Adrian and I have recently had some great discussions surrounding ethnicity, race and self-identification. I came across this fantastic article that challenges the way in which we define Blackness here in the States and how people articulate their own identities. It looks at how the world sees us and how we see ourselves.
The very last photo in the series is of a woman named Biany Pérez and I've been thinking about her comments ever since I came across the article over a week ago. She states:
"Most times when people ask me, 'What are you?' I say I'm Black. Although I do identify as Afro-Latina, I'm very careful about saying it because I want you to understand that I'm Black first. Yes, I'm Latina, but I know that my lived experience is not as a Latina. I'm treated as a Black American first. I'm Black first, and it is because of my experience." (Huffington Post)
My experience has mostly been that of a White American. My pale skin, my blue eyes, the rate at which my face turns red under stress and embarassment betray the story within me. Inside, I am both third generation Mexican-American and White. But outside? Outside I am White.
My experiences and interactions in the world have varied greatly from those of my own sister, owing mostly to the variations in our skin tones. While I sailed relatively easily through both high school and college, my sister struggled with racist remarks and discrimination. Once, while in college, I confided in a classmate how I struggled with handling racist jokes and comments, particularly when someone discovered that my family was in fact of Mexican descent. Her response? If I didn't tell anyone of my heritage, I wouldn't have a problem because no one would know from looking at me. If I just kept quiet and carried on as the White American that I was perceived to be, I wouldn't have a problem.
In this country of continually mixing cultures and backgrounds, one would think that the notion that skin color tells the whole story would have long ago disappeared.
In 2014, can I be both White and Mexican American, despite my pale skin and blue eyes? Is there room in our national dialogue for us to not have to choose one? To honor our whole story rather than simplifying it into something more readily pigeon-holed? Is there a space for me to talk about my whole experiences as both a White American and a Mexican American, recognizing that I am, at any given moment, both? And can my sister also be both White American and Mexican American, though her skin tone varies so greatly from my own?
Are we ready to engage in difficult conversations with difficult questions and even more difficult answers? Is it acceptable yet to check off multiple boxes when confronted with defining ourselves? And are we willing to let go of the idea that we know each other's stories with one glance at our skin?
And will my (one day) children's experiences be defined by the lottery of their genetics or will there be a space to share the complex history of mixing races and cultures and love and languages that eventually led to them?
So tell me, how do you define yourself and what has been your lived experience?
(Note: I do also want to point out the other side to this which is the "What are you?" questions. I have chosen not to write about that because that hasn't been my experience. But perhaps a better thing to say might be, "I'd love to hear about your family" and mostly like not in the first five minutes of meeting someone. And then a good question to ask ourselves would be, why do we feel the need to define that person by racial/cultural identity so quickly and so definitively?)