What does it mean to be white? What happens when your skin doesn’t match your assigned race?
My high school was participating in a diversity poll and had asked students to identify their race by a show of hands.
“Black males.” Pause, as students raise their hands.
“Black females… White males… White females.”
My heart rate increased and my palms began sweating as I mentally rehearsed the simple action of raising my hand.
I raised my hand. A soft whisper rippled through the room. My secret was out.
The reaction was understandable. Because I am pale, nearly as white as humanly possible, and my hair is a fiery orange-red. I do not appear Hispanic or Latina.
I was fifteen years old, and hadn’t fully grown into my limbs, as I stumbled across the school yard. I had heard the question: "What does your Dad do?”
The girl walking next to me stopped and waited for a response. I was trying to find a delicate way to say, “temporarily unemployed.” I began, “He isn’t-”
“Legal?” the girl interrupted. I was shocked. She continued, “Does he even, like, speak English?” I could feel heat welling up in my chest.
“He was born here,” I retorted, “and he speaks better English than you do.”
Similar questions followed. The school I attended was small, and news spread quickly. I was suddenly confronted with students and teachers questioning my legal status, literacy, first language, and what kinds of food I ate at home.
While my parents had taught my sisters and I to be proud of our heritage, I suddenly found myself questioning exactly what my heritage was. Why was there a discrepancy between my blood and my face? And why does it matter? This launched me into a quest to understand my own ancestry, and to define what it means to be mixed-race.
My father was born in Reno, Nevada. His father was American, and his mother, Colombian. He spent most of his childhood between Colombia and Puerto Rico, and while it’s true that Spanish was his first language, he learned English early enough to speak with perfect fluency. My mother, coincidentally, is fully Italian, another country of Latin descent. Biologically, I am ¼ Colombian, ½ Italian, ¼ … what? “White.” But what does that mean? My skin is white, undeniably. But Italian and Colombian can both be considered Latin.
What it means to be Latin, I found, is widely disputed. While Italy tends to be lumped with Europe and would be considered “White” by some, many definitions of Latino/a refer to where a Romance language is predominant. Italian is the original Romance language, having evolved directly from Latin in the Roman Empire. It can be considered Latin, but not Hispanic. “Hispanic” is a term reserved for cultures which use Spanish as the predominant language. It’s kind of like how a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t necessarily a square. Hispanic will, by nature, also be Latino, but Latinos may not necessarily be Hispanic.
My hometown, a small town in southern Georgia, currently has a diversity statistic of 2.3% Hispanic. I feel like I know most of them. My father was excellent at networking and connecting the Hispanic community, inviting people of diverse Latin background into our home. We shared meals, language, and laughter with people from all over Latin America.
In my home, we were all family.
It was a safe-haven where racism and identity crises were unheard of. But to the outside world, one of these things was not like the other. My sisters and I escaped blatant racist comments because of our pale skin color, a fact of which I was not made aware until the school yard incident.
I now recognize that I hold a certain amount of privilege because of being pale. Had my school not asked us to identify our race, I would have gone on blissfully ignorant of what other students must have been dealing with daily. In my experience, most privilege is that way: a simple ignorance that one is living without the weight of a particular burden.
I should have been grateful for the advantage, but I despised it. I felt like a traitor in my community. I had become obsessed with the concept of identity. When I wasn’t researching race and ethnicity, I was trying to find other redheads, people with similar religious beliefs, I even became vegetarian for a few months just to feel like I belonged to a group of some kind.
In school, I made friends easily with other minorities because that’s where I identified culturally, but I was an outsider because of my skin. Similarly, I fit in with white people because of how I look, but I could not relate to them culturally. I belonged in both groups, but fit into neither. Trying to fit my complex identity into a “Race” box at the doctor’s office resulted in a full moral meltdown. I could get away with being white, and I knew a certain standard of treatment would follow. But I clung fiercely to my roots, and endured the strange looks and questions that came as a result. And then I would feel guilty for thinking I was suffering at all compared to what my friends had to deal with.
Fitting a person’s identity fully into one category is unrealistic. In my experience, living with authenticity means expressing every part of yourself, even the parts that seem contradictory. I lived for a long time feeling like an outsider everywhere I went, like I had to be untrue to one part of myself to be true to another. But I am learning that regardless of how I present myself, my identity will not change. I might as well be myself, and do what I enjoy, no matter who’s around. I am a lot of things. I am Latina, but I’m pale. I am an introvert, but I’m also an actress. I love Jesus, but I cuss a little…
As time passed, I grew more and more comfortable with identifying as Latina. I never grow tired of asking people to guess my ethnicity. To me, Latina means proud. It means accepting myself and my heritage, my skin color aside. It means embracing my hot blood. Isn’t it red like yours? Latina means music. It means singing loudly in broken Spanish. It means my hips move before my lips do. Latina means my Colombian side and my Italian side can kiss cheeks and argue and share a table. This is something I had to understand for myself. Identifying with the Latin community means including anyone who will wrap their arms around the culture and say, “Yes. This is who I am. This is me.”
Recently, I was introduced to someone, and we began chatting.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m from New York, but I’m actually Hispanic. I know I don’t look it,” she said. I smiled, and wanted to throw my arms around her and cry, “Sister!”
“Me too,” I said, and I knew I had made a friend. I am not alone in my experiences. My story could belong to her, or any white-passing Latin person. It’s simply impossible to determine someone’s race from their face. That’s why our story matters. As important as it was for me to understand my racial identity and label myself, I realized that it truly has no bearing on my value. What used to be a source of confusion I now see as an opportunity to help educate friends and family on both sides about privilege and race.
I am an ambassador, representing a minority to a larger community where my skin is a VIP pass and my voice is not questioned. I represent no authority on race, ethnicity, cultural heritage, or biology. But I can share my story and use my experiences to help unite both communities.
Despite my DNA, despite my white face, my blood is red.