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?