This piece has been an awarded an honorable mention for the 2019 Sarah Joanne Davis Scholarship.
This piece will be published in the Spring 2019 issue of Boston University’s The Hoochie Reader. The Hoochie Reader is a collaborative publication of women’s studies for graduates, undergraduates and non-students around the world.
*This is an ongoing project about identity in America. Profiles are added as they are conducted. If you would like to be a part of this project you can reach me through my contact page.*
Striking light hazel eyes. Bronze curly hair. Naturally tan skin. Full pink lips. This is what National Geographic determined the average American will look like by the year 2050. Tagged “The Melting Pot”, it should come as no shock that America is a diverse country that is blending together. Despite this, people continuously identify and regard other people based on their appearance. According to census data, it is projected that minorities will become the majority in the United States by the year 2045. The next census count will take place in 2020 informing new data and speculation of who we are and who we will be as a country.
The census defines races as a person’s self-identification with one or more social group. The races listed on the 2017 census were White, Black or African, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or Other. The census defines ethnicity as whether a person is Hispanic or Latino or Not Hispanic or Latino. The census allows people to self-identify by simply checking vague boxes. These checked boxes are sent to the Census Bureau to allow policymakers to allocate funding to programs regarding educational opportunities, evaluate equal employment opportunities, and best establish equal access to health care. This data and these issues are important but often times race and ethnicity is assumed to be the main dividing factor of people, therefore these issues. But who or what has decided that? Racism. Racism is the belief that members of separate races possess different and unequal traits when in fact it is not their traits but their opportunities and experiences that are different and unequal. The census allows people to self-identify, but often times people are not allowed this freedom when their race is quickly assumed by their appearance. When people are allowed to self-identify, it may not always be a straight answer. The census supposedly tells us who we are as a country, but how does that work when we don’t know what box to check? How do we determine race and ethnicity and what are the implications?
I think race and ethnicity are the same for me, both Colombian. Growing up I wanted to be white. I hated my name because people would make fun of it and I wanted to change it to Melissa. I straightened my hair every day from fifth grade till sophomore year of high school. Even my food was different, I was always embarrassed to pack my own lunch so I always bought food everywhere. I always wanted to fit in and I felt like I never did because I wasn’t White enough for the White people but I wasn’t Colombian enough for the Colombian people so it’s like I’m in purgatory. Honestly, growing up here was hard because I didn’t fit in and still to this day I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere.
I remember one time in second grade we had to do a family tree and when I said my grandmas’ names [Isnoelma Chavez and Olga Cardenas] everyone started laughing. It was hard because I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why people made fun of me or why I was different.
With my appearance, people can tell I’m not from here. Especially when I came to Boston for the first time I remember this guy saying he could tell I wasn’t from here because I was super tan and my hair was super long and curly. People can tell I’m different. And they’ll also have weird remarks. Especially, people, I meet in bars they’re like “Ohhhh you’re Colombian?!” and I’m just like “Yeah…”. People definitely sexualize me. Because I’m Latina people are like “Ohhh” because they have weird fetish shit. But then other times people will disregard me saying Colombian. One time I told this Hispanic guy at a bar that I was also Hispanic and he was like, “No you’re not, you’re white” and that just really frustrates me.
When I go back to Colombia people can tell I’m Colombian but then once I speak my Spanish throws them off and it just sucks. It happens a lot with Uber drivers too, like when a Hispanic person picks me up and they see me and my name they start talking to me in Spanish and it sucks because I’m like, I completely understand what you’re saying, but I just don’t have that high of a vocabulary to respond.
I do think that my appearance benefits me because Hispanics take care of each other and they can tell I’m one of them. Hispanics are super nice to each other and we take care of each other. I remember when I came to Boston for the first time and a lot of the hotel workers were Colombian and they were so nice to me and my mom. They were like, “Oh if you need anything let me know, we have so many recommendations”.
Growing up my brother and I talked about this stuff a lot. I don’t wanna say I’m scarred from my childhood it but I am kind of traumatized from growing up here and not fitting in. Just try telling a little girl that. I get really sad thinking about my situation growing up because I just really wanted to fit in. Like look at my baby pictures and imagine that little girl being made fun of and not understanding. When the kids in my class made fun of my grandma’s name I just didn’t understand what was happening or how to handle it. And I don’t blame my parents because I just felt bad that they just didn’t know how to handle raising us and so I just didn’t talk to them about it at all. I didn’t want to sound like a tattletale. But I definitely do still think about this a lot.
When I’m filling out my race and ethnicity on forms I change it up a lot because I don’t know what to put. Sometimes I put Hispanic and sometimes I put White. I never really had to do it until college applications and the SAT and then my grandpa told me that since he had to fight to get into this country I need to be proud of my ethnicity. When my grandpa immigrated here it was the time when everyone was assimilating to American culture so he really tried to forget who he was and where he came from. When my mom was growing up they didn’t really speak Spanish in the house. My grandpa was raised to be this very macho man because that’s what you’re supposed to be in those Hispanic cultures, but the few times he did act like a nurturing father to her was when he would sing nursery rhymes that were all in Spanish. She would tell me about that sometimes when she would sing them to me. Those were little things that hinted at us being Hispanic but I didn’t really realize. Like I knew that my mom’s last name was Gutierrez and that my grandpa’s last name had so many different parts that he didn’t even know them all but I didn’t know that I was Hispanic until the 5th or 4th grade when we started learning Spanish. Living in California we learn “Mexican” Spanish and my grandpa thought it was like a dirty language and got mad at me for speaking it and that’s when I found out I was Hispanic.
I grew up in a very white neighborhood so that was the only time I really saw differences between myself and other people. I didn’t really see it in high school because it was so much more diverse but in elementary and middle school my friends would tease me once they found out. To them, my family was stereotyped as their house workers, gardeners, and nannies. They would make fun of me and ask me if my uncles were gardening today or why my uncles didn’t come to garden their house today and I was like, “Umm.. they’re actually all lawyers”. I think no matter how White or Hispanic I look elementary and middle school would have been the same but I think that my high school and college experience might have changed if I looked more Hispanic.
I know my mom questions herself a lot because a lot of people who are more ethnic looking than her tell her that she should be in different groups within her law firm to increase diversity because her last name is Gutierrez, she does look pretty European Spanish, and she is first-generation. But she doesn’t necessarily think that she belongs there because she is also White so she questions if being part Hispanic should become an advantage for her. Some of my friends at work have told me to join their clubs for Latinas, but like my mom, I don’t know if I should be there since I don’t fluently speak Spanish and I’m not that connected to my history and my culture.
I’d probably feel more connected if I did speak the language. In high school I was fluent but then I just stopped speaking and since my grandpa doesn’t like the Spanish that I speak because it’s not a “pure version from Spain”, I wasn’t able to practice at home often.
There are times when I don’t know where I fit in. In the School of Education, we had to do a privilege walk. That was one instance where I didn’t know what to do because you had to physically step forward. My friends who are African American or foreign students stepped forward when they asked if you were anything other than Anglo Saxon and I didn’t know if I should step forward. All my friends know me as Alex Gutierrez or Gootsy so I am that name to them but still, I don’t know to what extent.
Last year my roommate told me that I wasn’t allowed to say that I was second-generation or Hispanic because I was too white and it was embarrassing and rude. She just kept saying so many harsh words surrounding me trying to accept and promote who I am that it kind of jaded me from saying I am second generation Hispanic. She was just like, “You’re too white. You’re not second-generation. Just because your grandparents moved here doesn’t mean that it should affect you”. But I’m like, but did they move here and if I did a genetic test it would show that I am Hispanic.
A lot of my uncles and my mom have been very into ancestry.com and seeing how far back we can actually trace ourselves back, so that has made me more comfortable with saying that I am Hispanic. We found out one of my great great uncles was a general in the Spanish army and if you trace back our family tree you can find a bunch of generals, kings, and princesses all throughout Spain and El Salvador so it did make me more comfortable. My family has these conversations mostly because we joke about how we are so white looking to most people and don’t look like what Americans think Spanish people look like.
Usually, on applications they don’t have an “Other” box for race. If they do, I put “Other”, but a lot of them say Caucasian (Middle Eastern) so I have to put that I’m White even though I’m not. My whole family is Middle Eastern, I think I have some Turkish in me, but it’s mostly Persian.
My ethnicity had a big effect on me growing up because I was being raised with two cultures. When I was a lot younger I always felt like I was different from the people around me. It was something that I was definitely very aware of. My parents wanted me to adopt their culture as much as I could even though I was being raised in the U.S., they didn’t want me to forget where I was coming from. But with that my parents were more traditional conservatives than other people in the U.S. There were a lot of basic things that were normal for teenagers in my high school to do that I couldn’t because my parents were always really strict. It was like, “We worked very hard to get here so you also need to do the same”, so school was very important. I remember all my friends would go out to parties and there was no way I could do that. I mean I eventually found ways…but I remember I asked my mom if I could go to my friend’s house after homecoming, and I didn’t even tell her it was a party, and she was like, “Is this a house party? Do you know what happens to girls at house parties? They go and they die.” She literally said those words and I just thought, okay I guess this is not gonna happen. Nothing that happened was super significant but when you’re younger you think everything that’s different from your friends is a huge deal.
Whenever I used to go to Syria over the summer I would be too American to the kids there. They wouldn’t see me as one them even though it’s my ethnicity and my difference is just where I was born. But they would also make fun of me because of my Arabic. I remember I used to take swimming classes there every summer and the teachers were so mean to me. They would bully me and be like “Ha, ha, ha, you don’t even know what we’re saying” and make fun of me if I was too slow and wouldn’t do it to anyone else. The village kids would also make fun of me and speak their broken English to me but they couldn’t even speak English and I was just like you’re making fun of me for not speaking Arabic perfectly but you can’t even speak English. I feel like if I was fluent in Arabic and didn’t have such a bad accent then people there might not have made fun of me because they wouldn’t have been to tell I was different.
When I’m in the U.S. people don’t really make me feel like I don’t fit in because I’m not White enough but it is something in the back of my head that I’m aware of. I think now my appearance and my differences have less of an effect because as our world is changing, people are a lot more understanding but also because I don’t care as much as when I was younger. Back then it felt like, Oh, I’m not as cool or pretty as White girls with straight blonde hair like I saw in magazines or on TV. I was embarrassed about cultural things like eating different food and speaking another language, which is stupid thinking about it now, but that was when I was younger. I’m lucky that I’m privileged enough that my appearance has never affected me. I’m lucky that both where I live and where I go to school are such liberal places. I feel like if I grew up somewhere else it would be very different. For example, my brother-in-law Aladdin is from Texas and would get beat up at school when he was younger. That never happened to me growing up because of where I’m from.
I do still get kinda annoyed when people ask me “What are you?” but it depends on how they ask. When people just like blurt out “What are you?” I’m like “I’m American” because I’m annoyed by it. Sometimes I’ll tell them I’m Middle Eastern or Arab but sometimes the way that people phrase it really annoys me. I hate when people use the word exotic too. When guys tell me “Oh you look so exotic” I just think “I’m not like an exotic bird!” That’s just kind of a weird thing to say. It’s mostly guys that say it and some people try to tell me that it’s a good thing, that I should take it as a compliment. I used to feel that way but then after a while, I started thinking if you’re trying to say I’m really pretty you can just say that! You don’t have to make it about my ethnicity.
The only time that I really don’t know where I fit in is when there’s no Middle Eastern or Arab box for me to check off. It’s really frustrating because I am a minority and I’m not recognized as one. Why am I labeling myself as White when I’m not gaining the same thing White people do? So yeah, I do think about this stuff a lot. I think about it every time I have to fill out the forms.
Despite being “The Melting Pot”, the FBI reported in November that hate crimes have been on the rise for the past three years, this year increasing by 17% percent. Racism has put such an importance, sometimes life or death, on race even though there is no deterministic biological or physical basis. As hate crimes and racism surge, there is a pressing need to identify one’s self while calculating all the implications. Due to the limited options, the census forces people to identify with groups that they might not physically or historically identify with and this inhibits people’s perceptions and therefore sufficient policy changes.
Regardless of all the data speculating who the future American will be, there is still a misconception that America is White and what that means. Part of this has to do with how the census labels people. The census uses the category “White” to describe people from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, “Black or African American” to describe people from Africa, “American Indian or Native American” to describe people from North, South, and Central America, “Asian” to describe people from the Far East, Southeast Asia, and India, and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” to describe people from Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and the Pacific Islands. But there are countless people who do not come from these locations or do not use these identifications. Only beginning in 2000 did the census acknowledge multiracial people by allowing them to check off more than one box. That year 6.8 million people identified as multiracial, which has become one of the fastest growing categories. Yet, the average American is still pictured by these girls as having blue eyes, blonde straight hair, white skin, only ever speaking English with a family tree filled with American pioneers.
All the girls claim that they feel different. They don’t look like the average American or the average Hispanic. They eat different food or speak a different language. But the reality is that data does not account for all of a person’s intersecting identities and has given us a misconstrued picture of America. There is an average with data but not an average with people. And if there were, we’re picturing the wrong person.