Writing about this is scary. This might also be a bit of a long one. Thanks for reading.
I have this friend I met at the IT closet at my first “real” job. Now, he’s a close friend filled with interesting ideas and even better counsel. Over the years he’s helped me make new friends, and even more consequentially, make a better me. He has a — spectacularly hilarious — habit of winking at me when I upspeak while teaching yoga. (He says I’m the authority and should sound like it.) He also refuses to accept “I’m sorry” when I haven’t done anything wrong, especially when I’m describing a personal issue I’m struggling with.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to be negative, but I just needed to talk about this.”
“Stop apologizing, it’s fine. That’s what I’m here for”
“OK, you’re right. Thank you for listening.”
“I’ll take ‘thank you’ over ‘I’m sorry’ any day.”
I’ve always been an apologizer. When I was little, my parents sent me to a therapist because I’d apologize for anything that went wrong — whether I was involved or not. Adopted kid thing, apparently. When your first mom decided she didn’t want you, you spend a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to make sure your new one likes you enough to keep you. I’ve often called it Adopted Kid Syndrome: that intense fear of rejection by people or a group you are a part of. That feeling has persisted long into adulthood, and has affected me in ways I never imagined.
My birth mother is Mexican American. But that wouldn’t be your first guess if you saw me walking down the street. Green eyes, brown hair, and skin that can get a pretty wicked sunburn if I don’t slather on the SPF. My real parents are a somewhat uniquely American mixture of Irish, Belgian, Native American, French, and German. I was a Mexican American little girl adopted into a white, middle-class family. We can talk about the immense privilege that comes with those circumstances another time.
Because you’re the Mexican
I started to learn that “Mexican” meant “different” and sometimes “bad” in second grade. On Heritage Day, we were all asked to color a replica of a flag from one of the countries our family was from. We posted them on the wall, and I saw a pattern. I saw groups of German, French, Irish, British, and Italian flags. Off to the side, I saw my lone Mexican flag and one from my classmate who had been adopted from South Korea.
Now, everybody knew. But what did they know? I wasn’t sure, because my level of racial consciousness at 9 could be summed up as “Well, I should really be into Josephina instead of Samantha. Her family is Mexican American and so am I.”
Some of my classmates saw it differently. Many of them — truly without malicious intent — brought up my “Mexican-ness” in ways that made me feel inferior, like an outsider.
“Sharpen the pencils for the group.”
“Because you’re the Mexican!”
When I got to college, some major things changed. First and perhaps most startlingly, nobody knew I was Mexican unless I told them. Everybody treated me like I was just white. I don’t match what people expect Latinas to look like. Too pale, hair too light. Walking down the street, I enjoy all the trappings of white privilege without really being totally white (unless you’re the U.S. Census Bureau, in which case we should talk about your ontology). On top of that, it’s pretty easy to argue that I’m “culturally white”, based on who my family is and where I grew up.
Strangely, this new treatment spawned a new sense of alienation for me: If I don’t look Mexican, and I’m not culturally Mexican, and I don’t get treated like a Mexican person, what right do I have to try to learn about these things or be a part of that community? Despite no one ever telling me that I didn’t belong — and in fact, my Latina/o friends have never questioned my belonging in the community — I couldn’t bring myself to attend Hispanic Student Association events. After feeling “apart” for so long, I wasn’t willing to risk certain rejection in exchange for the chance to be included.
If I don’t look Mexican, and I’m not culturally Mexican, and I don’t get treated like a Mexican person, what right do I have to try to learn about these things or be a part of that community?
Grad school was the same. Stayed away because I didn’t want to take the chance of getting rejected.
What I was afraid of
Working in the diversity & inclusion space has given me a significant deal more confidence in my identity. I spend a lot of time coaching people that their unique stories and perspectives are important. They’re interesting. They’re valuable. Turns out, when you preach it enough, you start to believe it. I’ve grown to appreciate that my mixed identity gives me an ability to put myself in lots of different people’s shoes: while I can’t completely understand everyone’s experience, my identity makes it a great deal easier.
Out of this confidence, I was inspired to take a few more chances. I’ve started “coming out” as a Latina woman. I actively tell people, both because I want them to know, and because I’m proud of it. I’m working on not acknowledging that I “don’t look Latina”, it’s my new year’s resolution. Because the truth is, I DO look Latina. I look exactly like my version of Latina, and that doesn’t negate anyone else’s version at all. It’s going to be hard: it’s an ingrained habit. I feel like I’m apologizing to white people for not being one of them and to the Latina/o community for not visibly representing them at all times.
I feel like I’m apologizing to white people for not being one of them and to the Latina/o community for not visibly representing them at all times.
But I’ll admit that I’ve been shocked recently by some of the reactions I’ve received about my new attitude. In the last year, I made my first attempt to personally join a group for Latina women. There was a comment made that I felt was mocking a group of women for their perceived ethnicity. Likely driven by my very raw sense of insecurity in that space, I lashed out.
A point I attempted to make — rather inarticulately — is that I’m both uncomfortable with assuming people’s ethnic identities based on a photograph and that I’m absolutely against criticizing people solely for their real or perceived race or ethnicity. Actions, behaviors, words: yes, absolutely. But not the fact that they happened to be born a particular color. The group decided that because of my light skin, I couldn’t understand the struggles of the other women in the group and should leave. And truthfully, they may have been absolutely right. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t feel rejection and that it doesn’t still sting.
My feelings of inadequacy about my identity aren’t very unique. I’ve been noticing more and more the questioning of light-skinned Latina/o people’s identities. The fact that it’s sometimes come from people within our own communities has been surprising. Calling light-skinned Latina/os “white”, or telling them that they are not or cannot be Latina/o. It’s untrue, and perhaps more importantly, it’s unkind. It’s just an incredible amount of wasted effort. Who am I to determine who is “enough” to qualify for a specific identity?
If you’re not aware, there is a ton of research about how mixed race people often feel like they don’t have a place in any of their identity groups. They never feel “enough” of any of their identities. Well I’m writing now to ask people — my friends, colleagues, and the people I look up to and respect — to take an extra moment when using depth of skin tone to decide if someone belongs to a particular identity group.
I won’t be apologizing for how I physically represent who I am, and I hope that you’ll help me, and others around you, to do the same.
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Lots of gratitude to my friends and colleagues who have served as editors, commenters, and moral support for writing this piece. You know who you are, and how grateful I am, but you shall remain publicly nameless.
Here, I’ve outlined a specific problem that I’ve seen deeply affect my friends and colleagues as well as myself. These viewpoints, and the pointing out of this particular difficulty, in no way negates the fact that people who are visible members of underrepresented racial and ethnic communities in our industry face a very real and very different set of challenges.