Saturday, August 29, 2009

Some thoughts on race, ethnicity, and what I am

A few weeks ago, I saw this video on Literanista's blog:

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.


  1. But you are in a hard place, Criss, so give yourself some credit. You may be white and have freckles, but you are still Hispanic. There are people of every race and color who are Hispanic. Cameron Diaz, for example. There are Asian Hispanics ( and black Hispanics (Dominican Republic).

    When your students don't understand how you could be white and Hispanic, maybe you could show them pictures of you and your family in Chile. Talk about the racial and ethnic makeup of Chile. Lots of teachable moments there.

    As far as affirmative action, well, I assume you got your act together and graduated? UT-Austin is a public school, isn't it? I wouldn't feel all that bad. You are doing your part for society, teaching and trying to enact change in the "small strokes" as Ashley would say. I think I understand what you're saying, that AA needs reform, but just by talking about it, you're helping work towards that change.

    The race "categories" (for lack of a better term - it's Sunday, my brain is resting) are ridiculous and need re-thinking. So many children now fall into the bi or multi-racial category. Even President Obama is bi-racial. Actually, I find it really strange that many people, such as Pres. Obama, Melissa Harris-Lacewell & Liza Donelly (@blogdiva), say they are African-American "but their mother is white". Aren't they part white, too? Far be it for me to tell someone how to define his or her race and ethnicity, but this still seems strange to me.

  2. Great post, Criss, with some very interesting observations. I look forward to the follow-up!

  3. I've been thinking that my bi-racial comments seem pretty judgmental so if they come across that way, I apologize. Like I said, it's not my place to define someone else's race or ethnicity. I think I'm annoyed because I want these so incredibly awesome people to say they are part-white so I can be just a little bit more like them. Yes, I'm projecting. *sigh*

  4. I think "white" doesn't mean a something, it's just kind of "I'm not anything else." Which is why so many USians identify themselves as Irish, German, Polish... they find some ancestry to claim.

    Also, if you're half-black, you look black. Nobody cares about your actual genetic makeup, we look at the color of your skin... This may be why your half-black friends call themselves black (because that is how they are most often viewed), but take the time to mention they do have a white mom.

  5. Anonymous9:37 PM

    Good post.


  6. This reminds me of many discussions Zach and I have had about whether or not Obama can be considered "black." Zach insists that he's not "black" because he grew up in a "good" family and has had a relatively privileged life (which I'm not sure about, since his mom was a single mom and all that, but whatevs). I find that insulting, because what it's saying is that to be "black" you have to be poor, you have to be "gangster" you have to be out there playing rap music with a gun in your pocket.

    The same goes for saying you're not "Hispanic" because you grew up in an upper-middle-class family and have pale skin. That implies that to be truly "hispanic" or "Latina" you have to be poor, have dark skin, etc. I haven't read your follow-up post yet, maybe you address this there.

    Those kids who are surprised at your being hispanic but with white skin? Educate them! Not all hispanics have dark skin! They should learn about that!! That's all part of breaking these stereotypes we all fall into! Their surprise is showing the same kind of ignorance that we roll our eyes at here in the US, it's just that we're not allowed to call "minorities" "ignorant" or "racist" because clearly THEY must know all about race because they are a different one, right? It's a ludicrous idea. The color of your skin or eyes or hair does in no way discredit your blood, your heritage, your experiences.

  7. Marcy,
    You bring up a good point, that we often (subconsciously) assume "black" or "Hispanic" involves "poverty." And that's a pretty poor assumption for me to make.

    Perhaps instead of "poverty" we're thinking of "struggle;" I've never struggled with being thought dumb or incompetent because of a lack of command of the English language, but many Hispanics have (regardless of SES).

    Another thing that makes me feel less "Latina" is that I'm not Mexican or Cuban or Puerto Rican (which, technically, are the only nationalities that are considered "Hispanic" by the US Census), and I didn't grow up eating spicy tamales and listening to rancheras. I actually have a very low tolerance for spicy food, and it's really irritating to have to explain to people that yes, I am Chilean, but I don't like Mexican food. (I used to go into a mini-geography lesson, but soon found this utterly futile.)

    But tacos aside, "Hispanica," especially here in Texas, seems to me to mean "part of Mexican culture," and I'm not that, so I feel either left out, or like a poser.

  8. That's what the term "Chicano/a" is for--Mexican-Americans. Let the rest of us have a term goshdarnit! Latina is for Latin America as a whole! Spain, too, right?

    Personally, I don't believe in the term "race". I think ethnicity covers it. As I learned in my college anthropology class, race is a social construct that was used to differentiate people based on how they look. The modern blessings of science now tell us that genetically speaking, there is more genetic differentiation between people within one "race" than there are between people of different "races". As in, a white person and a black person may have more genetic similarities than two white people or two black people. It's just unfortunate that the few things they have genetically different are so visually obvious.

    Ethnicity labels a person based on their cultural background. Where you come from geographically, what language you speak, what beliefs you (may) have, what life practices you adopt. I think race got mixed in with ethnicity because often times, people from the same ethnic background also look similar (but as we know, not always!!!).

    So I'd like to throw race right out the window. It focuses way too much on what we see rather than what we experience. And that's not to say one ethnic group will have similar experiences; socio-economic status takes care to not let that happen; freedom of religion, too (in some cases). There are so many potential cross-breeds of experience based on so many levels of situations and circumstances that it's impossible to get a label right. Look at the Civil War era: situations were vastly different for African-Americans in the North as opposed to the South; but do you think the Northeners refrained from thinking of themselves as African-American because they had a different set of struggles? I haven't come across that in any history books.

    In conclusion, I happily take on the ethnic label of Latina, fully aware that my experience is vastly different from Chileans who've stayed in Chile, those who live in the campo, and those who moved to Sweden after being exiled in the 70's. Ethnicity just scratches the surface of human interaction; so many other notions come into play to make up life! increasingly so as the world continues to globalize; maybe this should be a clue to not have ethnicity play such a huge role in the way society runs...ethnicity is just a step more detailed than "human" and "male/female" as far as I'm concerned...

    and those are my two heavily-worded cents.