Hey so. I need to hijack my own blog and talk about race for a second. I know, right? I bet you didn’t see that one coming.
This is a conversation I’ve been having with myself in my own head for a couple years now. I don’t find a lot of opportunities to have it out loud. It’s awkward. It makes me uncomfortable to talk about it and I don’t think anyone wants to hear me talk about it, so.
But I just attended an amazing LGBTQ conference in Denver and spent several days hanging with some of my favorite people, most of whom are queer women of color, and I’m in this space, enjoying their company, and I’m still dialoguing with myself about my own racial identity. In my head. Because I don’t know how to talk about it. And there were a couple serious conversations about racism in the LGBTQ movement that were not part of the conference agenda but clearly needed to happen in this space. And then tonight, I’m flying to Vegas for another conference and I finally open Mia McKenzie’s Black Girl Dangerous book, and I found her piece”The White-Skinned Elephant In the Room” (which you can and should read here) and I’m like…oh, hi. That’s me.
I’m half Mexican and half white, but it took me a looooooong time to own my Latina identity. It’s not something my mom’s family was particularly proud of, and even though I always knew we were Mexican, I also knew we were different from “other” Mexicans and that that was a good thing. During my Junior year of high school, I was assigned a research project: how did your family come to the US? I had a fairly progressive US History teacher who was making a point about the US being a nation of immigrants, etc. So I researched my Irish and German relatives and learned some things about my dad’s family, but I just didn’t bother asking about my mom’s family. I didn’t think it would be interesting, and I honestly didn’t want to out myself as Mexican in class.
So I’m not a light-skinned Latina. I am a white-skinned Latina, and I don’t even have to cop to the Latina part unless I really want to. (These days, I actually get really excited when someone ids me as Latina or Mexican or speaks to me in Spanish, but it’s usually a positive interaction that makes me feel visible and not an experience of racism from another white person.)
Anyway, I mostly didn’t talk about my own racial identity through college and my mid-twenties, because I didn’t have to which is a really good example of the level of white privilege I’ve got. And I reached a point where I was embarrassed or ashamed to claim a Latina identity at all, because I’ve been hanging out with white people and being white my whole life, which made me feel shitty, because I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to be Mexican and it feels important to me not to carry my mom’s internalized racism with me. I don’t want to just tell people I’m white, because it feels like a denial of my family. And I’ve done that and it was shitty and I’m not interested in doing that anymore.
I had an interesting conversation with my boss about this a couple of years ago, where she pointed out that I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s standards or expectations of being Latina or a woman of color, and that I can define my identity for myself. Which was a relief, because I don’t talk like Sofia Vergara and I’m not about to start – but to call myself a light-skinned woman of color feels like claiming something that isn’t mine. I try to be really careful about when and how I use the term, because I think it probably is weird for a woman of color to hear it coming from someone who looks like me. I’ve caught myself talking shit about white people and getting some strange looks from people of color who I haven’t specifically explained my identity or background to. I also avoid woc-specific spaces, because I don’t want people in them to question my right to be there, and I don’t want my whiteness to make people feel like the space isn’t safe. And since I’m being real honest, I also keep myself just a liiiiiiittle bit distant from my friends, because I don’t really know how they experience my identity and I don’t know how to ask.
Mia’s piece, which she wrote in 2012, brought up a lot of these things for me. I have also really wanted a term for what I am that doesn’t erase my identity but still acknowledges my privileged experience. In the rare opportunities that mentioning race makes sense (it’s interesting that preferred gender pronouns are catching on, but we don’t mandate other identifiers, but that’s a post for another day), I usually go with “mixed,” but that feels really vague. (I used to say “half-Mexican” assuming that people could just see that I was also half-white, and also relying on white American understanding that white isn’t a race, it’s a standard, and therefore can be assumed.) Anyway, it’s helpful to get some of this out. I promise the next thing I publish will be a return to regularly scheduled programming.