I've been wrestling with a lot of demons lately. I haven't always understood what they are, so it's made the work of wrestling so much harder. It's hard to fight invisible beasts with virtually no weapons. But I am in the early stages of beginning to understand them. I am beginning to see them. And the place of beginning is important.
Let me go back a few days. Last week, for a staff training, the subject was equity in the classroom. And we had to start by examining our own biases. We took an online test given by Harvard. Here is the link if you're so inclined: Online Implicit Bias test
Anyway, after figuring out how to take the test, I learned, not surprisingly that I'm not biased at all in favor of whites, rather I'm more so toward people of color. The accuracy of the test, though for me I think it was accurate, could be up for debate, but that's not what this post is about. It's food for thought, if nothing else.
The aha for me was when we started talking about microaggression which I knew about from so many twitter conversations and threads. I knew all the major categories of microaggressions and I was able to recognize problematic speech with relative ease. So none of this was new.
It happened towards the end of the meeting. There were two questions
If you are not a POC, write down one unintentional microaggression you've made.
If you are a POC, share a story or personal experience of something that has happened to you.
Then we were supposed to post them around the room, then walk around and read them. (They were anonymous.) I walked around expecting to see more stories like mine. (I'll share what I wrote in a moment.) Instead, I saw one post it after another with stories of things done or seen unintentionally. I thought "Where are all the experiences like mine?" Then a friend, totally innocently, made a comment "I know which one is yours." I was like "Really?" They said "Of course."
The following was what I wrote on the post it:
People assuming I speak Spanish.
But that still wasn't an aha. I sat down and started really LOOKING around the room. And I NOTICED something. Most everyone in that room was white, Matter of fact, there were only maybe 6 POC, myself included. Out of a staff of maybe 40? 50? There were 6 of us. Still, this was not the aha.
Next, we were told to come up with one way we might combat a microaggression against us or others. I couldn't think of what to say in reference to my post it note. Finally, I responded to my table group, "I guess what I would say don't assume because someone is Mexican that they speak Spanish." Still not the aha, but getting close.
So the conversation turned into talking about how just because someone looks a certain ethnicity, don't assume anything. Then I said, "Like when people ask where I'm from. Or 'What am I?' or 'What's your background.'" The people at the table looked at me. They nodded. I said, "I get asked that ALL THE TIME." They nodded. They asked me, "Wait...you don't like that? Does it make you feel uncomfortable?" And you know...I have NEVER been asked that question. And I had to think about it. And you know what? I didn't/ I don't. It DOES make me uncomfortable. It makes me feel othered. It makes me feel like and KNOW there's an obvious difference between me and them. They asked "Why?" I told them that I don't ever ask a white person that. Then I realized...WHITE PEOPLE DON'T GET ASKED THAT. And when they do, it's because of an accent or because they asked first. Usually.
THAT WAS THE AHA. My whole life I just assumed everyone was asked that. They are not. I AM asked that because I am brown. Plain and simple. And in that second, I understood microaggressions. Because they are not intended to be hurtful. But as a POC, you get those comments and questions ALL THE TIME. So when it comes, you are not at all surprised.
Real conversation I have with people REGULARLY.
"What are you? I mean, what's your background?
Me: "ummmm, Portuguese, Native American, Welsh....and Mexican."
Them: "Oh, wow. You don't LOOK Mexican."
Me: *thinks is that a compliment? A put down? What exactly does "looking like a Mexican mean?"
There are so many things wrong with this conversation. One...what are you? Really? I am human. Thanks. Two: Why? Does it matter? I am American. Thanks. Three: I am sorry I am not wearing a damn sombrero or picking strawberries so you can correctly identify me as what you believe a Mexican looks like.
I know...I KNOW, it's not meant to hurt. I know it's curiosity. (which honestly is problematic at best. Like..."ohhh...you are so exotic and different! Like the bearded lady at a carnival!") I know the intent isn't harmful, but if you're white? You don't know what it's like to be asked this all the time. To be made to feel like less than because of your skin.
Then the next aha came. I have been burying these feelings MY ENTIRE LIFE. I have lived my life with my white mom (single parent) in a white middle class community. I have lived my life seeing myself as white. I have actively worked to hide my Hispanic heritage. I purposefully learned French in school rather than Spanish. I couldn't wait to change my name from Billa (no one EVER said it correctly.) I have done everything to be like one of the people I saw around me my whole life. And it's only lately I have realized why, Why I was so ashamed of that part of me. Why I have always wanted to be that white blonde, blue eyed, freckled skinny girl on every magazine cover, in every movie, in every TV show. Because that's who I always saw around me. My friends were white. My mom is white. My boyfriends and husband were all white. I wanted to be white my entire life.
Because living in Southern California, I heard what people said about Mexicans. I SAW people make fun of them. The stereotype was all around me, Mexicans are either gang-bangers, immigrant farmers, or the people who clean your house. I distanced myself because I didn't want to be stereotyped. But what I didn't realize, what I am starting to understand now? It never mattered how white I tried to make myself, how like "them" I saw myself as, when people look at me, they see brown. They see someone who they wonder "What are you?" about. The implied statement there? "You're not like us."
I understand my insecurities better all of a sudden. They've become clear. I've lived my life comparing myself to the concept of "whiteness" because in American culture, at least until recently? White is best. And after this election, I'm realizing...there's a lot of people in this county that don't like me simply because I'm Hispanic. They assume things when they look at me.
It's likely that things that have happened to me, that I've internalized, have been microaggressions. I've thought something was wrong with me as a person. Not once considering the very real possibility that it was racially driven. When you spend a lifetime judging yourself against a standard that you'll never be, it takes a toll on your self esteem.
Add to that, the boyfriends I've had that have said "You are so amazing, and I SHOULD want to be with you, there's nothing wrong with you...but..." Then they turn around and date girls who look very much the opposite. Blond, redhead, freckles, blue eyes,very white girls. Some even that treat them poorly. But they'd rather have them than me. I think about the times I was never introduced to their friends. How hidden I was kept. And I am not saying it's all about race...but it could be. For some more than others.
The reality is that I have seen myself white, even though I am not. So I have been blind to things I am starting to realize were always there, I just didn't recognize it for what it was. Instead I blamed myself.
Then I wonder, how many times have I been passed up for things because of my race? How many times was I ignored or not taken seriously? Not even because people are racist, but because we live in a society where people will validate and recognize things in a white person before recognizing those same things in a POC. Because we are raised in a society that whitewashes everything. People have never questioned it, they just internalize it without thinking about it. And if you're white, it isn't a problem? Why are people so mad about things these days? But if you're a POC, you will never fit in. You will be the outsider, even when statistically, you aren't. That's what happened to me. I am a product of being a brown person raised in a white culture.
The other day my daughter said to me, "My friend asked what I was today. (Ugh...it's happening to her too) and I said Mexican." My response (I am embarrassed now to admit) was "But you're Irish too. At least half." (It speaks volumes that I wanted her to answer with that because I am afraid of her being teased or harassed for saying Mexican. I was trying to protect her.) Her response to me was, "Well, I am going to say Mexican because I like that better." And you know what? That gives me hope. That kids being raised today have a chance at being more open to others. No one should be afraid of who they are. Ever.
I am working on that myself. For the first time ever, I am embracing my Hispanic background. I am Mexican. Not even just a little. I am a LOT Mexican. Like...50% And though I am fighting (even right this moment) everything that has been inadvertently taught to me, that I should be embarrassed or hide this part of me, I will fight it with every fiber of my being. There is NOTHING wrong with being Mexicans. Mexicans can be and do anything. I am not a stereotype.
I'm learning Spanish for the first time. I will own my skin. Brown is beautiful. I will not be made to feel less than for being born a Latina. Yes, I am American. But I am a hell of a lot more than that.
So what's the take home? Well...if you're white? Think about the things you say to POC carefully. YOU may think it's not a big deal, but to a POC, it is. That's what a microaggression IS.
The fact that I have had to wait DECADES to be asked, "Does it make you uncomfortable when I ask were you're from?" Well...there's a LOT of work still yet to be done in regards to race.
Happy MLK day. We are only just beginning.
**This post was reprinted with permission and was originally posted at http://seattletfiles.blogspot.com/2017/01/what-are-you-where-are-you-from