Last year (and the spring semester before that) I taught at a high school that was over 50% Hispanic. The six years before that, I had been teaching in the rich white kids' schools.
One of the first things a student said to me, when I was being presented to the Spanish classes at the mostly-minority school, was "What's up with all the white Spanish teachers?" Which was a valid question -- the three other Spanish teachers in the school were white (this kid was in the Spanish IV AP class, where everyone but the teacher was Hispanic).
The kids later found out I was a little weird. Because I spoke Spanish without an accent; I was from Chile, so I was "Hispanic." But I looked "white." This was cause for great confusion from the students: "Miss, what are you? How come you're Hispanic, but you're white?"
Being in an environment where white was the minority (at least when it came to students) was definitely a new experience for me. In the other schools where I'd taught, we didn't talk about race. Because if you talk about race, it means you notice it. And if you notice race, well, that means you're a racist.
But at my last school, the kids talked about race. It was there. It was part of their lives because it was right there -- if you didn't notice it, then you were stupid. It wasn't generally qualified; it wasn't "good" or "bad," it was just there.
I don't have anything else to say about that. I just found it different. Something that stood out to me, and I thought I'd share it.
In Chile we didn't talk about these things either. When my mom and siblings moved to the US, my brother and I filled out our own school forms while my mom worked on my sisters' stuff. Name, address, phone number, date of birth...
"Mom, what 'race' are we?"
Because we looked white, but we were fresh off the
boat plane from Latin America.
After thinking about it for a second, my mom said, "Put Hispanic/Latino. That way you'll be eligible for more scholarships."
At fourteen, I didn't take notice of this. Enough to remember the conversation, so my subconscious must have known this was something I'd want to blog about later. (I'm not one of those people who remembers details of her youth. At all. I can give you the names of maybe a whopping two of my elementary school teachers. That's it. So, me remembering this convo? Significant.)
Maybe this situation started me on the path that finds race classification (on government forms) so arbitrary and construed. When I taught third grade, the first year students take the almighty Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, we had to go through our class rosters and make sure each student's race/ethnicity was entered properly. I wondered how I was supposed to know each student's race and/or ethnicity, since I was not each student's parent and therefore did not know each student's genetic history. Also, what about the two girls who'd been adopted from China? Were they Asian, because they looked it? Were they White, because they's grown up in white, upper-middle-class US suburbia?
(And, while I'm at it: race and ethinicity are not interchangeable, they are two different things. But those forms treat both words as if they were synonyms, which is further proof that these classifications are arbitrary and construed and the people making these forms and trying to classify us into checkboxes have no clue what they are doing.)
When I was in college, my mother's words came back to haunt me. Because I realized that my not-impressive SAT scores and my not-impressing GPA were not likely to be the reasons why I'd made it into the prestigious and overcrowded University of Texas at Austin: my status as a Hispanic female, a subgroup that needed me to fill its quota, was much more likely to be the culprit.
This royally ticked me off, on several levels.
- I am a person of my own, I am not a checkbox. There is a lot more to me than my ethnicity and/or gender.
- I had no reason to be in college. My first semester I made four Fs, a C and a D. And two of those Fs were in dance classes. I had not meet the entrance requirements, and my performance proved I did not deserve to be there. I was taking a hard-working, non-minority student's seat, just because of the box I'd checked.
- Affirmative action by race ignores the current problems: race no longer automatically designates socio-economic status or presence/absence of priviledge.
I grew up in a Latin American country. I am fluent in Spanish, and I can dance to salsa music.
But I'm white. With freckles. I sunburn like the dickens. (No, I'm not sure what that expression means either, but you get the point.)
I went to a private school. I've been upper-middle-class my whole life. I've never been rich, but I've never wanted for anything. No, I didn't get a brand-new truck for my sixteenth birthday (and complain to my parents they the truck didn't have a CD player... but I'm not talking about my drill-teammates...), but we always had what we needed.
I don't have an accent. The faint accent I had when we first moved to the US faded within the year, but even that, I was told, was "cute," "interesting," "sexy."
I'm tall, thin, and pretty.
I've lived a life of priviledge. I've never had the minority experience. So can I really call myself "Latina"? Can I claim that? I don't have any of the life experiences that most Latinas growing up in the US face. The only thing I share with the brown-skinned girls in my classes is that we can both sing along to Mana's songs and don't need to turn on the subtitles when we watch Almodóvar films. (See my point? None of those girls watched Almodóvar films!)
I'm going to be working with minority students again this year (different job, but similar student population). I want to be a role model for them, but I know my looks are working against me. I want them to see me as one of them, but not only do I not look it, I'm not it.
(Yes, I know -- poor little white girl, troubled by her life of priviledge. Boo-hoo.)
More on this tomorrow, because this post has gotten long enough as it is.