know you played Eliza Doolittle? Well, that’s just one of my favorite plays! I always wanted to act, but alas the one time I auditioned for a school play, I tanked. I was on the scenery crew. I spent the first half of my life not wearing my color. I guess I first had to grow into it.
I’m olive skinned and skin colour is not something that comes up in conversations, ever! I’m not blind though. I see who you are first, irrespective of your skin colour. I understand that skin colour is an issue for some, and I’m not ignorant about how it can trigger all kinds of emotions in people, be it good or bad ones. I just believe that skin colour shouldn’t be an issue in the 21st century and beyond. The mere fact that it still is, just shows how little intellectual and emotional growth humanity has had over the years.
You’re right. Skin color shouldn’t be relevant and I know (at least, I feel) that those who know me, don’t see me for my color. But lately, I’ve been thinking about it. Not only because of my friend who brought it up, but because when Trump talks about building a wall, I feel that he means me, too. Even though I was born here so many years ago.
Monica, what an interesting post! You remind me of my mom, born of Italian immigrants and blessed with a lovely olive complexion (she could sunbathe all day, whereas my pale Irish skin required sunscreen, or I’d turn into a lobster!). She, too, grew up “white inside.” From things she’s said, it couldn’t have been easy facing the name-calling and discrimination. I never faced any of that; however, surviving it imbued her with a toughness that perhaps I don’t have.
America is a melting pot of races, ethnic groups, cultural groups. Instead of splintering apart and focusing on our differences, we need to unite and celebrate our differences. It’s those unique traits that bring so much to the table. After all, gumbo without rice, shrimp, basil leaves, and spices is merely warmed-over water!!
I’m glad you found this post of interest. Wasn’t sure how it would be received. Like I said in the post, not something I talk about, but yet am very much aware. It is because of the feeling of being somewhere in between two cultures that I never fully feel part of either. Yet on the other hand, I can also, when I set my mind to it, blend in. And that my friend, is the essence of my perplexity. Where do I belong? That, I cannot say. Sigh.
Great post Monica.
I am simply me.
As for how I judge other people I don’t honestly give a rats rear end what colour people are.
It what the person is inside that’s important not the colour of the wrapping. That’s like saying I won’t eat a chocolate because it’s in a red wrapper and I prefer blue.
Over the years I have come across people who obviously are racial, for want of a better word (Narrow minded bigot would perhaps be a better description), but each summer they went on holiday to get a tan and turn their skin brown. I could never work out the logic in that.
We are what we are Monica and I don’t care about how other people judge me, it’s how I judge myself and feel about myself that’s important.
It’s wonderful that you don’t judge folks by their color. But somehow, here, it’s ingrained in our American psyche. To be honest, aside from my experience in college, I never felt as judged by the color of my skin as I did when I moved here to San Diego. I feel that much of it has to do with our proximity to the US-Mexican border and the stereotypes that penetrate the culture here as a result of that. It’s been eye-opening for me.
People are often judged by how they look not by who they are. Somebody once said irrespective of colour if you cut us open we are all the same colour inside.